Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Sarah Emma Edmonds: "What Part Am I to Act in This Great Drama?"

Sarah Emma Edmonds (died 5 September 1898)

Born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada, Sarah Emma Edmonds is best known for cross-dressing as a man and serving as a soldier during the American Civil War.

Sarah Emma Edmonds as soldier
"Franklin Flint Thompson"
But she began her career as a man--or, rather, as a boy--years before the Civil War. After moving to the United States with her mother in order to get away from an abusive father (and, as some report, to avoid a forced marriage), she disguised herself as a boy and sold Bibles in New England. At the advice of her employer, she kept the disguise, assumed the name of Frank Thompson, and at the age of fifteen moved to Flint, Michigan, where she continued peddling Bibles and was known as "quite a lady's man." 

When the war broke out, Edmonds asked herself, "What can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama?" Unable to answer these questions, she prayed and, she says, received her answer from God. 

On 25 May 1861, Edmonds enlisted as a private in the 2nd Michigan Infantry, giving her name as Franklin Flint Thompson. At first she was a regimental nurse and a dispatch carrier. She later claimed in her memoirs to have fought under General McClellan at both the first and second battles of Bull Run, Antietam, and Vicksburg (though historians think it wasn't likely she was at all those places). However, her regiment did see action in the Peninsula campaign and the battles of First Manassas and Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Antietam. 

Edmonds also claimed to have been a Union spy, again employing male disguises: as Charles, a Southern sympathizer, and as Cuff, a male slave. (While there are documents to her service as a soldier, there are no records of any official role as a spy.)

But, contracting malaria and fearful of being discovered as a woman, Edmonds decided to be treated at a civilian hospital rather than a military hospital. Later, seeing posters that called "Franklin Thompson" a deserter, she decided not to return to her unit but became, instead, a nurse for the United States Christian Commission at an army hospital in Washington, D.C.

In 1864, Edmonds published a memoir, The Female Spy of the Union Army, republished a year later as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. The volume was a huge success.

Sarah Emma Edmonds returned to her life as a woman, marrying in 1867. But in 1886, she was granted a pension for her service as a soldier. In 1897, she became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization established in 1866 for members of the Union Army, Union Navy, Marines, and other veterans who  had served as Union soldiers during the Civil War. 

Sarah Emma Edmonds is now recognized as an LGBT heroine. She is celebrated in the University of Michigan's Online Exhibit, "Michigan's LGBT Heritage," noted in Vicki Lynn Eaklor's Queer America: A GLBT History of the Twentieth Century, and included in Michael Bronski's A Queer History of the United States (ReVisioning American History)

As you can imagine, Sarah Emma Edmonds's life has also been the subject of historical fiction and plays. There are also several biographical works, most recently Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, itself the subject of a previous post.

You can read Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, available at the Internet Archive, by clicking here.

In addition to Abbott's book, the National Archives has a very informative set of articles by DeAnne Blanton on women who fought as soldiers during the Civil War; to access this series, click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment