by Rick Steelhammer, for the Charleston Gazette
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For some Civil War soldiers, the motivation for enlisting had as much to do with satisfying a sense of adventure and helping to shape history as it did with patriotism and regional pride.
Such was the case with Private Harry Fitzallen, who went to extraordinary lengths to join the 23rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry and serve in two other Union Army regiments before his military career hit a series of serious snags, including his arrest in Charleston 150 years ago today.
Fitzallen, as it turned out, was really a 19-year old woman named Marian McKenzie, a native of Scotland, and a former acting student.
According to Larry Eggleston’s “Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders and Others,” McKenzie immigrated to the United States with her father as a young child shortly after her mother died.
“Her father died shortly after they arrived in New York, leaving her and several brothers and sisters orphaned,” according to the book. “Marian educated herself and studied to become an actress but soon found that the life of an actress was not suitable for her. She began traveling from place to place earning a living the best she could.”
When the Civil War broke out, according to the book, McKenzie was living in northern Kentucky, where, at the age of 18, she “cropped her hair short, put on men’s clothing and enlisted in the 23rd Kentucky Infantry Regiment as Pvt. Harry Fitzallen.”
Her first few months serving the Union cause took her to southern Kentucky and central Tennessee, where her regiment performed guard and garrison chores. After four months in the field, her true gender was discovered, and she was brought before regimental authorities.
McKenzie pleaded with the regimental commander to let her stay with the unit, if not as a soldier, as a non-combatant. The commander relented, assigning her to a new role as a nurse’s aide attached to the regimental hospital.
But after two months, McKenzie left the 23rd, and in a bid to return to her former role as a male soldier in the Union Army, joined the 92nd Ohio Infantry, again as Pvt. Harry Fitzallen. From Oct. 14 to Nov. 16, 1862, Fitzallen and the 92nd marched from Marietta, Ohio, to Charleston. But on Dec. 20, while in Charleston, then under Union occupation, she was again discovered to be a woman, and was suspected of being a Confederate spy.
On orders of Brig. Gen. George Crook, commander of the Kanawha Division, Fitzallen/McKenzie was placed under guard, put aboard the packet steamer Bostona No. 2, and sent to the provost marshal general’s office in Wheeling.
“I have the honor to report the receipt of a prisoner of war sent here by Brigadier-General Crook in the shape of a female wearing male apparel charged as a spy for the rebels, arrested in the streets of Charleston, Va.,” Maj. Joseph Darr Jr., the provost marshal general, wrote on Christmas Eve of 1862 from his office in Wheeling. Darr’s letter to the 3rd Infantry Division’s commissary-general of prisoners went on to describe the dark-haired, 5-foot, 2-inch prisoner as a stocky, “coarse-looking creature, scarcely answering the description of la fille du regiment,” or daughter of the regiment.
Darr’s comments on McKenzie’s appearance seem a bit uncharitable, since a march from Ohio to Charleston, followed by a few weeks of camp life during a wet winter in the Kanawha Valley, would make a “coarse-looking creature” out of most soldiers.
McKenzie was lodged in the Ohio County Jail, and ordered to change from her Union Army uniform into a civilian dress that was provided for her, minus the customary hoops needed to deploy it in the style of the day.
“She adamantly refused to change into the woman’s clothing until that oversight was corrected,” Eggleston wrote in his book.
According to a Wheeling newspaper account, when told she would be detained until her story could be corroborated, McKenzie replied, “Very well, I cannot help it. The only way in which I have violated the law is in assuming men’s apparel. The injury that I have done is principally to myself.”
The newspaper quoted McKenzie as saying she “went into the army for the love of excitement and from no motive in connection with the war, one way or another.”
According to Eggleston’s book, McKenzie “was discharged from the 92nd Ohio Infantry, but soon joined another Union regiment, the 8th Ohio Infantry. She lasted only a few weeks with the new Ohio regiment before again being discovered to be a woman.
According to the book, she enlisted in at least one more Union regiment before being mustered out of the Army for good in January of 1865.
“Marian McKenzie served many different regiments in the three years she was in the Army,” wrote Eggleston. “She only expressed adventure as her motive, but the fact that she served for three years and continually re-enlisted makes one believe that there were other, more patriotic motives involved in her decisions.”
According to Eggleston’s research, between 400 and 700 women were known to have disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. About 60 of them were killed or wounded.
To view correspondence between military officials in Charleston and Wheeling following McKenzie’s arrest, visit the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s sesquicentennial website at www.wvculture.org/history/sesquicentennial/18621224.html.