REVIEWED: The Mysterious Private Thompson

Private T

The Mysterious Private Thompson by Laura Leedy Gansler (Civil War History, 2017).

This true story is a carefully researched and capably written book from the author of an earlier book acclaimed by the LA Times as a Best book of 2002. It’s the latest (and the most even-handed) effort to tell the life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, the one woman to openly earn a soldier’s pension from service in the American Civil War. I say ‘openly’ because, while she was hardly the only woman to disguise herself as a male to ‘join up,’ she was the only one to receive pension recognition AFTER her actual gender was revealed.

As for describing the book as ‘even-handed,’ I refer to the fact that (unlike some previous accounts), the author fully admits that Edmonds tended to dramatize her published experiences. Gansler doesn’t totally discount Edmonds’ claim to have served as a Union spy at times, but neither does she swallow everything unquestioningly. The author points out which claims seem plausible, which are unlikely and which seem well proven.

And those well established facts make a life quite interesting enough on their own, indeed.

Escaping an arranged marriage in her native Canada and faced with the extremely limited options available to single women in the 19th century, Sarah adopted a male alter-ego two years before the war and was a successful traveling bookseller living in Michigan when Fort Sumter was attacked. Bitterly opposed to slavery and knowing that the rebel states had broken from the Union in large part over the issue, she decided to ‘do her part’ by enlisting in a local regiment using her assumed identity (Franklin Thompson).  Off to war she went–a somewhat small and boyish-looking recruit.

She maintained her ‘cover’ for about two years. There was some suspicion among her fellow soldiers, but only one of her comrades definitely knew her secret and he never publicly told (though the private journal he kept would later provide added proof of Edmonds’ identity).

Most everyone else accepted ‘Private Thompson’ as just another young, respectful and respectable soldier. Detailed as a regimental mail carrier and field hospital nurse (and maybe, just maybe, an occasional spy), she did her duty admirably and even served as a temporary aide to her brigade commander during the brutal Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Edmonds claimed that a flare up of the malaria she’d contracted earlier caused her to fear discovery and so she deserted, resumed her life as a woman. It’s also highly likely that, one way or another, her ‘cover’ was blown–at least among some of her fellow soldiers. In any case, she contacted her former book-selling employer, shocked him by proving she was, in fact, young Frank and through him put out a highly successful (if somewhat fictionalized) book about her adventures. The book did not reveal her actual name or the regiment she’d served in–so public knowledge of her identity remained hidden for some years.

Only later, as a wife and mother, and with her family struggling out in Kansas, did she come forward–seeking a military pension. Reuniting with startled and dumbfounded former comrades, she convinced them of the truth of her claim and they helped prove to the War Department that, given the special circumstances, the desertion charge should be dropped and she should be granted monthly payments as a veteran.

Gansler does a  good job in explaining how and why it was possible for Sarah to ‘pass’ as young Frank. Other women who tried it (and there were at least several hundred) tended to be caught and shipped home quickly. But at least one (‘Albert Cashiers’) kept up the deception for DECADES after the war–only to be found out after an early 20th century auto accident and hospital stay revealed the truth.

The author doesn’t skimp on what is known about Edmonds’ life before and after her military service, either. Her personal experiences, growing up in an isolated and repressive home and her later experiences as a wife, a mother, manager of an orphans home and much more add up to a quite interesting life. This book is fine personal history of an unusual individual’s part in one of American history’s crucial moments.


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