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Sisters in arms found their way to war

Women learned gender needn't be barrier to joining military

September 14, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

Editor’s note: Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist and the author of “Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War.”


A wounded Dutchman lay writhing in a makeshift Washington, D.C., hospital following the Battle of Bull Run, a mission which, for the Union, had begun with frivolity and ended in bloody tatters. If the bullets had been brutal on the flesh, the hospital menu wasn’t much better in the way of promoting healing. Hard bread, greasy pork and bitter coffee did not have the medicinal qualities of chicken soup.

The Dutchman firmly believed his life depended on getting a bite of the fish to which his stomach had been accustomed all his life. He grabbed a young nurse who was making the hurried rounds. “Zee feesh I must have,” he implored, as he broke down in tears. “Oh mine Cot, I must have some feesh.” 

Nurses in the Civil War provided both a physical and psychological backbone for the soldiers. They knew what mattered, and this particular nurse, at the first opportunity, scampered to Hunter’s Creek, baited a hook and in a matter of minutes had pulled in — a very large eel. No matter, the Dutchman was overjoyed at his special supper and rested well that evening.

He may or may not have thought it odd that the nurse who cared for him was in fact a young man named Frank Thompson, who seemed to pay particular attention to comforts that most male attendants might have overlooked. He might have had even more trouble digesting his eel had he known that this man who did the job of a woman was not a man at all, but a woman who would later disguise herself as … a woman.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a complicated girl.

Edmonds decided early on that it would not do to “stay at home and weep,” so she cut her hair and enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Her upbringing had prepared her for this day. Born in Nova Scotia, her father was profoundly disappointed that Sarah was not a boy, a fact that he constantly reminded her of with his fists. Escaping her father was a matter of slipping across the border, dressing as a man and entering the male-dominated work force. By the time the war came along, cross-dressing was a piece of cake. (It was also a petticoat that cut two ways; while some women were cross-dressing to get into the army, it was rumored that some men were cross-dressing to get out.)

Edmonds was one of perhaps 500 to 1,000 women on both sides who disguised themselves as men and joined the ranks — dropping one’s pants was not a part of Army entrance exams in a war that needed every warm body it could get. Any potential soldier who wasn’t obviously club-footed and had a reasonable understanding of which end of the rifle to point at the enemy was considered to be good enough.

Nor were there many other obstacles to fitting in with an army of men, curiously enough. A woman might not have fired a weapon before, but neither had a large number of the men prior to service. They all learned as one.

Boys, or virtual boys, were no strangers to the military ranks, so facial hair — or lack thereof — was not an issue. Baggy and bulky wool uniforms concealed a soldier’s figure, while being amenable to areas of strategic padding and binding, as the need might be.

At least one wife fought alongside her husband and one sister alongside her brother. A woman was shot in the chest at Antietam, and a woman killed at Gettysburg was believed to have participated in Pickett’s Charge.

Mollie Bean of North Carolina probably fought at Gettysburg, too. She served for two years, and when discovered, it was assumed that she was a prostitute, which would have been understandable, but when it turned out she wasn’t, they threw her in the nuthouse.

Cathay Williams simply swapped first and last names, and “William” wasn’t discovered until (s)he fell sick. In addition to the more obvious trouble a woman might have enlisting in the Army, Cathay Williams was black.

Many weren’t discovered until they were captured or shot or … well, there is the unglamorous story of a couple of women serving surreptitiously under Phil Sheridan, who got drunk and fell into a creek. Their rescuers hauled them up to headquarters, where their particular brand of femininity was enough to make even the notoriously coarse general wince. In his memoirs, the only term that came to his mind for one of them was a “she dragoon.”

Mostly, the women who managed to get into the military mirrored the men they fought alongside, who were interested in the cause, or even simply the pay. Edmonds, who repeatedly mentions “patriotism,” might have been the norm.

Bull Run, or Manassas, drew the line between talk of blood and blood itself. The difference stunned many. Bragging of military glory was one thing; listening to the night-long screams of an incoherent, legless soldier driven out of his mind by the pain, was quite another. The optimistic hoots and hollers that preceded the battle soon were gone.

Those Federals who were physically able, Edmonds wrote, straggled back to Washington and got around to the business of self-medicating: “Every bar-room and groggery seemed filled to overflowing with officers and men, and military discipline was nearly, or quite, forgotten for a time in the army of the Potomac. While Washington was in this chaotic condition, the rebel flag was floating over Munson’s Hill, in plain sight of the Federal Capital.”

