Saturday, March 29, 2014

A woman soldier and a nurse, though probably not a spy

Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy, Sarah Emma Edmonds

I first learned about Sarah Emma Edmonds from a book about women soldiers in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons.  When I saw this on the shelves at Half Price Books, the title caught my eye, and then the author's name.  Sarah Edmonds enlisted in the Union Army in May of 1861.  As "Franklin Thompson," she served in the 2nd Michigan regiment for two years, much of the time as a hospital nurse or orderly.  In 1863 she deserted, resumed dressing as a woman, and spent the rest of the war working as a nurse in army hospitals.  After the war, she married and had several children.  Twenty-one years later, like many aging veterans she applied for a military pension, for which she had to document her service as "Franklin Thompson."  Before she could receive the pension, the charge of desertion had to be expunged from her record, which wasn't difficult, since if she had been outed as a woman while serving, she would have been immediately discharged.  The military records of her service and of the pension granted her prove that Edmonds, a woman, served as a soldier in the war.  That much is clear.  The memoir she wrote about her service rests on that fact, but she seems to have taken some liberties with the details of what exactly that service entailed.

Sarah Edmonds first published her memoir in 1864, under the title Unsexed: or, The Female Soldier.  It was reprinted in 1865, by a new publisher, as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.  The annotated edition I read was published by Northern Illinois University Press in 1999.  The editor, Elizabeth Leonard, does not discuss why the title to the present edition was changed yet again, not just with the addition of "Soldier" to the title, but also with the subtitle, "A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army."  I am sure it was to highlight what made those adventures ground-breaking.  Lots of women served as nurses, many served as spies.  While other women served as soldiers, none is as well-documented as Edmonds, and only one other (a Confederate woman soldier) wrote a memoir about that service.

Changing the title to emphasize Edmonds' role as soldier highlights an ambiguity in the book: nowhere in it did Edmonds state that she was a soldier.  She was incredibly coy about it. According to the introduction, Edmonds left her home in New Brunswick to come to the United States, probably in 1859, and probably already presenting herself as a male.  Her readers wouldn't have known that, so when she talked about feeling the call to serve her adopted county in its hour of need, and being "employed by the government" as a "FIELD NURSE," they would have assumed it was as a woman, not a newly-enlisted volunteer soldier.  At this time, though, all army nurses were male soldiers.  In answering the call to serve, she wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free to go forward and work, and was not obliged to stay at home and weep."  Maybe her readers took it for granted that she was "free" because she was unmarried, with no family ties.  They couldn't have guessed that her freedom was based on her male persona.

In telling stories about her spying missions, Edmonds mentioned that she wore male civilian clothes when she snuck through the Confederate lines to gather information. She just didn't mention that she took off "Private Thompson's" Federal uniform to do so.  At one point "Thompson" disguised "himself" in women's clothes, so à la "Victor/Victoria," we have a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

Watching these convolutions was fascinating.  They carried me through some of the less entertaining parts of the book.  Edmonds wrote in the first chapter that she came to America because she wanted to be a foreign missionary (I don't think she meant it was to evangelize godless Americans, but maybe so).  That should have prepared me for the piety that permeates this book.  The pages are filled with prayers and poems and portions of sermons.  There are frequent stories of camp meetings, conversions, and soldiers dying holy deaths.  These are interspersed with gruesome accounts of the battles that brought the soldiers to the hospitals, and the primitive medical care that could not save them (and may have killed some of them).

One soldier's death highlights the tensions in Edmonds' story.  After the battle of Antietam, in September of 1862, Edmonds was crossing the field, searching for the wounded among the dead, when she "was attracted by the pale, sweet face of youthful soldier who was wounded in the neck."  The soldier confided to Edmonds that she was a woman, an orphan who had enlisted with her brother, killed earlier that day.  Edmonds called a chaplain, and then stayed with her until she died, and helped with her burial, to keep her secret safe.  I wonder if it would have comforted that unknown soldier, to know there was a woman comrade by her.  Edmonds chose not to tell her.

