Susan Jones wouldn’t always be known by that name. She lived a life serving others, but she did so in both the domestic realm of femininity and in the outside realm of masculinity, crossing genders to do so at the call of war.
By Sean E. Andres
While working as a waitress at the popular Columbus pub Buckeye House, Susan Jones met a young suave man who swept her off her feet. The whirlwind romance would have to wait, though. Second Lieutenant Edward McGill would be needed at Camp Dennison in Cincinnati. Susan, fueled by love for Edward and the Union cause, followed.
The eighteen year-old woman went to a barber, who chopped off her coal-black hair. A friend gave her husband’s clothes to Susan, and Susan wrapped her chest. From this moment on, she would be known as Private Robert “Bob” Wilson, enlisting for service on Thursday, 18 April 1861. Bob quickly became popular. After a week, he and his company were sent to Cincinnati.
Three weeks later, Bob requested to be moved to a different guard. It was this attention that made Colonel Marrow look at him closely and that Bob Wilson was no man and ordered the woman to be sent home immediately. He ordered an official exam to prove Bob Wilson’s sex.
Ultimately, Colonel Morrow gave Bob Wilson an honorable discharge and a free train ticket back to Columbus. No family awaited her when she stepped off the train. Rather, a jail cell. When her vows to return to the war as a man once more proved relentless, Sergeant Stephenson took her, still dressed as a man, to the Ohio State Penitentiary to keep her from doing so. The Columbus Journal wrote of their outrage at her imprisonment, deeming her “a patriotic young lady, though she does unsex herself and take up arms in defence of her country.”
What became of Susan? Did she unsex herself once more before the war’s end and leave to fight, disappearing, reinventing her life afterwards? Was she buried in a mass grave on some battlefield? Was she forced to enter the Ohio Insane Asylum? We may never know. But I’d like to hope that she took up arms once more to fight for the Union cause, the thing she so believed in.
Take the Susan Jones Tour
Spend the day at Camp Dennison, nestled along the Little Miami.
- Make Camp: Go back in time to learn about on of our Civil War camps at the Camp Dennison Christian Walschmidt House, Civil War Museum, and Cemetery.
- Let Nature Take Its Course: Hike through the Grand Valley Preserve to see what Camp Dennison might have looked like before it was deforested for the camp.
- Drink a Spell: Then head down to Little Miami Brewing Company for some good beer and food and a similar view to what the soldiers would have had—including surrounding buildings and the river.
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- Lathrop’s Columbus Directory
- National Park Service
- Ohio Civil War Central
- U.S. Census Records
This page was composed by S.E. Andres.