Edmondson was actually one of 400 known women who passed as men to serve in the military during the Civil War. While the War Department required that Union recruits undergo a full physical exam, which would including stripping naked, most doctors were so overwhelmed by the flood of potential soldiers they cut corners and approved the volunteers with a quick glance. Very few of the women posing as soldiers were living as men before the war. Some female privates were fleeing abusive parents or husbands. Some women didn’t want to be separated from their husbands who were enlisting. Others, like Edmondson, felt deeply committed to their sides’ cause. Most of them, Abbott speculates, were impoverished and in desperate need of the military stipend, $13 a month for Union privates and $11 for Confederates. Abbott was most puzzled by how few got caught.
“I came to the conclusion that they were getting away with it because nobody had any idea what a woman would look like wearing pants,” she says. “People were so used to seeing women’s bodies pushed and pulled in these exaggerated shapes with corsets and crinoline. The idea of a woman in pants, let alone an entire Army uniform, was so unfathomable that they couldn’t see it, even if she were standing in front of them. Emma had such a great advantage over the other women: Here’s somebody who already honed her voice and her mannerisms. She was already comfortable as Frank Thompson, who was a real person to her. She wasn’t going to make any of the rookie mistakes, like the woman who, when somebody threw an apple to her, reached for the hem of her nonexistent apron, trying to catch the apple. My favorite story is the corporal from New Jersey who gave birth while she was on picket duty, like, ‘The jig is up!’”
While Abbott considers Edmondson “gender fluid,” she decided to write about her with a “she” pronoun, as a woman, as opposed to writing about her as a transgender man with a “he” pronoun, in part because Edmondson abandoned her Frank Thompson persona after she deserted the Army—out of fear she was about to be exposed and arrested—on April 17, 1863, and never brought him back. She changed her name to Emma Edmonds and started living as a woman again.
“After the war, Emma ended up getting married and having children,” Abbott says. “Frank Thompson was just as legitimate a person, I think, to Emma, but somebody that she also decided ultimately that she was not. He was, I think, somebody who was convenient to her in that time. She was clearly attracted to men during the war because she fell in love with a fellow private, but who knows if she was bisexual. That’s certainly a possibility that she might not have felt comfortable exploring or even knew how to acknowledge in that time period. She was definitely gender fluid, and Belle was probably as well.”
Frank Leslie’s 1863 cartoon “The Art of Inspiring Courage” shows a woman threatening to join the Union army if her husband doesn’t. (Courtesy of Karen Abbott)
Part of Emma’s impulse to create Frank Thompson came from a desire to escape the dreary life as a farmer’s wife she saw laid out before her in New Brunswick, Canada, before the war: She suffered at the hands of her abusive father; she saw how miserable her sisters were as farmer’s wives; and at 16, she was set to be married off to a lecherous elderly neighbor. Men seemed to be the source of her misery; but they also had all the power to be free. In her writings, she described men as “the implacable enemy” and wrote how she hated “male tyranny.”
According to Emma’s memoir, she was inspired by a novel she bought from a peddler, Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of Revolution, which told the story of a woman who disguised as a man and became a pirate to liberate her kidnapped lover. After Fanny freed him, she continued to pose as a male pirate for several weeks, as the pair had more adventures on the high seas. Supposedly, this story fueled Emma to cut her long hair, run away from home, and start living as Frank in the United States.
The title page of “Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of Revolution,” the book that inspired Emma to start living as a man. (Via Harvard University, Houghton Library)
“She was very much like a second-wave feminist, way before the second wave,” Abbott says. “She recognized that men had the power, and the way for her to attain any of that was to become a man. But she definitely felt comfortable as a man, and I think that that was a vital, integral part of her personality.”
What’s surprising throughout the book is the way old men, like Emma’s neighbor, would openly ogle teenage girls. Back then, the age of sexual consent was right after puberty, which could be as early as age 10 or 12. By age 17, a rival of Belle Boyd’s already dubbed her “the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter.”