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Courageous Women of the Civil War
Soldiers, Spies, Medics, and More
By M. R Cordell
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 M. R. Cordell
All rights reserved.
Sarah Emma Edmonds
* * *
Soldier, Nurse, Spy
A lady wearing a veil over her face entered Damon Stewart's dry- goods store in 1882. As Damon looked up from his work, the woman raised her veil, searching his face. She seemed familiar, with weathered, determined features and curly brown hair.
"Are you Damon Stewart?" she asked.
"Can you by chance give me the present address of Franklin Thompson?"
Damon was taken aback. Frank had been his tent mate for two years in the Civil War, when they both served in the Second Michigan Infantry Regiment. Frank had deserted in 1863, and nobody knew what had happened to him. This lady bore a remarkable resemblance to him, Damon thought.
"Are you his mother?" he asked, intrigued.
"No, I am not his mother."
"His sister, perhaps?"
Somebody approached. The woman plucked Damon's pencil out of his hand, swiped a card off the counter, and wrote, "Be quiet! I am Frank Thompson." Damon sat abruptly on a nearby stool — "wilted, if you please," he explained later — and stared in amazement at his old chum, who was smiling, "as tranquil and self-possessed as ever."
How could he have lived in the same tent with a woman for two years and never known?
* * *
In her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who went by Emma, wrote that when she turned 17, her father declared he was marrying her off to an elderly farmer to pay his debts. Emma wanted no part of this. One starless night, she fled from her New Brunswick, Canada, home to the United States, eventually making her way to Flint, Michigan.
She dressed as a man to get a job selling Bibles and books. Emma had a square, solid face; she was tall for a woman, and muscular, having worked on a farm all her life. But when she tried to go out canvassing as a man, she was too afraid to venture out. "I traveled all night and hid in the woods all day, until I became accustomed to my new costume," she said later. When hunger pangs finally drove her to visit a house, "I was received with so much respect and kindness that I concluded that I must be quite a gentleman." As a man, she soon created a very successful living for herself — something she could not have done as a woman.
In April 1861, as she waited for a train at the station in Flint, Emma heard a newsboy crying, "Fall of Fort Sumter — president's proclamation — call for seventy-five thousand men!" This attack was the first shot of a war that burst "like a volcano" upon her adopted country. The questions that filled her thoughts were, "What can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama?" As she watched the first troops bidding farewell to their loved ones before they marched to war, she was deeply moved by "the anguish of that first parting" — the men convulsed with emotion and the sobs of those they were leaving behind. After "days and nights of anxious thought," Emma finally struck upon the answer: She would enlist as a man. She could best serve the Union that way — could help the sick and wounded soldiers with less embarrassment to them and to herself.
On May 25, 1861, Emma enlisted as "Franklin Thompson," in Company F of the Second Michigan Infantry Regiment. The medical exam was supposed to be stringent. However, Emma's examiner merely inspected her hand and asked, "What sort of living has this hand earned?" Emma said that she had gotten an education. With that, she was accepted. She thanked God "that I was free and could go forward and work, and was not obligated to stay home and weep."
Two months later, on July 21, Emma's regiment, with the rest of the Union army, green and untried, was sent into action at Manassas Junction, Virginia — the Battle of Bull Run. Everybody on both sides was sure that this would be the first and last battle of the war. As they marched to battle, Emma watched the "long lines of bayonets as they gleamed and flashed in the sunlight," thinking of how many of those enthusiastic men would never return.
The battle seemed to be going well for the Union side. But then Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's troops captured two Union batteries and punched through Union lines. "The news of this disaster spread along our lines like wildfire," Emma wrote later. "Officers and men were alike confounded; regiment after regiment broke and ran, and almost immediately the panic commenced." The Union army fled in a rout, the Confederates in pursuit.
That night, her regiment reached Centreville, Virginia, stacked arms, and threw themselves down to sleep. Emma went to a small stone church that was being used as a hospital to help the wounded. There she saw the horrifying sight of "stacks of dead bodies piled up, and [amputated] arms and legs ... thrown together in heaps." She rushed from patient to patient, but there were so many, and more kept coming. For some, death was a relief, as with the man whose legs below the knees "were literally smashed to fragments. He was dying, but oh, what a death was that. He was insane, perfectly wild, and required two persons to hold him."
