Undercover Heroes

I finished reading Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:  Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.   

Four women fill the pages of this historical account.  Rose O’Neal Greenhow, beautiful widow of a statesmen, plied her wiles to gain Union army secrets.  Belle Boyd was a teenage girl when she shot her first Union soldier.  She went on to be a southern spitfire spy and later a stage actress. Elizabeth Van Lew, wealthy spinster daughter of abolitionists, hid in plain sight in Richmond, Virginia.  She founded the Richmond Underground through a secret door in her attic and sends dispatches to Grant through her vast network of spies.

The who caught my interest the most was Sarah “Emma” Edmondson. Born and raised in Canada,  Emma had 1 brother and 4 sisters.  Her father needed boys to help out on their New Brunswick potato farm.  She did her best to please him, learning to hunt and fish and pull her weight.  It was never enough. One by one, her sisters got married off to local farmers.  Emma wanted more out of life than to be yoked to a man several decades older and forced to live a monotonous life of domestication.  So she ran away.

As Frank Thompson.
As Frank Thompson.

Emma felt a call from God to infiltrate the Union army and fight on their side. She established her alias, Frank Thompson, for 2 years before enlisting.  Frank Thompson sold bibles and dated the belles of the area.  He never got serious with any of them, but during this time he created his identity as a gentlemen. He watched and studied men, aping their mannerisms. Emma said:  “I had inherited from my mother a rare gift of nursing, and when not too wary or exhausted, there was a magnetic power in my hands to soothe the delirium”.

Emma as Frank never had to fully strip for an army examination.  He was prodded a bit, asked why his hands were so soft. He told them he was getting an education. He worked on the pickets, the lines dividing the armies from each other.  He also delivered mail.  He acted as a nurse, too, and a very good one. The opportunity to wash one’s body or clothes happened rather infrequently.  Though teased for his effeminate appearance and lack of stubble, Frank’s secret was safe.

Frank only told one person of his true identity:  Jerome Robbins.  Emma, undercover, developed romantic feelings for him.  Unable to hold her heart back any longer, Emma revealed her true self to Jerome. Jerome always knew some kind of mystery clung to Frank yet could never quite grasp it.  Now he knew. Jerome, with whom Frank had enjoyed a growing friendship based on godly devotion, intellectual conversations and other shared interests, kept Emma’s secret but the friendship grew strained.

The penalty for cross-dressing in the Union army was either arrest on a  prostitution charge or worse.  Here’s more:

Sarah Edmonds served for two years in Company F of the second Michigan Infantry. She later wrote of her experiences in her memoir Nurse and Spy.

Always something of a tomboy, she became fascinated by the story of Fanny Campbell and her adventures on a pirate ship while dressed as a man.

Sarah began her military career serving as a male field nurse, under General McClellan, in the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign and Vicksburg.

Later she claimed to have become a union spy –  sometimes disguising herself as a black man called Cuff to infiltrate confederacy ranks.

She also reportedly used the identity of an Irish peddler woman named Bridget O’Shea who sold apples and soap to the soldiers.

Another time she got a job as a black laundry woman and delighted her superiors when she returned with a set of official confederacy papers that had fallen out of an officer’s jacket.

Even after her identity as a woman was discovered, her comrades would still speak highly of her. She was described as a ‘frank and fearless’ soldier who was always determined and eager to fight.

Her military career ended when she contracted Malaria but she later served as a female nurse at a Washington hospital.

After the war she wrote a memoir – Nurse and Spy in the Union Army – which became a bestseller. She married a Canadian mechanic with whom she had three children.

Her service was recognised by the government and she received a pension of $12 a month for her military service, and later gained an honorable discharge.

Frank “Flint” Thompson deserted in Kentucky, 2 years into the war. He almost got discovered and decided he’d better skedaddle.  Shedding her male image, Emma bought some dresses. She made a new life for herself, as a female nurse this time. Emma kept her wartime escapades to herself.

Ms. Abbott describes Emma’s attraction to blonde, married men and subsequent dead-end affairs.  She struggled to be independent and yet battled loneliness. Emma finally settled down with an old childhood friend.  Their 3 biological children died while still young but they adopted 2 little boys. They moved to Louisiana to run an orphanage for colored children.  Of all the women profiled, only Emma managed to carve out a sort of happy ending. She died of a heart attack at 56 and received an honorable burial for her military service.

I know the word “hero” gets bandied about quite a bit these days.  You’re a hero if you run a marathon.  You’re commended for eating an entire pizza by yourself.  What about those who put their lives at risk to serve others? All of these women pursued dangerous courses to help their side succeed. Emma Edmondson, later Edmonds, committed her entire self to the war effort. She served with bravery and dedication. She adopted whatever disguise necessary to infiltrate enemy ranks. She didn’t need the accolades for her efforts and only sought a pension when she realized the extent of her lasting war wounds. She had real personal issues to overcome but she didn’t let her failures stop her from pursuing what she believed in. Emma inspired me.

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