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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

"Such a woman seldom appears": The Curious Tales of Sergeant Sarah Taylor of the 15th Light Dragoons and Trooper Johanna Stain of the King's German Legion

By Donald Graves

In the Archives of Ontario in Toronto there is a large scrapbook, evidently compiled, judging by its contents, in either Montreal or Quebec City during the period 1800 to 1820. It contains newspaper clippings and the compiler may have been a soldier but he certainly had an interest in the military as all the clippings are about Napoleonic military matters, mostly British in subject, and include a vast variety of official reports, personal correspondence, advertisements, and many other subjects including curiosities. In most cases the newspaper from which the clipping was taken, or the date of the clipping, are not recorded but there is sometime a handwritten date on them The article on Sarah Taylor, reprinted from an original that appeared in the Manchester Herald has the date "Dec 1814" while the article on Johanna Stain bears the date, "Sept 1813," which provide some information as to when they were published.

Stories of women who disguised themselves and enlisted as soldiers are not uncommon during the musket period, which is, at one and the same time, an interesting comment on the laxity of medical inspections and the avoidance of nudity. The author of the article on Sarah Taylor makes reference to one of the most famous British examples, Hannah Snell, who enlisted in the Royal Marines in the mid-18th century. What makes Sarah's story interesting is that once her sex was discovered, she reversed her role to become the wife of a soldier and the mother of three children. Furthermore, if Sarah's story is true -- and it has every appearance of being so -- then she spent in all, thirty-five years following the drum and since we know what units Sarah served with, we know something about her service career. With the 15th Light Dragoons, she would have fought in the Flanders campaign of 1793-1794 and possibly have participated in the famous cavalry charge at made Villers-en-Couche on 24 April 1794. She may also have fought in the Holland campaign of 1799. With the 37th (or Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, she would have been present in the West Indies from 1800 to 1810 and then been at Gibraltar in 1811 and 1812. Since she spent two years with her husband in a French prison before being released in July 1814, it is likely that she and her husband were captured while in transport to, from or around Gibraltar and the east coast of Spain.

The information provided in the article on Johanna Stain is not nearly as good and the dating is less clear. Nonetheless it appears that Johanna was born in Austria and served five years as an infantryman in the Austrian army as she collected a pension from the Austrian government for her service. She then appears to have enlisted in a mounted unit of the King's German Legion when that force was first being raised in 1803 at which time she would have been about 39 years old. Unlike Sarah, however, Johanna was determined not to return to her traditional role after her true gender was discovered.

The Manchester Heroine: Sarah Taylor

On Friday last, a middle-aged woman applied for relief at the Church warden's office[1], in this town, and on being questioned as to her present situation, and her former life, she proved to be that description of heroines, of which Hannah Snell and Christiana Davies[2], have cut so conspicuous a figure in English biography, and which Joan of Arc, and several others, particularly in the revolutionary war, have done in that of France.

It appears, that when a girl, she was in the habit of wearing boy's clothes, in which dress she served her father, William Roberts (who is a bricklayer), as a labourer; and being tall of her age, when about 14 years old, she enlisted as a soldier into the 15th light dragoons. Probably her extreme youth and healthy appearance might occasion a laxity of attention, for she passed muster without her sex being discovered.

In the course of two months, she learned her exercise sufficiently for all the purposes of parade; the rough riding-master declaring her the best rider in the squad of recruits with whom she was taught; which she imputes to the circumstance of having been used to mount, undaunted, to the top of high buildings, when attending to her father.

She remained with the 15th light dragoons, in which she progressively attained the ranks of corporal and serjeant, for 21 years; her sex all the time remaining a secret to everyone. Perhaps the care she was under of guarding it, had the good effect of producing that regularity and orderly conduct; which recommended the pretended "William Roberts" to the favour and protection of the Officers, and procured her promotion.

When she had been a soldier for 21 years, the Colonel of the regiment tendered her discharge, which she demurred the acceptance of; but being under size, by her own consent, she was transferred to the 37th regiment of foot, which regiment she joined in 1800, at the island of St. Vincent's, in the West Indies, where, soon after, she was taken seriously ill (for the first time, in her military career), of the yellow fever, when wanting some of those attentions which would inevitably lead to a discovery of her sex, she was obliged to intrust the secret she had so well kept, to the wife of a serjeant, at a time she expected nothing but death.