Emma frantically worked to help the wounded. "I became so much engaged in doing what I could for the wounded and dying," she said, "that I forgot everything outside the hospital, and before I knew it the whole army had retreated to Washington." The surgeons said that the Confederate army was nearly to their door, and fled.
Emma hesitated, knowing that the wounded would be captured by the enemy. She wanted to stay and be taken prisoner with them, but the wounded men urged her to go, and pressed letters and personal belongings into her hands to send to their loved ones. When she heard the clatter and shouts of Confederate cavalry outside, she turned away with feelings that she could not describe, slipped out the back window of the church into a downpour in the dead of night, and "started for Washington on the 'double quick.'"
Emma found Washington in chaos, reeling from the Union army's bitter defeat. Across the Potomac River, "the rebel flag was floating over Munson's Hill, in plain sight of the Federal Capital."
As a rule, Emma kept to herself, the better to keep her secret. She worked as a male nurse in the hospitals, where she became acquainted with a soldier named Jerome Robbins. They soon became good friends, attending church together and having long conversations while working late in the wards. But something about his new friend "Frank" nagged at Jerome. "A mystery seems to be connected with him," he wrote in his journal.
Emma made a difficult decision and told Jerome her secret. The conversation apparently ended very badly. Soon after, she transferred to a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, away from her friend.
In March 1862, Emma was appointed mail carrier for the regiment. This gave her privacy, which helped her hide her secret. But the job was dangerous, requiring her to ride 30 miles both ways through inhospitable stretches of woods and fields. Bushwhackers (guerilla fighters who ambushed their enemies) had murdered the previous mail carrier. On her night deliveries, "in the most lonely spot of all the road, the ground was still strewn with fragments of letters and papers." Emma always knew the place where the man had died "by the rustle of the letters under my horse's feet."
One day, Emma returned to camp and was shocked to find it deserted. She soon saw a procession of soldiers winding out of a nearby peach orchard with sad expressions: they had just held a funeral, laying a Lieutenant James V. to rest.
On hearing this news, Emma returned to her tent, too shaken to weep. James was her childhood friend from New Brunswick. They had met in the army as strangers and had become fast friends. She took particular pleasure in remaining unrecognized by James, though she felt embarrassed when he told stories about a girl named Emma Edmondson he had known back home. He had been shot through the temple while delivering an order from headquarters, and Emma later wrote, "I was left alone with a deeper sorrow in my heart than I had ever known before."
That night, unable to stop imagining how James's face looked in death, she knelt beside his grave, the deep quiet broken by the booming of the enemy's cannons. She longed to do as a grieving chaplain had done at the Battle of Shiloh. He picked up a musket and cartridge box, stepped into the front ranks, and started picking off "rebs" (Confederate soldiers), muttering, "May God have mercy upon your miserable soul" with each shot.
About that time, a friend told her that the Union army needed spies: would she be willing to be one? Of that she had no doubt.
Emma was approved for the job. She traveled to Fort Monroe, where, she wrote later, still disguised as a man, "I purchased a suit of contraband clothing, real plantation style, and then I went to a barber and had my hair sheared close to my head." She used silver nitrate, a chemical compound, to blacken her skin. When Emma went to the mail boat to order a wig, a postmaster she knew said, "Well, Massa Cuff — what will you have?" Emma replied in the dialect of a freed slave that "Massa" needed to purchase a wig from Washington "for some 'noiterin' [reconnoitering] business." The postmaster never recognized her.
Before the Civil War began, men, women, and children who had escaped to freedom after being enslaved were legally compelled to be returned to their "owners" under the Fugitive Slave Act.
In 1861, Union commander General Benjamin Butler learned that three runaway slaves had escaped to Union lines. He did not want to send the men back to slavery, because they would be forced to build defenses that the Confederates could use to fire upon his men. Butler, who had been a lawyer before the war, said that since Virginia considered itself a foreign power, the United States had no obligation to return this "property," and the slaves could be considered contraband of war.
