Written by: Kristoff Smith (he/him/his)
As modern transgender narratives continue to gain more visibility, it can be easy for many to assume that trans identities are contemporary simply. We are anything but. While homage is paid to those who began the current movement, Stonewall was not the beginning of our history. Rather, the riots and revolution after that were mere, at the time, the most documented. (Even so, the movement that swept the 1970s is even less properly understood than today’s trans history, created and constantly archived with social media.) History is shaped by those who tell it, and nowhere is there such an enormous gap than in the history of trans people. Continual erasure and suppression of trans lives and stories throughout time have left few figures to survive censorship. Those who were brave enough to live authentically often were forced to do so in a manner of “stealth,” their identity as a trans person not discussed or documented. This is especially true of American history before the mid-nineteen hundreds. Even among the few surviving figures, their identities have often been misinterpreted and altered through the lenses of hetero/cisnormative historians. One prominent example is the life of Albert Cashier, Civil War soldier, and a trans man.
Originally from Belfast, Ireland, Cashier came to America as a stowaway. Standing at a petite five feet tall, Cashier was referred to as “that little fellow at the end of the line” when seen by a citizen of his town of Belvidere, Illinois on his way to join the 95th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Cashier was born by the name of Jennie Irine and enlisted himself as Albert J. Cashier in 1862 at the age of 19.
Albert’s dedication to the war quickly rose him to stand as tall as any other soldier in character despite his small frame. He managed the rigors of marches and camp life with little to no complaint and made do when it came to areas involving more brawn. In exchange for muscle work from a larger soldier, Albert would agree to do the more mundane tasks such as repairing buttons that the other soldiers often despised. Beyond that, Cashier was known as a solitary man, keeping to himself in camp and was well respected among his fellow soldiers for his ability no matter size or lack of beard. Though quiet, he had his reckless streak: during one battle, Cashier climbed a tree against enemy fire just to raise the Union flag again. Despite his bravery and resilience in battle, including 40 battles and skirmishes (among them Vicksburg) in which he was never injured, upon return (and despite moving farther from his previous hometown) Albert’s diminutive size continued to cause him ridicule. Working as a handyman, gardener, and jack-of-all-trades in Saunemin, Illinois, Albert was often called “drummer boy,” to which he would defend, “I was a fighting infantryman!”. In 1890, he applied for a soldier’s pension but was denied after vehemently refusing to undergo a required medical examination. Eventually, after much persistence, Cashier won and began receiving a pension.
Cashier lived a relatively quiet life in Saunemin until 1910. While working for the Senator, his employer accidentally hit him with his Model T and severely injured his leg. Taken to the local hospital, a physician exposed his identity as transgender while attempting to fix the fracture, located close to his hip. He was allowed to live another quiet three months until Senator Lish (who stood by Albert’s male identity) and the physician decided Cashier would be better off in a home for injured Soldiers and Sailors. Now 66, Albert entered the home without much fight as he was bedridden from his previous injury and age, being promised by Lish that he would be safe in his dignity. The staff was informed by the Senator of his identity and sworn to secrecy. During his three year stay, Cashier received a visit from his old captain, whom still recognized him in his old, worn war uniform. The two reminisced together about their time in the service, a highlight of Albert’s gloomy residence. It has been speculated that the captain was asked by the home to visit to disprove Albert’s identity, but this cannot be confirmed. Whether that was the true motive or not, the caretakers of the Soldier’s home kept his secret safe the entire stay.
As dementia began to take its toll on Albert’s mind, he was relocated to the Watertown State Mental Hospital. Here he was moved into a woman’s ward in March of 1913 after having his identity discovered once again, this time while being bathed. His reasons for this admittance were “no memory, noisy at times, poor sleeper, and feeble.” Declared “insane,” the documented reasons bring up the transphobic nature of Cashier’s care. The asylum forcibly put Albert in dresses and skirts, to which he openly rebelled against by using safety pins to make them into trousers. Despite his documented dementia, he showed clarity while clinging onto his gender identity as it was being ripped away from him. His identity now fully exposed, Albert’s story was swept up by hungry newspaper media. It gained so much attention as a front page story that the federal government opened a full investigation into his supposed “identity fraud.” Members of the 95th Regiment Cashier fought with adamantly took to his side during the investigation and succeeded in the charges being dropped after defending his bravery in battle and brotherhood. However, the hospital continued to treat him as a woman.
Albert died shortly after his institutionalization in October of 1915, as his health rapidly deteriorated after another injury caused by tripping and falling on his skirt that he never recovered from. It’s extremely likely that the hospital’s mistreatment contributed to his swift death, with constant invalidation leading to deep depression. Their respect for him never wavered, Cashier’s comrades ensured him a funeral with full military honors in Saunemin. He received, rightfully, a tombstone proudly reading “Albert D. J. Cashier”. Since his identity as trans has been gaining new light, a second headstone has been added next to the original, also reading his birth name.
Even Albert Cashier’s very much confirmed identity as a trans man has been continually erased among historical circles; his narrative commonly used as an example of “women fighting in the civil war.” Researching Albert quickly reveals many of such writings, some even going as far to claim that he merely donned men’s clothing to fight and, “remained his disguise for another 50 years”, refusing even to entertain the idea of a trans man. Claiming Albert to be an “alias” and referring to him with “she/her” pronouns. Only recently has Albert been recognized as a trans man. Albert was by far not the only trans man who used the Civil War as an opportunity to live and serve true to their gender identity. The danger of war was well worth the time spent living with such freedom. It is estimated that at least a hundred transgender males fought as soldiers. The light shining on Albert’s story raises questions about other popular and lesser known figures depicted as women “crossdressing” in various wars across time. For many, the answer may never be truly known, but it is a historian, reader, and student’s duty to not dismiss the possibility. When reading about historical figures, keeping an open mind and thinking critically can help fight these types of erasure.
About the author
Kristoff Smith (he/him/his) is currently a transgender highschool student and aspiring artist, activist and actor with a passion for creating trans narratives and smashing stigma.