“Drenched Upon My Witty Brain” II
The Life, Wonderful Adventures and Miraculous Escapes of Miss Eliza Allen, a Young Lady of Eastport, Maine”
This is the second installment of a series on Eliza Allen. If you missed last week, catch up here.
“Is my wound mortal?”
“No, my good fellow,” the surgeon replied, “your wound is a severe one, but not mortal.”
Could it be the cordial talking? Eliza had never had a sip of alcohol. It was beneath her. It was the vice of low men and loose women. It was a sin, and she was a daughter of the Temperance movement who suspected nearly all men were “intoxicated.” And yet, when the surgeon had handed her, or rather, George Mead, a wounded soldier from Maine, the cordial, she downed it without hesitation—and no regrets. The surgeon did not ask to check the nurse’s dressing or further examine Eliza’s disguised body. Instead, he nodded and walked over to another bed. But now the drink seemed like a mistake: it was confusing her. She couldn’t tell if she was dreaming or had really just heard nearby, after dozens of battles and hundreds of miles, the voice of William Billings.
“In one of the most terrific scenes of strife and blood, in which we both participate, and stain the same field with our blood; and then we have our wounds dressed at the same place, by the same surgeons,” she wrote. “How mysterious! How astonishing!”
How much too soon.
This was the moment. Eliza had always intended to reveal her identity to William, and it was a point of pride. Love was the “superior incentive” that set her apart from the Deborah Sampsons of the world, patriotic women who craved adventure. But now that they were reunited, Eliza felt differently. She wasn’t ready to stop being George Mead and, since she had yet to be discovered, she didn’t have to. William, she reasoned, needed her, as did her country. “I fear that it would only disquiet William,” she explained time and again, but her words belied a fundamental pretense. The war would be won, treaties signed, fortunes made and lost, and a nation crisscrossed before she would return to feminine dress. Eliza Allen was chasing a much greater prize, one unheard-of for a woman of the 1840s: she was trying to take control of her future.
At the age of 20, Eliza Allen had realized that she was powerless. William Billings, a Canadian laborer on her parents’ property, had the power to court her. Her family, one of the most prominent in Eastport, Maine, had the power to refuse him. William had the power to enlist in the army without even telling her, or saying goodbye. “Silence is the best ornament of the female sex,” wrote Margaret Coxe in The Young Lady’s Companion (1839), and that’s what was expected of Eliza. The people who loved Eliza could change her life for better or worse, and they felt no need to consult her.
For a young woman whose ego was perpetually on parade and who thought herself “beloved and respected by [her] brothers; indulged by [her] parents, the object of all their cares and the hope and happiness of their lives,” this reality was an infuriating, intolerable development that provoked something inside her. The events that filled the pages of her memoir The Female Volunteer were driven by a desire for freedom. In an effort to escape domestic confines, Eliza flouted gender conventions, and then she wrapped her radical plans in the socially acceptable packaging of an adventure tale motivated by romantic love.
But what about Eliza’s dramatic departure? Was it necessary? There was reason to think her parents’ position on William would have softened as time went on. “Should you marry and be miserable, we never could be happy, but our home would become the abode of sorrow, regret and wretchedness,” her mother later explained to her, as she tells it. But in 1846, Eliza wasn’t ready to hear that message, or she chose to ignore anything short of wholehearted support. She quickly developed a strong, narrow conviction that she must flee, and then acted on it.
But if her parents were callous, so was she. Eliza was plotting to break free from her watchful parents when “a remarkable Providence (or so I must call it), intervened.” To Eliza, who was perpetually drunk on self-interest, news of an uncle seized by a violent fever was divine destiny made manifest. When he took a turn for the worse and the Allens extended their visit to his home, she failed to express sympathy for her uncle or compassion toward her father for the loss of his brother.
I was nearly ready to start, and should have done so, if I had not heard that my uncle was so low that they could not leave him—a circumstance which seemed very much to favor my plans, and which I made use of to the greatest advantage; for it gave me time to complete all my arrangements with safety.
Our heroine was flush with objectionable acts and a penchant for self-mythologizing. The scene reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara’s delight in building a gaudy, sumptuous mansion in the postbellum South with the explicit intention of making those around her, most of whom had been reduced to varying degrees of poverty and loss, “pea-green with envy.”
The similarities don’t end there. Eliza was to William what Scarlett was to Ashley Wilkes. These are clever, determined women in love with tepid, dependent men. “Knowing that William was of a confiding and unsuspecting nature, who was not disposed to deviate from the path of rectitude, but whose diffident and kind disposition could too easily be abused by designing and corrupt associates, I felt the greatest solicitation on his account,” she wrote, attributing any fault in his behavior to others.
Eliza’s inner life was a fertile ground of privilege that she confused for virtue. She painted her parents as servants of a rigid class hierarchy while consistently demonstrating that her worldview was rooted in the absolute certainty of her superiority. “[William] was so much beneath my former notions of equality,” she writes, intimating that those notions were passed down to her but that, in her own coming of age, she saw they were meaningless—at least when it came to William. He was an exception to an otherwise stable concept of status. In her mind, her ability to love him meant that she was an exceptional Christian woman. Only she could have recognized William’s uniqueness among otherwise unremarkable subordinates. Only she had been brave enough to open her heart to him. Only she would risk losing everything.
I wasn’t sold on Eliza’s profound change, but I had been convinced by her story. To be honest, I was set on fire by it. I knew there was no Deborah Sampson of the Mexican-American War, and yet, if I substantiated one, I’d be contributing to one of my favorite genres in history.
Other scholars knew of her memoir, but those who came before me dismissed her account for reasons that didn’t make sense to me. Sure, most men were given physical examinations before they enlisted and, indeed, we can cite plenty of cases in which a woman was caught. A 1778 diary entry told of an officer who had made an example of a poorly disguised woman, ordering “the drums to beat her Threw the town with the whores march.” We will never know how many women succeeded in circumventing or passing those examinations, but in 1882, almost 40 years after Eliza became George Mead, a newspaper account about a female soldier awarded a pension in Pennsylvania explained that it was “not unusual circumstances to find women in the ranks disguised as men.” Historians estimate there were hundreds of cross-dressing soldiers during the Civil War alone. How could there have been none in the war that preceded it?
Those who came before me said that Eliza Allen’s trail had gone cold. If Eliza had vanished, how do we explain her second book, published a few years later? How could an obvious reconciliation with her mother, or an attempt to, have been ignored?
And here was the kicker: I found several mentions of Eliza Allen and William Billings and their family in Maine historical societies. Despite her tendency to overwrite, Eliza’s descriptions of her home, her family’s status, and everything else that came before her adventure appear accurate. And Eliza’s tale of fleeing her family, transforming herself into a soldier, the language she used and her depictions of battle and fear of discovery were consistent with the other books about cross-dressing soldiers and memoirs of men from Maine who fought in the war.
Still, the military hospital scene needled me. I’d never encountered such luck—surviving a wound and discovery—followed by even greater luck. And I’d never seen a woman choose to keep up the facade after her alleged goal had been obtained. Their serendipitous reunion felt off, and I feared there was more to come.