The mysterious Private Thompson : the double life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War soldier

by Laura Leedy Gansler

Paper Book, 2005




New York : Free Press, c2005.


Resurrecting a lost hero of the Civil War, The Mysterious Private Thompson tells the remarkable story of one heroic woman who defied convention in nineteenth-century America to live, work, and defend her country at a time of war, when most women were restricted to home and hearth.Sarah Emma Edmonds was a young Canadian woman who adopted the guise of a man to escape an arranged marriage at seventeen. For two years, living as Franklin Thompson, she enjoyed the freedoms that men enjoyed, traveling the country at will as a successful book salesman.In 1861, President Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the "rebellion." Most of Franklin Thompson's friends would answer the call. For Thompson, the question was more complicated -- but she didn't hesitate before enlisting in the Second Michigan Infantry at nineteen years old.In The Mysterious Private Thompson, acclaimed author Laura Leedy Gansler uncovers the courageous life of the only woman ever awarded a full soldier's pension for her service during the Civil War. Drawing on Emma's journals and those of the men she served with, Gansler recreates Edmonds' experience through some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War -- including both the First and Second Battles of Bull Run (known as First and Second Manassas in the South), the Peninsula Campaign, and the Battle of Fredericksburg -- during which she served with distinction in combat as a "male" nurse, and braved enemy fire as a mail carrier.Gansler also investigates Edmonds' claim to have been a spy -- going behind enemy lines disguised as a slave (by staining her skin with silver nitrate), as a Confederate soldier, even, ironically, as a peddler woman. One of the few who knew her secret was a young medic with whom she fell in love, but she nearly lost the friendship of her closest companion when she revealed the truth to him.After two years of valiant service, the young soldier, who twice rejected medical attention for injuries sustained in the line of duty for fear of being discovered, was struck down with malaria. Rather than risk detection by a military doctor who would treat her, Franklin Thompson disappeared, marked down as a deserter.Twenty years later, having resumed her female identity to marry and settle down in Kansas, she emerged from obscurity to fight for her pension and reunite with her surprised former comrades, who had not known their brother-in-arms was a woman.A cinematic narrative of one brave soldier's experience of the Civil War, this intimate portrait is, above all, a personal drama about the lengths one daring woman was willing to go to chart her own destiny.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Ella_Jill
This is a non-fiction book about a woman who fought in the Civil War dressed as a man and was the only woman to receive a veteran pension for serving in this war. The author reconstructed her story from her journals and journals and letters of men who served with her. Thompson first assumed a male attire before the war in order to escape her home and worked as a traveling bookseller, making a quick success of it. When the war started, she enlisted partly because she was a convinced abolitionist and partly because she was lonely, as her lifestyle made it difficult to form friendships. Interestingly, the author observes that there were a number of women who joined the army at that time, usually in order not to be parted from their husbands, or to escape their husbands, or to get better wages. She points out that most men who enlisted also did it for “adventure and glory” rather than for any political reasons. So you get a life story of an interesting woman, but also a bigger picture of life at this time. Sometime after the war Thompson got married, raised two adopted sons (all their own children died very young) and was very respected in the community. The author says that she liked to wear breeches, especially when working in the garden, and neither her husband nor the neighbors objected!… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
In 1861, Emma Edmonds, already in disguise as a male bookseller in Michigan, enlisted her alter ego Frank Thompson into the Second Michigan Infantry to answer President Lincoln's call for 75,000 Union troops to reunite America. She was at the First and Second Battles of Bull Run, encountered Clara Barton ministering to the troops in the hospital, and became (if certain histories are to be believed) a spy for the Union Army, slipping behind Confederate lines once as a slave woman and again as an Irish peddler. Gansler does very well at separating historical embellishment from record and ensures that her readers know exactly where each truth comes from. The book is both exciting and succinct, great for a weekend read.… (more)
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
After learning of her pending marriage, Emma runs away from home and finds untold opportunities dressing and acting like a boy. When the Civil War breaks out, Emma enlists. She serves in many positions, first as a male nurse and then as a mail carrier. The book briefly discusses claims that she had worked as a spy, recounting several dangerous experience. After falling ill, Emma runs away, worried that her true sex will be discovered. Returning to the life of a woman, she marries. Encouraged by those around her, she fights for a Civil War pension and reunites with her former comrades.

This book as written in a very matter of fact way. I would have liked more of a story-telling element, rather than a recitation of facts. At times the book does deliver this, but at others is a bit dry. Overall, the book was well written, well documented and an interesting read.
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