Hollywood’s Civil War narrative is one that transports its viewers back to the golden age of hoop skirts, mint juleps, and a group of people who just wanted to be left alone with their way of life. Many people trace this ideology of the Civil War in literature and film to the 1930s, but the for-profit Civil War existed long before Scarlett O’Hara fled Atlanta. During the war, buying your way out of service, scamming your way into a government contract, and selling souvenirs of the aftermath of battles were just a few ways people could make a profit off of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, widows suddenly had to find new ways of supporting themselves and their children after the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Belle Boyd was one of these women.
Belle’s story is unique; she had married a Union Naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, in England in 1864. She returned to the United States in 1866 and began travelling across the country, telling the story of her experiences during the Civil War. She performed on the stage until her death in 1900 of a heart attack. Her story intrigued audiences across the country because she served as one of the most influential female spies of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But was she? While there is plenty of evidence that supports her claims of being a Confederate spy, including jail records and mentions of her service in letters from various Confederate soldiers and officers, the true extent of her influence has been put under scrutiny.
In her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman fighting in the Union Army disguised as a man, employed florid diction and a subtle romantic flare to illustrate an emotional and confounding moment in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam: discovering another woman undercover. Edmonds writes of the “pale, sweet face of a youthful soldier,” of a boy trembling from blood loss who, she knew, had only a few more minutes on earth. He tasted his last sip of water, and with his remaining breaths the soldier beckoned Edmonds closer and uttered a secret: that he was really she, a woman who had enlisted and seen her brother, her only family, die upon the same field just a few hours before. The soldier confessed to being a devout Christian and asked only that she be buried by Emma, so no other might discover her true identity. She then died, “calm and peaceful.” Emma obliged the soldier’s request and buried her beneath a mulberry tree; she would be separated from her fallen comrades but rest upon the same field. Emma wrote of the woman soldier, “There she sleeps in that beautiful forest where the soft southern breezes sigh mournfully through the foliage, and the little birds sing sweetly above her grave.”
Through the lens of gender or feminist criticism, which analyzes the social and political status of women as well as their relationships within and without their gender, this is perhaps the most evocative and compelling anecdote of Edmonds’ memoir; not only is the fallen soldier made a romantic hero by the overwhelming, illustrious language, but the interaction between Edmonds and the unnamed is depicted as one between two women, not two women pretending to be men. Essentially, Emma reverts back to her true gender–her truest self–in this instance, and it is clear that the anonymous soldier found, in choosing to reveal her secret upon her death, solace in her womanhood.
A gypsy read John Wilkes Booth’s palm and predicted tragedy. “Ah, you’ve a bad hand; the lines all cris-cras [sic]. It’s full enough of sorrow. Full of trouble. Trouble in plenty, everywhere I look. You’ll break hearts . . . You’ll die young, and leave many to mourn you . . . but you’ll be rich, generous and free with your money. You’re born under an unlucky star . . . you’ll make a bad end . . . You’ll have a fast life—short, but a grand one. Now, young sir, I’ve never seen a worse hand, and I wish I hadn’t seen it, but every word I’ve told is true by the signs. You’d best turn a missionary or a priest and try to escape it.”
Afterwards, when the prophecy fulfilled, the Booth family was denounced for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and never forgiven by the country. They were hunted, hounded, and harassed for the rest of their lives. Asia Booth Clarke immigrated to England to dodge the deluge, because she was “personally unknown…” there, and never returned–permanently. Continue reading “John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir”
Episode Two of Special Collections Roadshow at Gettysburg College explores Colonel William B. McCreery’s Prisoner of War memoir and uses the text as a segway to discuss Libby Prison and POW experience. Filmed and edited by Val Merlina ’14