Becoming contraband didn't mean that the former slaves were freed — and they were not paid for their work in the Union army. "They are still slaves, having merely changed masters," one critic wrote. All the same, thousands of people fled bondage to the Union army.
When her wig arrived, Emma returned to camp in full disguise as an African American man. Her comrades-in-arms didn't recognize her. Thinking Emma was a contraband, they sent her off to work as a cook.
Emma crossed the Confederate lines to start her spy work and was soon inside the Confederate-held city of Yorktown, Virginia (under siege by the Union army). The Confederates, thinking Emma was a slave, forced her to work on the fortifications, pushing a monstrous wheelbarrow filled with gravel to the top of an eight- foot-tall parapet. The other enslaved men helped her with a silent sympathy that touched her.
That night, exhausted and blistered, she paid one of her "companions in bondage," a water carrier, to change jobs with her. Her new job allowed her to walk more freely around the camp to gather intelligence.
The next day, when she carried water to the men she had worked with, one joked, "Jim, I'll be darned if that feller ain't turning white!" At the first possible moment, Emma checked her pocket mirror. Her skin tone had lightened. Afraid of discovery, she escaped to the Union side and told General George McClellan about the fortifications and defenses at Yorktown.
When Emma's division arrived at the Battle of Williamsburg, the fury of the artillery and the hail of minié balls were like nothing they had ever seen. Despite a constant downpour of rain and the terrific storm of bullets, Emma tended wounded soldiers, including Damon Stewart.
Darkness fell and firing ceased. "The pitiless rain came down in torrents, drenching alike the living and the dead." Emma walked through the carnage with her exhausted fellow soldiers, carrying torches to light the grisly scene, trying not to step on the bodies of the fallen while rescuing their wounded. When morning came, hundreds still lay in agony upon the field.
On May 31, during the Battle of Seven Pines, the Confederates attacked the Union forces with such recklessness that Emma was sure her fragment of the army would be driven into the rain-swollen Chickahominy River before reinforcements could arrive.
Emma was an acting orderly — that is, a messenger for the commanders. In the heat of battle, General Philip Kearny reined in his horse, pulled an envelope out of his pocket, and wrote, "In the name of God bring your command to our relief, if you have to swim in order to get here — or we are lost." He pressed the note into Emma's hands, urging her to take it with all speed to General Willis Gorman.
She later wrote, "I put poor little Reb [her horse] over the road at the very top of his speed until he was nearly white with foam, then plunged him into the Chickahominy and swam him across the river." Gorman was leading his troops across the Grapevine Bridge, which was swaying to and fro in the flooded river. He told Emma he would send his troops to General Kearny. Emma raced back with the news.
"I found General [Kearny] in the thickest of the fight, encouraging his men and shouting his orders distinctly above the roar and din of battle," she wrote. "Riding up to him and touching my hat, I reported —'Just returned, sir. General Gorman, with his command, will be here immediately.' It was too good to keep to himself, so he turned to his men and shouted at the top of his voice —'Reinforcements! reinforcements!' then swinging his hat in the air he perfectly electrified the whole line as far as his voice could reach." Emma was delighted.
Her old friend Jerome returned to the army after having been taken prisoner and then paroled. They joyfully reunited and spent part of the day catching up, renewing their friendship. But Jerome realized that Emma was deeply in love with an assistant adjutant general, James Reid.
In April 1863, Emma deserted the army. She wrote, "A slow fever had fastened itself upon me, and in spite of all my fortitude and determination to shake it off, I was each day becoming more surely its victim." She had been fighting malarial chills and fevers ever since the Seven Days' Campaign near the Chickahominy River in the summer of 1862. Then she received the news that James Reid had resigned and was leaving the army.
On April 17, Jerome was asking about Frank Thompson and discovered that he hadn't been seen since noon the previous day. Jerome's first thought was that Frank had gone out of the lines as he delivered the mail (or in his work as a spy) and had trouble getting back. On April 18, he wrote, "Frank's desertion is pretty fully confirmed. I learn today that he had a slight difficulty at the Brigade Headquarters which caused his sudden departure." The difficulty, he wrote, was his "being stopped by the sentinel from passing and his appeal to Col. Morrison producing a verdict against."