Union Gen. George McClellan’s storied hesitancy to take action had one side benefit — by the time he eventually rousted the men to battle, they had all but forgotten that last whupping they had been handed by the South. “On to Richmond!” once more resounded through the camp as the troops floated downstream to southern Virginia in the spring of 1862 to engage in the ill-fated Peninsula campaign. Edmonds performed as a nurse and general errand boy, scouting the countryside for food.

Since her enlistment, Edmunds had been angling for a job in espionage, which would have seemed appropriate for a woman of her talents. When a position came open, she went through a lengthy interview process, where “a committee of military stars” with great attention to detail checked her record, patriotism, motives, allegiance, weapons proficiency and overall character — but happily not her gender.

Edmonds had “three days to prepare for my debut into Rebeldom,” which she was to enter in the guise of a slave. She was able to color her skin readily enough with chemicals, but had to wait three days for a wig. Returning to camp in costume, Edmonds was gratified to find no one noticed her, but was a bit aggrieved at how few friends an escaped slave, or “contraband,” might find among the white race — even among the Northerners. To give her disguise the ultimate test, she went back to her old boss and asked for work, and was sent to the kitchen to make biscuits.

Soon after, Edmonds sneaked past the Yankee and Rebel pickets and fell in with a group of slaves taking coffee and corn bread to the troops. Not knowing what to do next, her hesitation drew the attention of a Confederate officer who inquired after Edmonds’ master. “I answered in my best negro dialect: ‘I dusn’t belong to nobody, Massa, I’se free and allers was; I’se gwyne to Richmond to work.’ But that availed me nothing, for turning to a man who was dressed in citizen’s clothes and who seemed to be in charge of the colored department, he said: ‘Take that black rascal and set him to work, and if he don’t work well tie him up and give him twenty lashes.’”

The work involved the construction of earthworks, which was difficult enough for the strongest of the men, and, after one day’s labor, left her hands in no condition to work the following morning. So she found a black boy whose job was to carry water to the troops and swapped places with him. To repay the favor, she passed him $5 in greenbacks, but found it shoved back in her face: It was more money than he had ever dreamed of, and he was afraid such a magnificent sum might ruin his life.

Edmonds gained considerable intelligence on the foray, learning the size of the Confederate’s army, the number of cannon in its possession and its upcoming plans — unlike in the Union, Confederate foot soldiers were told of the army’s next move in advance.

Although she was never discovered, there were several close calls. She needed to behave, because a whipping would have exposed the white skin of her back. And at one point, she was chatting with some slaves when she noticed the eyes of one of her compatriots growing noticeably wider by the second. Finally he elbowed his neighbor and stammered, “Jim, I’ll be darned if that feller ain’t turnin’ white.” Sure enough, the nitrate of silver was wearing off. Edmonds told the members of the group that it was to be expected, as his mother was white — and then while they were thinking that one over, she scooted out to reapply the chemical solution.

Prior to the Battle of Seven Pines that began on May 31, 1862, Edmonds morphed into a female Irish pie salesman named Bridget, with a brogue good enough that the Confederate Irish considered her one of the “rale ould stock of bog-trotters,” and began collecting intelligence.

Despite his accomplishments through several major campaigns as a spy and nurse, Frank Thompson didn’t finish out the war. Edmonds and her male persona silently left the ranks after contracting malaria, choosing to be treated at a private hospital where matters of gender would not raise as many eyebrows as they would in an army hospital.

But somewhere in the rolling hills outside of Sharpsburg was, or perhaps is to this day, an unmarked grave containing the bones of another soldier who did not want to attract attention. Edmonds had understood; in fact, she dug the grave herself, after administering to the soldier who had suffered a mortal neck wound at Antietam. Something about the youngster caught Edmonds’ attention and something about Edmonds gave the dying boy confidence. “I can trust you,” the soldier said. “And I can tell you a secret. I am not what I seem, but a female. I enlisted from the purest motives, and have remained undiscovered and unsuspected. I have neither father, mother nor sister. My only brother was killed today. I closed his eyes about an hour before I was wounded; I will soon be with him.”

Her last wish was to be buried off by herself, her secret kept for eternity. It would take a special person to be able to fill that request, and the chances of discovering such a person at that particular point in time might have been only a few out of a couple of hundred thousand. And yet, according to Edmonds’ account, it happened. In a sea of men, on a field of honor, sister had found sister.

 Adapted from “Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War,” Skyhorse Press, New York, N.Y., 2011.

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