A modest tale of an immodest 19th-century woman who crossed both enemy and gender lines.
Sarah Emma Edmonds took off running from New Brunswick when her farmer father decided to marry her off to a neighbor. And when she stopped running, she stole a page from a favorite novel, Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, and disguised herself as a man—not to join a pirate crew but to sell books door to door. She got away with the ruse and earned nearly a thousand dollars, a small fortune for the time. When the Civil War began, Emma put the pants back on and joined a Union regiment. That, writes Washington attorney Gansler, was not entirely unusual: “The exact number of cross-dressing soldiers in the Civil War is not known, but is estimated to be between 250 and 500.” Other aspects of Emma’s career as the soldier named “Frank Thompson,” however, were rare. While working as a nurse, she was found out by a fellow soldier, one Jerome Robbins, who did not reveal her secret; the fraught relationship that ensued lasted for years and occasioned plenty of heartache, but Robbins kept mum even as Emma stretched her talent and disappeared behind enemy lines, now disguised as a slave. By Gansler’s account, there is not much proof that Emma acted as a spy except for what Emma herself wrote in her postwar memoir, Nurse and Spy, which is not always trustworthy; as Gansler writes, Emma’s tales of adventure “were—and are—impossible to verify, but, true or not, they added a great deal of drama to the book.” Still, there seems little reason to doubt Emma’s word, especially given the testimony of others in her regiment, and the injuries she suffered in service were very real.
A minor footnote in Civil War history.