As an action hero, Sarah Emma Edmonds is the Lara Croft of the Civil War. Assuming the identity of the male soldier Franklin “Frank” Thompson, she joined the Union Army in 1861 as a battlefield nurse, and spent time as a courier before taking on the role of Union spy. If young women of your acquaintance need a historical role model, they could certainly do worse than Sarah Emma Edmonds.
Behind Rebel Lines has been on my reading list for longer than Civil War Scout has existed. I have been anticipating this fictionalized version of Edmonds’ story, but in the end, it didn’t live up to my (perhaps too lofty) expectations.
At just under 150 pages, this is a relatively short book, and as such, it doesn’t provide more than a few pages of context to explain Edmonds’ adopting a male persona even before her time in the Union Army. This results in a rather flat character who is driven by vague, unspecified motivations usually attributed to an “imp voice”. Unfortunately, this motivation is confusing for several reasons:
This book was originally written in 1991 and has been republished several times. The language and stereotypes may be a bit jarring, especially when Edmonds takes on the personas and dress of others as she is inserts herself in her spy career, but I suspect that much of that comes directly from her memoirs and is indicative of the contemporary accounts during the Civil War.
Though it is on my (extensive) reading list, I have yet to read Edmonds’ memoirs Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, so I can’t judge how faithfully the narrative follows the original memoirs, but I can confirm that the soldier Allen Hall, whom Edmonds discovered on one of her espionage missions, does show up on the muster rolls of the 25th Virginia Infantry which fought at Gaines Mill (also known as the First Battle of Cold Harbor), so it does lead credence to the veracity of the story. Until I have a chance to read the source documentation (or what the author claims as his source documentation), I will categorize this as historical fiction.
A great companion to this book is the History Channel’s Full Metal Corset: Secret Soldiers of the Civil War which introduces Edmonds with more background and fleshes out her personality and her history.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.