Two days later, as James Reid left, he said something to Jerome that threw him into a rage. "Frank has deserted for which I do not blame him. ... Yet he did not prepare me for his ingratitude and utter disregard for the finer sensibilities of others. Of all others whom I trusted as friends he was the last I deemed capable of the petty baseness which was betrayed by his friend R[eid] at the last moment. ... I am excited to pity that poor humanity can be so weak as to repay the kindest interest and warmest sympathy with deception."
On April 22, a fellow soldier wrote in his journal, "We are having quite a time at the expense of our brigade postmaster. He turns out to be a girl and has deserted when her lover, Inspector Read [sic], and General Poe resigned."
After recovering, Emma worked as a female nurse in Washington, DC, until the war ended. She wrote Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, a fictionalized account of her time as a soldier. All the money she earned from her book went to soldiers' aid groups. She met an old friend, Linus Seelye, and they married in 1867.
Later in life, Emma's wartime injuries plagued her, but she couldn't apply for an army pension because the government considered "Franklin Thompson" a deserter. Emma finally revealed her secret to members of her regiment, including Damon Stewart, to ask for help in securing her pension. Her old army buddies were amazed, but took the news of her true identity well and vouched for her. An act of Congress passed in 1884, striking the desertion from Franklin Thompson's record and giving Emma a pension.
Emma died in 1898 and was buried in La Porte, Texas. In 1901, her remains were moved to Washington Cemetery in Houston and reburied with military honors.CHAPTER 2
Frances Elizabeth Quinn
* * *
"Hurrah for God's Country!"
When the Civil War began, Frances Elizabeth Quinn's 14-year-old brother, Thomas, ran away to join an Illinois regiment and fight for the Union. Frances might have been heartbroken, or angry, or both. She was 16, and her little brother was all the family she had in the world.
When Frances was a baby, her parents had emigrated from Ireland and settled in the little town of La Moille, Illinois. Her mother gave birth to Thomas, but shortly after, both parents died of unknown causes. Frances, just three years old, was taken in by the Shaw family, while baby Thomas was raised by the Cokelys. These two families lived close enough for brother and sister to play together.
When she was a little older, Frances went to live with the Reno family. Their most famous member, Jesse, had fought in the Mexican-American War and was friends with Thomas Jackson (later known as Confederate general Stonewall Jackson). Then, when Frances was 12, she was sent to a convent in Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia), for an education.
When her brother ran away, Frances was determined not to be left alone again. If he was going to join the army, she would too. She felt passionately about the Union cause, writing, "I am true blue and for [my] Noble Flag I am willing to die." Dressed as a man, Frances joined a three-month Indiana regiment under the name of B. Frank Miller. (Such regiments were formed for only three months because in 1861 everyone was sure that the war would be over within that amount of time.)
Soon Frances received a letter from her brother. Thomas scolded her for joining the army and threatened to never call her "sister" again.
Excerpted from Courageous Women of the Civil War by M. R Cordell. Copyright © 2016 M. R. Cordell. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Part I Soldiers 1
Sarah Emma Edmonds: Soldier, Nurse, Spy 5
Frances Elizabeth Quinn: "Hurrah for God's Country!" 16
Mary Ann Clark: "A Good Rebel Soldier" 27
Frances Louisa Clayton: A Rough Northern Soldier 36
Maria Lewis: "She Rode in the Front Ranks" 44
Part II Spies 53
Harriet Tubman: Moses's Great Combahee Raid 57
Mary Carroll: A Missouri Rebel 68
Loreta Janeta Velazquez: The Confederate Lioness 77
Mary Jane Richards: Spy in the Confederate White House 86
Part III Nurses 97
Georgeanna Woolsey: "Changed by This Contact with Terror" 101
Susie King Taylor: A Young Nurse in the "First South" 110
Harriet Ann Jacobs: "She Did Her Own Thinking" 119
Cornelia Hancock: Battlefield Angel 130
Part IV Vivandieres 139
Marie Tepe: "French Mary" 142
Kady Brownell: Heroine of New Bern 153
Annie Lorinda Eiheridge: "This Is My Place" 163
Organization of Infantry in the Civil War 175