Civil War spies tell their stories

September 15, 2012|By ALICIA NOTARIANNI |

These gals were wiley.

They transported secret notes in hollowed-out loaves of bread, in cored apples and in eggs with the yolks blown out.

They used petticoat pockets, which typically toted diapers or a thread and needle, for stashing tobacco, medicine and guns.

At the time perceived as the weaker gender, few suspected they were Civil War spies.

“There were many female spies on both the Union and Confederate sides,” said Sharon Miller of Baltimore.

Miller portrayed Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in the Union Army, Saturday at the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam off Bakersville Road near Boonsboro.

Miller addressed the crowd in character as Franklin Flint Thompson, the male alter-ego Edmonds assumed when she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Extensive physical examinations were not required for enlistment at the time, Miller said, and Edmonds was not discovered.

“I started as a nurse in 1862 under the command of Gen. George McClellan,” Miller said, in character as Thompson.

She went on to recount tales of adventure as a male field nurse, participating in campaigns under McClellan including the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg and others. “Thompson’s” career took a turn when his friend, Union spy James Vessey, was killed in an ambush. Edmonds, as Thompson, successfully interviewed for the spy position in a move to avenge Vessey’s death.

“With the help of a surgeon’s wife, I assumed the role of a Negro slave,” Miller said, speaking still as Thompson. “I used water and nitrate to color my skin. It burned, but I used it anyway.”

Miller said Edmonds crossed Confederate lines numerous times, returning with valuable intelligence for McClellan. At one point while working as a laundress, Edmonds intercepted a packet of official papers from an officer’s jacket.

Edmonds’ persona as Frank Thompson ended when she contracted malaria, Miller said. Fearful of being found out as a woman, she abandoned the military hospital and received treatment at a civilian one. Miller said Thompson became wanted as a deserter. Edmonds finished out her career as a civilian nurse.

Years later, Miller said, Edmonds campaigned for an honorable discharge and eventually, the request was granted. She became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans’ organization.

Miller revealed that “Thompson” was Edmonds, a female, only at the end of the presentation.

Geri Seigneur of Rockville, Md., said she is a history buff. She recognized Edmonds’ story as soon as Miller began to speak, she said.

“I thought she did a great job telling the story,” Seigneur said.

Doris Earley of Gilbert, Ariz., said it was interesting to hear about the roles of women in the Civil War.

“You really don’t hear a lot about that,” she said.

Miller emphasized the importance of skilled spies in days gone by, as well as in current wars. To illustrate her point, Miller said she often plants “spies” in the audience during presentations. They strike up conversation with neighboring spectators, gaining information including names, occupations, and even addresses and phone numbers.

“You’d be surprised what unsuspecting people will reveal,” she said.

Miller asked veterans in the audience to stand to be recognized, and wished well to U.S. troops serving today.

“God bless them and bring them home,” she said.

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