Soldier and sailor: Hannah Snell marches off to war
In the 18th century, women had to make their own ways to power. When her husband left her and her daughter, Hannah Snell went to war as a male soldier and sailor.
As she later told her audience: “Why gentlemen, James Gray will cast off his skin like a snake and become a new creature. In a word, gentlemen, I am as much a woman as my mother ever was, and my real name is Hannah Snell.”
While Snell eventually went on to marry and have children, for most of her life as a soldier, she was comfortable with who she was such that she gained respect from her fellow soldiers.
Hannah Snell: From wife to soldier
Born in Worcester, England on 23 April 1723, Snell was known by locals as the child who played being a soldier.
There’s not much known about Snell’s early life except that in 1740, she moved to London. While there, she married James Summes in 18 January 1744.
She bore a daughter, Susannah, but before then, James had disappeared on her. The baby died a year later. She decided to borrow clothes from her brother-in-law, James Gray, and went looking for her husband.
It was then she found out that he might had been pressed into the military and joined as well under the name ‘James Gray.’ Unfortunately, that was when she discovered that her husband had been executed for murder.
That didn’t stop her from staying in the army though. Though this part of her story is unverified, she claimed that she joined the 6th Regiment of Foot under John Guise that was stationed in Carlisle in Scotland.
She also claimed that she took part in the campaign of the Duke of Cumberland against the Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
One story here is that she was asked to find a prostitute for her commander, but instead was the one who slept with the woman.
Supposedly she was meted 500 lashes for preventing the rape of a local girl during this period that made her desert the army.
Hannah Snell: From soldier to sailor
From the army, Snell went to Portsmouth where she joined the British Royal Marines and sailed to Lisbon on the ship, the Swallow, on 1 November 1747.
While in Lisbon, she was reportedly to have slept with a number of women in Lisbon while her unit prepared to attack Mauritius. When this didn’t push through, they proceeded to India.
In August 1748, she was involved in the naval battle of Pondicherry when the British tried to capture a French colony. In that battle, she killed a number of French soldiers before being wounded.
Later, at the battle of Devicottail in June 1749, she was wounded several times in the legs and groin.
Reports indicate that she either removed the musket ball by herself or asked a local woman to take it out to avoid being operated on by the regimental surgeon to avoid being revealed as a woman.
She returned home to Britain in 1750 and revealed her true identity to her fellow soldiers on 2 June.
She must have gained the respect of her peers because they encouraged her to petition the Duke of Cumberland, who was the head of the British Army, to give her a military pension.
She was given an honorable discharge with the Royal Hospital in Chelsea officially recognizing her military service and granting her a pension in 1750.
She sold her story to a London publisher under the title, “The Female Soldier,” and retired to Wapping where she opened a pub.
She married twice and raised two sons. She later suffered from dementia and was admitted to an asylum in 1791 where she died six months later.
For more about this remarkable woman soldier, check out this video about Hannah Snell: