THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Franklin Thompson, a volunteer with the 2nd Michigan, rode through the night with trepidation from Fort Munroe at Old Comfort Point, to deliver post to the Union Army troops stationed at Yorktown, Virginia. It was a sombre night in April 1862 and Pvt Thompson’s horse was laden with letters, papers, and packages on a mail run that averaged twenty to thirty miles per trip. Thompson was particularly anxious since hearing rumours that bushwhackers, the irregular military forces that ambushed soldiers on both sides of the conflict, had recently murdered a mail carrier and scattered the contents of his saddle bags along the road. In the darkness, at ‘the most lonely spot on the trail’, Thompson could hear the forensic evidence of the crime in ‘the rustle of letters under my horse’s feet’.
But Thompson faced danger from natural, as well as human forces. With the Union troops attempting to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, the Chickahominy River proved a major obstacle to General George McClellan’s Union forces. As Thompson would recount in an 1863 memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, ‘the floods frequently carried away the Chickahominy bridges, and I was more than once obliged to swim my horse across the swift running stream in going back and forth with the mail.’ Thompson’s frequent plunges into the freezing water, long hours sitting in a drenched uniform in the saddle or shivering by the roadside, produced malarial fevers and eventually, the private deserted.
While this is the narrative Franklin Thompson would present to readers, the truth was far more fascinating and throws light on an astonishing aspect of the American Civil War. Thompson was, in fact, Sarah Emma Edmonds, and among the estimated 400 women, (including 135 documented cases) who served on both sides during the conflict. Even in this surprisingly crowded field, Edmonds is distinguished for writing a memoir of her experiencing and for successfully suing the government for a military pension.
Edmonds was born to a farming family in the Canadian maritime province of New Brunswick, and grew up working alongside her brother in the fields. She was an avid reader and would later recall how a novel, Fanny Campbell or the Female Pirate Captain, inspired a nascent feminism. After reading M. M. Ballou’s fictional portrait of Fanny who ‘could do almost any brave and useful act’, Emma felt, ‘All the latent energy of my nature was aroused and each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my fingertips ... I was emancipated!’ A few years later, Emma worked as a seamstress in Fredericton where the locals remember her as ‘differing in many respects from her companions, in her independence of thought, [and] her impulsiveness of actions’. After securing a lucrative job selling bibles as Franklin Thompson, she left New Brunswick and headed south.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Thompson was living in Flint Michigan, rooming with a local pastor and even befriended by a Baptist Minister, Elder Berry. Among Thompson’s other male friends was Captain William R. Morse, who had established a volunteer militia, the Flint Union Greys, in 1857. So when Morse was looking for recruits, Thompson naturally stepped forward and joined a public ceremony where the Flint ladies pinned each volunteer with a rosette and the local pastor pronounced the benediction. Thompson would later recall that with ‘no other motive for enlisting than love to God and love to suffering humanity’, ‘he’ enlisted on 17 April 1861 as a private in Company F, Second Michigan Infantry Regiment.
At Fort Wayne, Detroit, Thompson ‘drilled, did fatigue duty, and performed all the necessary duties of a soldier in camp, and when off duty, I assisted in caring for the sick’. By the time Thompson’s regiment departed for Virginia, sailing south by steamer ‘he’ had already gained hospital experience and met ‘his’ baptism of fire at Blackburn’s Ford on 18 July. Thompson’s career would include serving at the first Battle of Bull Run under General McClellan, working in regimental hospitals, serving in skirmishes against the Confederates, working as a regimental Post Master, operating as a spy behind enemy lines during the Shenandoah campaign, and acting as orderly for General Poe at the battle of Fredericksburg.
Although Edmonds carefully glossed over her male disguise as Franklin Thompson in Nurse and Spy, in 1884 she attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry and her story as a ‘girl soldier’ became a public sensation. For Edmonds, now Mrs. Linus Seelye, the reunion served as an opportunity to gather testimonials from her former comrades since she was seeking – and was eventually granted – a military pension. Edmonds defended her military record which included a charge of desertion and whose circumstances (including a bout of malaria) she could now disclose to the public.
‘It is true that my discharge from service did not come by the way of the “red tape” line but by a more direct route – simply that of leaving on my own account ... I left in disguise. But from my standpoint I never for a moment considered myself a deserter. I simply left because I could not hold out any longer, and to remain and become a helpless patient in a hospital was sure discovery which to me was far worse than death.’
Although Edmonds’ describes the terror of her sex being discovered, she had, in fact, already disclosed her true identity to a fellow nurse, Jerome Robbins, who agreed to keep her secret. But many other female soldiers during the conflict shared Edmonds’ anxiety that when their female identity was revealed, they would be exposed to public ridicule, sexual harassment, or lose the opportunity to participate in the action.
Sarah Rosette Wakeman, aka Pvt Lyons Wakeman, who served two years with the 153rd Regiment, New York Volunteers before her death in battle in 1864, described what she gained from her experience and how it changed her:
‘I don’t care anything about Coming home for I [am] aShamed to Come, and I sometimes think that I never will go home in the world. I have enjoyed my self the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time asoldier[ing]. I find just as good friends among Strangers as I do at home.’
Like Edmonds and Wakeman, many hundreds of women who became combatants during the Civil War risked their lives for a cause in which they believed. But they also, no doubt, enjoyed the privileges that accompanied their lives as men – the pay, the friendship, the autonomy, the respect – and denied them as woman. Their stories served as powerful reminders to future generations that when women went ‘asoldiering’ they earned the right to be regarded as equals, alongside their comrades in arms.
Julie Wheelwright's book Sisters in Arms s published by Osprey. It charts the evolution of women in combat, from the Scythian warriors who inspired the Amazonian myth, to the passing soldiers and sailors of the 18th century, and on to the re-emergence of women as official members of the armed forces in the 20th century. Click Here to Buy A Copy
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