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  • A Civil War Hermaphrodite
  • Jonathan W. White (bio)

According to the best estimates, Union military authorities arrested at least fourteen thousand civilians during the Civil War, and as historian Mark E. Neely Jr. has shown, most of the civilians arrested were somehow either materially hindering the Union war effort or aiding the Confederacy.1 Those overseeing these arrests never quite knew what they might discover when they took a person into custody. In some instances, military authorities confiscated the personal papers of their detainees.2 In other cases, they found caches of weapons, smuggled goods, or men dressed in women’s clothing (and vice versa).3 Hidden within a series of nineteenth-century medical reports at the National Archives is a letter that reveals the details of one civilian arrest unlike any other that occurred in the North or South. [End Page 321]

Ellen Burnham was sixteen years old when her family moved to Brodhead, Wisconsin, in 1856. She had been born in Vermont and as a young girl moved with her family to Lawrence, New York, before settling in Wisconsin. By some varying accounts, she was “very attractive” or was “by no means a beautiful girl” whose “features” were “regular, but rather course and masculine; form tall, square shouldered, and wanting in that grace of outline which inspires admiration.” One Brodhead newspaper reported that “if a stranger were tempted to look at her a second time, it would be from surprise at the strong masculine appearance unnatural to a woman, especially one so young. Miss Burnham was not a favorite with our young men, nor did she seem anxious to be.”4

Ellen’s father, Milo L. Burnham, was a physician and drugstore owner in Brodhead. Ellen worked as a clerk in her father’s store and also taught music classes. In 1858, a young man named L. Winthrop Powell moved to Brodhead to serve as the principal of the village school. Shortly thereafter, he founded a Republican newspaper called the Brodhead Reporter, which he edited from 1859 until 1862. Later, he served as founding editor of the Stoughton Reporter, from 1863 to 1865.5 While editing these papers, Powell held several leadership positions in the local Republican Party.6

Ellen Burnham and L. W. Powell courted for a short period and were married on February 16, 1860.7 During their honeymoon, Powell’s paper, the Brodhead Weekly Reporter, published two humorous notices apologizing for the lack of editorial quality in the paper, one of which read: “Our readers will please attribute the lack of reading matter, also all errors to the absence of the Editor. He will be at his post again previous to the issue of the next paper, when we may expect not only sufficient Political, Agricultural and Miscellaneous matter, [End Page 322] but also a short essay on ‘Domestic experience.’”8 But Powell’s “domestic experience” may not have been altogether pleasing. According to another local newspaperman, when the Powells returned from their honeymoon, Ellen’s family invited a large number of citizens to a party to welcome home the newlyweds. “We were present at this wedding party, and could but think that both the bride and groom appeared remarkably solemn,” reported the editor. “We did not kiss the bride, although that was the fashion. Our objection to the kissing part of the programme was a dislike to come in contact with an unusually heavy and black moustache which marred the upper lip of the bride.”9

After the outbreak of war, L. W. Powell served as the state agent for the 7th Wisconsin Volunteers during the autumn of 1861. He accompanied the regiment from Wisconsin to Washington, DC, cared for the sick along the way, paid travel expenses, and purchased materials for the regiment in the nation’s capital, such as medicines and medical supplies, tent posts, cloth for bandages, cooking stoves, and coffee pots.10 In his absence, the Reporter published several mea culpa, apologizing for the “lack of the usual amount of Local matter” and the numerous “blunders of the types.” In another slip, the editors joked, “All readers of the Reporter, will take notice, that no one in particular is responsible...


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pp. 321-328
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