Frances Clalin known by her married name of Frances Clayton, was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the American Civil War. She served in the Missouri artillery and cavalry units for several months. Frances Clayton took up all the manly vices. To better conceal her sex, she learned to drink, smoke, chew, and swear. She was especially fond of cigars. She even gambled, and a fellow soldier declared that he had played poker with her on a number of occasions.
—DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons
Frances Clayton was a woman who fought in the Union as a man named Jack Williams. She served in cavalry and artillery units, but it is unknown what unit she served in. The newspapers that reported her story told conflicting information, but most said that she and Elmer L. Clayton, her husband, had enlisted together in a Missouri regiment the fall of 1861, even though they were from Minnesota. Frances was born in Illinois and married Elmer who was born in Ohio, so both were from the North. They had a farm in Minnesota and Frances did housework until she enlisted for war. Frances and Elmer were also to have had three children. Elmer and Frances served side by side during the American Civil War until 1863, when he died in battle.
Frances is known to have fought in the Battle of Fort Donelson in Tennessee, February 13, 1862, where the Union won after three days of fighting. During this battle Frances was wounded, but was not discovered because of her injury. It wasn’t extremely hard for Frances to convincingly play the part of Jack Williams. She was tall and masculine, and had tan skin. She had also worked on perfecting manly activities such as smoking, drinking, chewing tobacco, swearing and gambling. Frances was quite fond of cigars as well. By doing these things, Frances increased her manly character so that she would fit in and others wouldn’t see past her disguise.
This plan was clever and effective, as some news reports state that Frances was never discovered to be a woman, but instead was discharged when she confronted her superiors.
Frances was also a said to be a good ‘horse-man’ and ‘swordsman’, and the way she carried herself in stride was soldierly, erect, and masculine. She was well trained and knew her duties well, but was also a respected person who commanded attention in the way she acted. It was said of Frances in one report that she did her duties at all times and was considered to be a fighting man. Frances was engaged in seventeen battles other than Fort Donelson, including the Battle of Murfreesboro December 31, 1862, where her husband died. The Battle of Murfreesboro was referred to as Stones River by the Union. Elmer was only a few feet in front of Frances when he died, but she didn’t stop fighting. She stepped over his body and charged when the commands came. There are two stories about how Frances was discovered to be a woman. One is that after this battle at Stones River, Frances decided to let her true identity become known and she was discharged a few days later in Louisville 1863, but the other is that Frances was wounded in the hip at Stones River, and was discharged after being discovered that way. Frances did fix the mistakes, but this error creates doubts about what really happened. After being discharged Frances tried to get back to Minnesota, and then decided to collect the bounty owed her deceased husband and herself, as well as to get some of Elmer’s belongings.
It is also speculated that she wanted to reenlist, but she was unable to. Her train was attacked by a Confederate guerrilla party, and she was robbed of her papers and her money. Frances then went from Missouri to Minnesota, then to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and on to Quincy, Illinois.
In Quincy a fund was created to aid her quest for payment by former soldiers and friends. Frances was last reported to be headed for Washington, D.C. Frances became popular with the newspapers. Her story was published in about six different papers, but they got her story jumbled up. In some articles it was stated that Frances had been wounded and discovered at Stones River where her husband died, but others said she was wounded at Fort Donelson, and was able to keep her identity a secret until her husband died and she went to her superiors with her secret. Frances was actually wounded at Donelson and was able to keep her secret unknown, and she corrected these misunderstandings in her last interview but she never stated what regiment she had served in. This was probably never asked of Frances, because the reporters were more interested in the story of a devoted wife, rather than the actual details of JackWilliams’ soldier life.
Frances didn’t become particularly well-known for her hardships or bravery, but she was still recognized for her acts of soldiery. Frances’ picture is on book covers and in pages of Civil War books, though not much information is given about her in them. This is most likely because the news wasn’t interested in her soldier life as much as it was her wife life, making it hard to find data-filled resources about her. Also, books dedicated to women like Frances have many stories to tell about more famous women, taking up the room to go into greater detail on Frances and other unfamiliar women.
Frances was brave, strong-willed and went through a lot to be with her husband, which is a noble deed. Because of her choice to be with him, she helped in battles and served her country in a way that an estimate of only 400 other women did. Frances was wounded a total of three times for her country, and was even taken prisoner once, all the while supposedly remaining Jack Williams. Frances worked hard to do her duties as a soldier, and served her country by her husband’s side for two years until he died. During these years Frances served in cavalry and artillery units for the Union. Frances gave up a lot to do this, but did it anyway. She saw her husband die right in front of her and continued to fight. Frances wasn’t even able to receive her back pay or bounty after her discharge because she was robbed by Confederate guerrillas.
This article can be downloaded from the May, 2008 edition of the newsletter located at the top of the page…great Civil War articles written by Civil War buffs in Arkansas.