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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman “Male Nurse”

By Patrick Young, Esq. - February 15, 20160311


Sarah Emma Edmonds was a teenage immigrant making her way on her own in Michigan when the Civil War broke out. She had been raised on a failing farm in Nova Scotia in Canada, but she had to leave her abusive father. Emma ran away from home when her father arranged for her marriage to the man he was financially indebted to, essentially selling her off to pay his debts. When her father tried to track her down, she assumed the identity of a man, Frank Thompson, to help her evade him.  She crossed the border into the United States under this masculine guise and lived in New England before moving to Flint, Michigan.1

Women immigrants coming to the United States sometimes hid their identities as women. This could help them escape abusive fathers or husbands. For women travelling alone, it also served as protection against sexual abuse along the way.  Once they came to the U.S., they might continue to use the disguise as a way to obtain jobs in occupations otherwise closed to women.2

When war came a few years after her immigration, Edmonds joined the army as a man, Frank Thompson, on May 21, 1861. While this may seem like a fantastic scenario to modern readers, there were several hundred women whose service in the army while disguised as men has been documented. Civil War soldiers were given perfunctory medical exams at induction which did not involve undressing. Soldiers rarely bathed and avoided being seen nude. Women typically passed themselves off as teenage boy recruits.3

At the end of the war, Edmonds tried to explain her decision to join the army. She wrote; “It is true, I was not an American—I was not obliged to remain here during this terrible strife—I could return to my native land.” But, she said, “It was not my intention, or desire, to seek my own personal ease and comfort while so much sorrow and distress filled the land.” Still, she wondered what she, as a young woman barely out of her teens, could do. She joined the army as a male “Field Nurse.”4

Edmonds accompanied the army to the battlefield of First Bull Run in July of 1861. She tended to the battlefield wounded and she was almost captured by the Confederate cavalry during the Union army’s disastrous retreat. After the Battle of Bull Run, Edmonds tended the wounded at different hospitals in Alexandria, Virginia. She found a more lasting post at the newly established hospital at Georgetown near Washington.  There she encountered men wounded in body and mind. On August 3, 1861, she recorded in her journal “Have been on duty all day. John C. is perfectly wild with delirium, and keeps shouting at the top of his voice some military command, or, when vivid recollections of the battle-field come to his mind, he enacts a pantomime of the terrible strife…” The inadequacy of the medical corps preparations were fully on view to the young nurse; “There are five hundred patients here who require constant attention, and not half enough nurses to take care of them.” 5

Historical markers describing Emma Edmonds’s life were erected in Michigan and Texas. She was one of only three women admitted to full membership in the Civil War veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic.

Everything from trained staff to medicines to food was in short supply. Emma Edmonds had to beg for supplies from women in town just to feed her men.6

As her nursing days went on, Edmonds noticed that she hardened to the suffering of the men. “Oh, what an amount of suffering I am called to witness every hour and every moment. There is no cessation, and yet it is strange that the sight of all this suffering and death does not affect me more… It does seem as if there is a sort of stoicism granted for such occasions.”7

As Frank Thompson, she served alongside a male friend, a fellow Canadian immigrant in the Michigan Volunteer Infantry.  Emma Edmonds wrote that though she had known her Canadian friend since childhood, he had not realized who she was, but that he befriended his comrade because “Frank” was an immigrant from his homeland. Her friend was, she wrote, “like myself, …a wanderer from his native land. There was a strong bond of sympathy existing between us, for we both believed that duty called us there, and were willing to lay down even life itself, if need be, in this glorious cause.” One day in 1862, he was killed in a skirmish in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. “Now he was gone,” she wrote, “and I was left alone with a deeper sorrow in my heart than I had ever known before.”8

Resource: You can read Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds.

Sources:

1. The Lives of Emma Edmonds by Carl Senna NY Times Disunion April 21, 2014; Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865); They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
2. They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
3. They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
4. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 197-200)
5. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 580-582)
6. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 586-588)
7. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 588-590)
8. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 999-1002).

From: longislandwins.com

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