The Mysterious Private Thompson, Laura Leedy Gansler, Free Press a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., $25.00, Hardcover.
It is not unusual for women to become soldiers in our day and age, but back in the 1860s, it was shocking to think a girl would don men’s clothing, cut off her hair, change her name and join the Union Army.
This is the fascinating story of Emma Edmonds, born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841. The last of six children, five of whom were girls, Emma grew up on a hard-working farm in a remote wilderness with a father who let it be known he wanted sons. In an effort to please her father, Emma learned to ride and shoot, follow a plow, split logs and work in the fields like a man to please her pa. However, she was never quite good enough. The girl developed a deep resentment toward men, read lots of books, and dreamed of becoming a missionary. She finally ran away from home at seventeen when her father tried to marry her off to an elderly, newly widowed neighbor with a passel of children who needed a mother.
Hiding in the back of a carriage while her father was in the fields, Emma made her escape. She worked briefly in a millinery store in town but feared her father would find her. Desperate not to be dragged back to the farm, Emma hacked off her hair, dressed as a boy, and dared to answer an ad in an American newspaper advertising for help as a subscription salesman and book agent in the vicinity of Hartford, Connecticut. Practicing masculine walk and talk, Emma ventured to the United States and got the job. Having changed her name to Frank Thompson, she embarked on this daring lifestyle, always careful not to become too friendly with anyone who might discover the truth.
Cherishing her freedom as a man, she became a successful book salesman, continually moving about and even enjoying a few “dates” to keep up appearances. By 1860, with Civil War looming, Emma got caught up in the excitement of North vs. South, and vowed to perform her duty. She enlisted in the Union Army as a member of the Michigan Brigade. Fortunately for her, physical examinations during those early days consisted of mere questioning by the military doctors to determine a recruit’s health.
It has been estimated that between 250 and 500 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, so Emma was hardly the only woman to do this. Nevertheless, Emma, now known as Frank Thompson, knew she would not like to carry a gun so she volunteered to work in the field hospitals. This turned out to be easy since most recruits shied away from the ghastly chores associated with assisting battlefield doctors under crude field conditions. Too, among her duties, she became a mail courier since she was lighter than most men and excelled in riding horses at a quick pace over long distances.
The book tells about battles fought, Emma’s spy escapades, her falling in love with a fellow soldier, her desertion and ultimate return to life as a civilian female.
The author of the book, Laura Leedy Gansler follows Emma all the way to her life in Kansas where she applied for her military pension, wrote about her escapades, and surprised her fellow soldiers-in-arms when they discovered the courier and hospital attendant they knew during Civil War days was really a woman. Even after Emma became a married woman with children, she wore pants around town, rode her horse astride, and was known as an eccentric who did not care what her neighbors thought of her. Mrs. S.E.E. Seelye of Fort Scott, Kansas had never been one to worry about wagging tongues.
Editor’s Note: The Reviewer, Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of many published books, including Silk and Sagebrush: Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988 (845-726-3434) www.silklabelbooks.com