She, however, recovered, and having no longer even a nominal claim to manhood, she was obliged to resume feminine habiliments; but, still enamoured of a military life, as she could no longer be a soldier herself, se became, in May 1801, the wife of one, a private in the 37th foot, of the name of Taylor, by whom the Amazon has since had three children; still following the fortune of war through various climates; during which she was, with her husband, two years in a prison in France, from which they were released in July last in consequence of the peace.

On the day she landed from the cartel[3], her husband died and this martial heroine is now a widow, still anxious, as she says, to follow a camp, as the most pleasant life of which she can conceive. In the course of her military career, she has visited many distant parts of the globe, and has been in many actions, and received several wounds, which, however, were not severe, and were in parts of the body which did not betray her sex. A scar from a sabre, which graces her head, and the mark where a musket ball was extracted from her leg, are honourable testimonials of her service; but she says that the two years she spent in a French prison were far more difficult to support, and did her constitution more injury than her voyages to the East and West Indies, her march from the Red Sea through Egypt, or her campaigns in Flanders, in Spain, and in Italy.[4] She is, however, in excellent spirits, and "fights her battles o'er again," with all the ardour of Goldsmith's old veteran, who "shouldered his crutch, and shew'd how fields were won."[5]

Having been informed by a Gentleman in office, of the circumstance of such a woman having been relieved at the overseers' board[6], the writer of this article could not resist the curiosity with which he was excited, which prompted him to see and converse with a woman who had passed through life in so an uncommon a manner. His curiosity was satisfied; he found her inmate in the house of her father, in Lee-street, Newton-Lane; she and her aged mother were employed in washing linen, in a room up one pair of stairs. He did not see the father, (who, it appears, had attended with the heroine at the weekly-board), but the mother fully corroborated all the circumstances of her daughter's story; which was repeated in the intervals of the washing operation.

She is in full hope of obtaining the pension allowed to soldiers for long and faithful services; to which, we think, she is fully and fairly entitled. The proper testimonials, we understand, are sent up, to be laid before the Commandant in Chief[7], in order to attain it, as well as to procure the arrears of her husband's pay, which had accumulated whilst he was in the French prison.

We are aware that we have extended this article to an unusual length; but having been much entertained by a character so original, we thought we should gratify our readers by a short sketch of the life of so extraordinary a townswoman; for such a woman seldom appears to give life and interest to our local columns; and sure we are, that we shll be joined in the wish by all ranks of society, that the service of the soi-disant[8] "William Roberts" may be remunerated in a pension to "Sarah Taylor."

Johanna Stain

On Saturday last, a female soldier sailed in the packet for Heligoland. -- She gives the following account of herself: -- Her name is Johanna Stain, and was born at Vien, in Germany.[9] About 24 years ago, being a strong woman, she chose to put on male attired, and afterwards let herself as ostler at an inn; after some years in that capacity, she inlisted in to a regiment of foot, where she continued five years; she afterwards inlisted into a regiment of horse in the German Legion, and served ten years.

During that time she had been in eighteen battles, and was wounded seven times, some severe ones; the last one was from a cannon-ball, which grazed her back, and wounded her severely, which led to a discovery of her sex, and she was sent home from Portugal. She was also taken prisoner by the French, and was confined three years.[10]

She says that her sex was discovered once before by a physician, who attended her after she was wounded, when on foreign service, and gave him 150 dollars to conceal her sex, which he (much to his honour) accpeted.

She is allowed a pension from the Austrian Government for former services, and is now allowed a pension from our Government. She is so attached to the male attire that nothing can induce her to change it. She is near fifty years of age, of the middle stature, and full of spirits -- but very much regretted to be sent home to her own country.

End Notes

[1] .Under military regulations and British law, the legitimate wives of soldiers, if not permitted to accompany their husbands, were permitted to reply for poor relief at the municipal or parish level.

[2] .Hannah Snell, as mentioned above, enlisted in the Royal Marines in the mid-18th century and served for a number of years. Christiana Davies clearly was a similar case.

[3] . Prisoner exchange.

[4] . This is the only part of Sarah Taylor's story where there is some divergence from the facts as, when she was with them, neither the 15th Light Dragoons nor the 37th Foot served in the East Indies, Egypt or Italy. At this point, she may be exaggerating a little to impress her interviewer, and it obviously worked.

[5] .A reference to a character in one of Oliver Goldsmith's novels.

[6] . The parish poor relief or charity board.

[7] .That is to say, the Duke of York, the commander-in-chief of the British army, at the War Office in London.

[8] ."So-called."

[9] .Probably, Wien or Vienna, Austria.

[10] .This must have happened during her Austrian service as the dates would not correspond with the service of the King's German Legion mounted units.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2005


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