In the 19th century, women had almost no rights and could nearly have been considered the property of their fathers and then of their husbands in extreme cases. Women were expected to behave in a certain way and disallowed from doing things that they could have easily done, like being soldiers or serving as nurses. It was a manís world.
One woman did not like this world. Abused by a father who treated her as useless property, Emma Edmonds eventually decided that she wanted the independence of a man and ran away. She dressed up as a man, taking on the persona and name of Franklin Thompson. She was able to carry it off, being a tomboy who did not have the walk or other attributes of a sophisticated woman of her time, although she was not a lesbian. Her only problem was that her features were very feminine, like her face and her small feet. In spite of this, she was able to convince most people that she was a man.
Emma became a book salesman, a career that required a lot of travel and brought in a good living - many Americans at the time were hungry for books. With this job, Emma was able to make money and avoid being exposed as a woman. She isolated herself and did not get to know very many people. She eventually moved to Michigan and was a book salesman there.
When the Civil War broke out, she volunteered for the Union Army as Frank Thompson, enlisting in the Second Michigan Regiment. She went with her regiment to Washington, D.C., where she served as a nurse, a mail carrier, and even a courier. She was present or near the battles of First and Second Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and other battles and skirmishes.
Emma wrote Nurse and Spy in the Union Army in 1865 about her exploits, which became a popular book. Some parts of her
memoir are factual and other parts are fictional. She for certain was a nurse, but there is no factual evidence that she was a spy. She might have been, since she was freer than most Union soldiers for her absence to go unnoticed with her job as mail carrier, which required her to be away from the regiment for long periods of time. Her friend records in his journal of her being away at times she claims she was working as a spy.
Laura Gansler bases her study and story of Emma Edmonds on Emmaís journals, her book, journals of other soldiers (especially her friend and fellow soldier Jerome Robbins, who knew she was a woman), and official records. Gansler has done a great job in making this story very readable and enjoyable; both academic and general readers will enjoy this book. She shows a women who had the courage and audacity to dress up as a man and serve in the army - there is evidence that she was only one of many women who did so in both the Union and Confederate armies. Some women were exposed when they were wounded, killed, or gave birth. Many more, though, were never exposed until they willingly came forward.
Gansler talks about some instances of which Emma was aware of women being exposed. She herself came close to being exposed due to her wounds. When her regiment was transferred to Kentucky, she tried to get a medical furlough but could not obtain one. She decided she had to leave before being exposed and humiliated and humiliating those around her. She was listed as a deserter.
Later Emma got married and was later encouraged to ask for a pension from the government since she and her husband were in need of money. She first needed to convince the government that she was indeed Frank Thompson. She was able to do so with the help of fellow soldiers in her regiment. The second needful thing was to get her name removed from the list of deserters. This took longer, but it was eventually accomplished. She died in 1898 in Texas.
Gansler provides illustrations from Emmaís book and additional photos from other sources. She includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. This book is highly recommended to Civil War enthusiasts, those interested in women serving in the Civil War as soldiers, and women studies.
Laura Leedy Gansler is a writer and a lawyer. She is the co-author of Class Action: the Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law (2002) and co-author of Shareholder Derivative Litigation (1995).