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.
The teenage Susan shifted occupations of servitude in Columbus, working for and living with Dr. Robert Thompson’s family and baggage master Thomas Aston. While working as a waitress at the popular Columbus pub Buckeye House, the raven-haired young woman met a young suave man who swept her off her feet. The whirlwind romance would have to wait, though. On Friday, 12 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers for the Union Army in the war that would reshape America. Second Lieutenant Edward McGill would be needed at Camp Dennison Cincinnati as a member of the Topographical Engineers, Sappers, and Miners (a precursor to the Army Corps of Engineers).
But 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, assigned to Company G, or the Montgomery Guards, enlisting for service on Thursday, 18 April 1861.
In a loose-fitting Union Army uniform of navy shirt, pantaloons, and shoes, the handsome Bob Wilson began training at Camp Jackson in Columbus, even having gone through physicals, on Sunday, 21 April 1861. A week later, Bob’s company was sent to Cincinnati a few days ahead of the rest of the regiment to clear a space at Camp Dennison to build barracks. There, Bob immediately started heavy work of logging, carrying lumber, and building the barracks. Bob became quite popular in the regiment.
On Saturday, 11 May 1861, Bob Wilson approached Colonel Isaac H. Marrow around 11 a.m. for a request to be moved to the Hamilton Guards because the Montgomery Guards were mostly rowdy and rude Irishmen, an odd request considering McGill was thoroughly Irish. Colonel Marrow eyed the soldier as he spoke and figured out that Bob Wilson was no man and ordered the woman to be sent home immediately. Crying, Susan Jones begged for leniency. She knew that she could be sent to the insane asylum back home in Columbus or even prison, neither of which gave her a good chance of a decent life, let alone a decent chance at survival.
Colonel Morrow ordered Adjutant Wilber H. Sage of Company B to take her to the camp’s assistant surgeon Dr. H. H. Seys for an official exam. However, Dr. Seys was called away. The examination of Private Bob Wilson was instead conducted by the camp reporter Steve and Adjutant Sage. In the tent, Steve and Wilbur ordered Bob to undress to verify that indeed Bob Wilson was a woman named Susan Jones. This action was contested afterwards by Dr. Seys, Captain William C. Rossman and Lieutenants Jerome B. Ebert and James S. Wilson of Company F, Lieutenant Leroy S. Bell of Company H, among others.
Colonel Morrow gave Bob Wilson an honorable discharge and a free train ticket back to Columbus, accompanied by Sergeant John Stephenson of Company G. 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.” Here she remained, perhaps until Edward returned home in August for a brief spell or until the war ended. Did prison prevent her zeal to go to war by “taming” and resexing her? Did marriage? Edward left once more, demoted to Private, on 21 Aug 1862 for 3 more years until 01 Jun 1865, when he was mustered out of Washington D.C.
Edward and Susan disappear from records until 1868 when his name starts to be sullied again. And sullied again in 1878 when his wife Mary divorces him for neglect of being imprisoned for a year. And resurfacing in the 1880 census, where he reappears, married to a Canadian woman named Anna.
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? Was she Anna? There are a few Susannah Joneses in the 1850 census records that align with her age, and she could have been both Susan and Anna. 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.
- Name: Susan Jones McGill
- Alias: Robert “Bob” Wilson
- Born: 1843, unknown location
- Lived: Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio
- Talents: Building, hospitality
- Died: Unknown
- Connections: Edward McGill, Colonel Isaac H. Morrow, Sergeant John Stephenson
- Civil War Index
- Mangus, Mike. “3rd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Three Months Service),” Ohio Civil War Central, 2018, Retrieved from Ohio Civil War Central.
- National Park Service
- U.S. Census Records (FamilySearch)
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This page was composed by S.E. Andres.