Edmonds wrote that the nursing work was a terrible strain, which I can imagine it was.  As she told it, she learned that the army "Secret Service" had an opening for a spy, and she volunteered.  Part of the interview included a phrenological exam, which showed that her "organs of secretiveness, combativeness, etc., were largely developed," which qualified her for the job (though the exam apparently missed the fact that the head in question was a woman's).  Even before I read the editor's note that Edmonds' service as a spy has been called into question, I had begun to have my doubts.  The first assignment she recounted was to dress as a (male) contraband, an escaped slave, to cross to Confederate lines.  In her account, on the Confederate side she was pressed into a work gang, before she was given a rifle and sent out alone on picket duty, which allowed her to escape back to the Union lines.  No Confederate would have given an African American a gun in the first place, let alone allowed him out of his sight with it.  In another adventure, while she was trying to buy food for the hospitals, a Confederate woman shot at her.  Edmonds returned fire, deliberately aiming at the woman's hand.  She immediately treated the wound, converted the rebel from the Confederate cause, and escorted her new friend "Alice" to the Union lines, where she became a devoted nurse herself.  However fanciful, her adventures are definitely entertaining.

Of course, writing about her exploits in disguise as a contraband, Edmonds used the broadest "Gone With the Wind" dialect, both for herself in character and for all the African Americans she encountered (usually referring to them as "darkies," which is at least slightly less offensive to modern readers than the n-word).  But they are not the only characters spouting stage dialect.  Edmonds later impersonated an Irish pedlar woman (in another bit of cross-cross-dressing), with the worst "Faith and begorrah" Oirish accent I think I've ever read.  In the course of that adventure, she met an H'inglishman, who h'only wished 'e was h'at 'ome with 'is family, far from Jeff Davis.  There is also a "Dutchman," as 19th-century America labeled Germans, who sounded just like Professor Bhaer in Little Women.

Though I rolled my eyes frequently reading this, it is still a fascinating book.  Despite the probably fictionalized elements, it is an eye-witness account of the Civil War, from a unique perspective.  Edmonds included a lot of information about hospitals and nursing care, as well as the daily lives of soldiers in camp and on the march.  She was present at many major battles, including the surrender of Vicksburg in 1863.  She analyzed the officers she served under or met, including Generals George McClellan and Ulysses Grant, both of whom she admired greatly.  And there is a genuine poignancy in her accounts of the young soldiers, suffering and dying for a cause they believed in, far from their families.  Parents often traveled to the battlefields to help care for their sons, but many arrived too late.  I think it's to Edmonds' credit that she dedicated not just her book, but the proceeds from it, "To the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac," among whom she served.

What really floored me was to learn that Sarah Edmonds and her husband, a fellow Canadian, ended up right here in Houston, in the 1890s.  Here Edmonds was inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, the premier Civil War veterans' organization, and she was inducted as a woman.  She died near Houston in 1898, and the GAR later had her buried with full military honors here in the city.  I plan to visit her grave as soon as I can.

N.B. As I mentioned above, the publication history of Edmonds' memoir is convoluted.  The 1865 version reprinted the text of the 1864 original with no changes except to the title.  The 1999 edition I read reprinted the 1865 version, again with no changes except to the title.  I am using the 1865 date for the "Mid-Century of Books" challenge.


  1. That does seem cruel not to offer some understanding to a dying woman who could be herself (sorry, bad sentence structure!) - as I read this I wondered how generally empathetic she was in other situations. I don't mean all gushing and stereotypically womanly, but just whether she had much feeling for anyone. (However, the use of dialect is a killer for me, so I suspect I will never find out).

  2. vicki, she was apparently a good nurse - though standards were pretty low at that time. But she seems to have reserved her empathy for soldiers (Federal over Confederate, wounded over able-bodied), and for the slaves & contrabands. Not much for Southern civilians.

  3. Fascinating post. Isn't it fun to read books like this once in a while. They are my main argument against historical fiction. When you can read what people who lived it thought and went through, why go for a fictional account.

    But I do have to wonder about her claim to have passed as a slave. The bit about arming the slaves has no historical basis at all according to the current research I'm aware of. Never happened. It kind of calls the whole story into question for me. Where there notes and annotations that pointed out what could and could not be verified?

    If I ever come across this book, there's a good chance I just might pick it up.

  4. James, I took all of her spy adventures with a big grain of salt. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if she made them all up, or "borrowed" them from stories she heard. Her enlistment & nursing service are well-documented in the contemporary sources, but not the spying. The introduction & the notes were good at pointing out ambiguities & contradictions.

    I also have to say, I doubt she could blend in to the African American groups she supposedly met, just with that ridiculous dialect. There would have been all kinds of cultural & community cues that she would have missed - as a white woman from the North, she needed more than skin dye and a drawl.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!