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Frances Clalin Clayton: The Story of a Civil War Heroine


Frances Louisa Clayton, also known as Frances Clalin, emerges as a compelling figure in American history, though her narrative remains shrouded in ambiguity and debate. Purportedly, she assumed the guise of a man to enlist in the Union Army during the American Civil War. However, contemporary historians cast doubt on the veracity of her claims, suggesting that her story may have been embellished or entirely fabricated.


Operating under the alias Jack Williams, Clayton asserted that she and her husband enlisted together in a Missouri regiment. She professed to have participated in numerous battles, displaying valour and determination on the front lines. According to her account, tragedy struck when her husband perished at Stones River, prompting her to depart from military service.

"I could not stay at home and let my husband fight for me and our country alone. I had to stand by his side, come what may."

Contemporary newspaper reports attest to Clayton's alleged involvement in both cavalry and artillery units, adding to the intrigue surrounding her tale. However, the accounts vary widely and are often contradictory, casting doubt on their reliability. Despite the existence of several purported photographs of Clayton donning military attire, her life beyond these images remains elusive, with scant details available about her background or experiences.


Clayton and her husband hailed from Minnesota, though discrepancies cloud his name—some sources cite Frank Clayton, possibly an amalgamation of Frances's own name, while others refer to him as John or Elmer. When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, the couple made a bold decision to enlist in the Union Army. Frances, assuming the identity of Jack Williams, disguised herself as a man to join the ranks alongside her husband.


Despite their Minnesota roots, the Claytons purportedly enlisted in a Missouri unit in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Frances, under her alias, reportedly engaged in a staggering 18 battles, showcasing remarkable bravery and skill. Accounts from the post-war period recount her service in both cavalry and artillery units, noting that she sustained injuries during the Battle of Fort Donelson.


Descriptions depict Clayton as a towering, weathered figure, possessing a distinctly masculine appearance acquired through exposure to the elements. Her ability to convincingly portray a man extended beyond physical attributes, encompassing mannerisms and habits traditionally associated with masculinity—drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing, and gambling. In service, she honed her equestrian skills and prowess with a sword, earning acclaim as a proficient horseman and swordsman.



Reports place Clayton at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where she purportedly demonstrated her valour on the battlefield. Tragedy struck during the Battle of Stones River in December 1862, as her husband was killed during a charge. The news stories reported that she did not stop fighting, and stepped over his body to continue the charge.


Clayton's tale emerged from the shadows following her military service, garnering attention through various newspaper reports. However, these narratives present a labyrinth of contradictions and inconsistencies. According to these accounts, Clayton received her discharge in Louisville in 1863, shortly after the demise of her husband. Remarkably, she asserted to journalists that her true identity remained concealed throughout her service. Nonetheless, other sources contend that her discharge stemmed from a medical examination following a bullet wound to her hip.


In her quest to return home to Minnesota, Clayton encountered further trials. She embarked on a journey to reclaim her and her husband's overdue pay from the military, but her plans were thwarted when Confederate guerrillas ambushed her train, depriving her of both money and crucial documents. Undeterred, she navigated her way from Missouri to Minnesota, then onwards to Grand Rapids, Michigan, before finally arriving in Quincy, Illinois. It was there that the community rallied behind her, organising a collection to aid her continued journey.




The collection of photographs featuring Clayton, captured at S. Masury's studio in Boston, stands as the most renowned depiction of a female Civil War soldier. Yet, beyond these images, scant details of Clayton's narrative are available. Her story, as relayed through a handful of periodical articles from 1863, notably the ephemeral Philadelphia political pamphlet "Fincher's Trades' Review," serves as the sole source of insight. However, these accounts are marred by inconsistencies, leaving much of Clayton's tale shrouded in uncertainty.


Among the military units attributed to her service, discrepancies abound— one unit, the 4th Missouri Heavy Artillery, never existed, while the other, the 13th Missouri Cavalry, came into existence after the period in which she purportedly served. Furthermore, neither unit participated in the Battle of Stones River, debunking claims of a cavalry charge as depicted in the narrative.


Extensive searches through military records have yielded no trace of a Jack Williams, Frances's alleged alias, or any variation of her husband's name. There are no documented casualties matching the name Frank (or Elmer, or John) Clayton (or Clalin, or Claylin) at Stones River. Moreover, thorough examinations of War Department files at the National Archives have failed to uncover any discharge or hospital records associated with Clayton's purported military service.


In light of these discrepancies, it is conceivable that Frances Clayton fabricated her story, perhaps donning a photographer's uniform as a prop—complete with a non-standard infantry jacket and officer's sword—in a bid to capitalise on the war for financial gain through donations and a fraudulent pension application.

 


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