Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier

by Laura Leedy Gansler

From the publisher:
Resurrecting a lost hero of the Civil War, The Mysterious Private Thompson tells the remarkable story of Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841–98), who disguised herself as a man and defended her country at a time of war. Drawing on Edmonds's journals and those of the men she served with, Laura Leedy Gansler recreates Edmonds’s experience in some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including both the First and the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and the Battle of Fredericksburg, during which she served with distinction in combat as a “male” nurse and braved enemy fire as a mail carrier. Gansler also investigates Edmonds's claim to have been a spy, going behind enemy lines disguised as a slave (by staining her skin with silver nitrate), as a Confederate soldier, and even, ironically, as a peddler woman. After two years of valiant service, the young soldier, who twice rejected medical attention for injuries sustained in the line of duty for fear of being discovered, was struck down with malaria. Rather than risk detection by a military doctor, “Franklin Thompson” disappeared and was marked down as a deserter. Twenty years later, having resumed her female identity, Edmonds emerged from obscurity to fight for her pension and reunite with her surprised former comrades, who had not known their brother-in-arms was a woman. This intimate portrait is, above all, a personal drama about the lengths one daring woman was willing to go to chart her own destiny.

From Booklist:
Gansler chronicles the intriguing life and times of a woman who served as a man during the Civil War. Fleeing from home at age 17 to escape an abusive father and avoid an unwanted marriage, Sarah Edmonds lived as a man for two years before she heeded Lincoln's call for more troops and enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry. Performing her duties with distinction, she won the respect and admiration of the men she served alongside, even after they discovered, many years later, her astounding secret. Resuming her female identity and marrying after the war, she lived a relatively tranquil life until she decided to seek a military pension 20 years later. Enthusiastically supported by her former comrades-in-arms, she became the only woman to secure a soldier's pension for her Civil War service. Although questions remain whether she also served--as she claimed--as a Union spy, Edmond's -gender--bending Civil War experiences are well worth checking out.

From Publishers Weekly:
This modest but solid biography presents the energetic life of Sarah Edmonds (1841–1898), a Nova Scotia woman and Civil War soldier who served in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry under the name Franklin Thompson. Fleeing an abusive father and an unwanted marriage, 17-year old Sarah disguised herself as a man and made a living as a traveling book salesman. When war broke out, she found a place in one of the early volunteer regiments and served for two years. She appears to have had at least two lovers or at least men who knew her true identity, but spent much of her service as a medical orderly, mail courier and (allegedly) Union spy. After the war she settled in Texas, married, raised two adopted children and eventually claimed a pension under her wartime name, with the enthusiastic support of most of her old comrades. Gansler (Class Action) has done her homework on the Civil War with more than average thoroughness, writing clearly and without jargon, and leaves the question of Sarah's spying undecided. Clearly laid down, however, is the portrait of a young woman who made and carried out major life decisions with honor, clarity and ability.