Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Soldier's Secret by Marissa Moss

Marissa Moss has written a captivating account of the true story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian girl who served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Moss's account is well researched

Sarah Edmonds fled her home in New Brunswick, Canada when her father, an abusive man, arranged the forced marriage of Sarah to a much older farmer. Sarah did much of the work on her father's farm, as her brother was weak and sickly, with the expectation that someday she would take over the farm. However, when she saw the life she as being sold into, Sarah fled. The circumstances that led to her running away are told in a flashback later on in the novel.

At first she did odd jobs but when she arrived in Hartford, Connecticut she was able to get work as a Bible salesman for a book seller by the name of Mr. Hurlbut. When the war starts, Sarah who now goes by the name of Frank Thompson enlists and becomes Private Frank Thompson in Company F, Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry of the Army of the Potomac.

Frank is assigned a tent with Damon Stewart and together the two of them train in city of Washington. Sarah has lived as a man for three years prior to enlisting but being in the army proves to be more challenging because she will be living with men in close quarters. However, Frank manages to hide her feminine attributes by binding her breasts and making sure she is not seen relieving herself or changing her clothing. She makes sure she belches and passes wind, scratches her crotch and tells ribald jokes, all to make herself appear more masculine.

Frank and Damon, as part of the Army of the Potomac march to Centreville, Va to meet the Confederate Army in what will be the first battle of the Civil War. They join General Samuel P. Heintzelman's Third Division and fight in the first Battle of Bull Run which turns out to be a rout by the Confederates. For Frank Thompson it is a terrible initiation into war, as thousands of Union soldiers are killed or wounded. Frank works as a nurse, assisting doctors in the hundreds of amputations, treating patients with dysentery and comforting the dying.
Sarah Edmonds as Frank Thompson

In a field hospital at Washington, Frank meets Jerome Robbins from Matherton, Michigan. They soon form a friendship that for Frank develops into a blossoming friendship and then unrequited love. But when Jerome asks his sweetheart in a letter to marry him, Frank confesses to Jerome her secret identity and her love for him. Jerome is horrified and disbelieving. Frank expects him to turn her in, but Jerome doesn't and keeps Frank's secret. Through the next few years, Sarah in her role as Frank Thompson struggles with her love for Jerome, knowing he will never love her and that he is not attracted to her in any way. She is careful not to touch him or to share her feelings with him again.

Frank has many adventures while a soldier, working as a nurse, a mail carrier, an orderly carrying messages during battles and also as a spy. As Frank Thompson, she also takes part in battles and carries out her duties with great courage. During the Virginia Peninsula campaigns in the Virginia swamps, Frank contracts "swamp fever" or malaria which eventually grows worse over time causes her to desert the army to get treated.

Sarah Edmonds as a woman.
It was amazing to read how resourceful and intelligent Sarah was as she remained undiscovered as a woman soldier for several years. It was only when she fell desperately ill with malaria that she had to relinquish her identity as a man and live again as a woman. Her love of horses and skill as a horseman, her master of disguises, and her quick thinking make her an endearing hero(ine). What was interesting was Sarah's view of being a woman in 19th century America. She found everything about the role of women in society to be stifling. She wanted adventure and the freedom to choose her life, the man she would marry, and even what to wear. To live the way she wanted,  cost her dearly as it meant giving up her family and sometimes led to her feeling very lonely. She saw the men of the army as her true brothers and her family and she resolved to help them after the war was over.

Moss has written a very informative account from the perspective of  Frank Thompson that gives the reader a great sense of what it was like as a soldier during the Civil War. Moss portrays the horror of the battles, how the soldiers viewed the war and why they were fighting, how battles were fought, and the roles of men and women in 19th century America.

The back of the novel contains a section entitled The Story behind The Story which  tells about Sarah Emma Edmonds and what happened to Sarah after she left the army. Moss used Jerome Robbin's diary as well as letters and journals of other soldiers who served with Frank Thompson to recreate this incredible story.  Unbelievably, there were over 400 women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War. Most of these were following relatives or husbands into the war. Sarah Emma Edmonds also published her own memoir in 1864 titled, Unsexed, or the Female Soldier.

There is also a section on Union Army Officer Biographies and a Civil War Timeline, and a Selected Bibliography.

Fans of historical fiction will truly enjoy this well written and researched novel.

You can read a good summary of Sarah Edmonston's life here at the Civil War Trust website.

Book Details:
A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, A Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
New York: Amulet Books     2012
387 pp.

No comments: