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.
I like to imagine that if Sarah Emma Edmonds were my contemporary she would often sport a t-shirt saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
Edmonds was a patriot, a feminist, and, along with an estimated 400 other women, a soldier in the American Civil War. Fed up with her father’s abuse and appalled at the prospect of an arranged marriage Edmonds left her New Brunswick home at the age of fifteen and soon adopted a male identity to become a successful worker. When the war erupted, she was compelled by a sense of patriotism and adventure to join the fight and was soon mustered into Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteers. The newly dubbed Frank Thompson, with her cropped hair and ill-fitting uniform, was able to fit in easily with the other youthful soldiers and soon marched to Manassas where her war story commenced. Throughout the war, Edmonds/Thompson served as a postman, a nurse, and a spy until she contracted malaria and was forced to desert for fear of revealing her true sex.
Edmonds’ case is not unique, though not much is known about the other fighting women. Likewise, historians have trouble narrowing down their reasoning for joining the war: some, like Satronia Smith Hunt, could not bear to lose their husbands and decided to fight alongside them, while others enlisted out of a sense of patriotism, duty, adventure, or honor. But there was one incentive that tied each of these women together, from Jennie Hodgers to Loreta Velasquez, one motivation that governed their daring, noble actions: feminism and the desire for equality.
This post is the second in a three-part series on women soldiers in the Civil War and during modern reenactments. Also check out the introduction of this series.
I was thirteen years old when I joined the 5th Kentucky Orphan Brigade, a Confederate reenactment group based out of south-central Kentucky. At fourteen, I “saw the elephant”—a Civil War term for seeing battle—for the first time as a soldier. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, but seven years later I credit that decision to go through with it as bringing me to where I am now, writing for the Compiler here at Gettysburg College. In those seven years, however, I have faced my fair share of scrutiny for portraying a soldier rather than a civilian. I didn’t become aware of the scrutiny until more recently, however, as I became more conscious both of historical and modern views about women portraying soldiers at Civil War reenactments.
I’ve been lucky. Only once have I ever been in a situation where I thought I would not be able to participate in the event because I am a woman, but that one time when I was sixteen was quickly fixed by my first sergeant convincing the board of that particular reenactment to amend the rules that had said no women were allowed to portray soldiers. In seven years, never once has anyone directly questioned whether or not I should be allowed to take the field. I’ve been complimented on my authenticity, encouraged to continue to be as accurate as possible, and never had a negative comment directed at my portrayal of a woman soldier.
Although I haven’t had anything said to my face, I have received nasty glances that clearly say “She doesn’t belong.” Though the reenacting community has become far more open to women soldiers since 1989, there are some who do not believe it is a woman’s place to be on the battlefield. I’ll discuss this more in depth in the next post, but for now it is safe to say that there are some who believe no women should portray soldiers. Continue reading “A Woman in Soldier’s Dress: Then and Now”