Marissa Moss

A Soldier’s Secret

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A Soldier’s Secret Summary

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Marissa Moss’s historical fiction, A Soldier’s Secret (2012), is based largely on the autobiography of Sarah Emma Edmonds, a nineteenth-century American woman who pretended to be a man to fight in the Civil War. Taking on the name Frank Thompson, Edmonds served a number of critical roles, from a nurse on the front lines of battle to a Union Army spy. After being captured by the Confederate Army, she escaped. Told from the fictionalized perspective of Sarah, the novel provides a well-researched survey of the conditions and experiences she likely lived through during the Civil War, as well as her love affair with another soldier. Moss also takes some creative liberty, postulating about how Edmonds’s sense of self and morality might have developed along the way. The book includes an assortment of primary and secondary sources in different media, including archived photos, repositories of names, and a timeline of the Civil War.

The book’s timeline begins shortly before Sarah Emma Edmonds’s flight from home in New Brunswick, Canada. Her father, who physically and emotionally abuses her, arranges for her to marry a farmer many years her senior, mainly for the wealth it will bring to the family. Meanwhile, Edmonds tends to the family farm in lieu of her brother, who is very ill. Realizing that she is, essentially, about to be sold into bondage, she leaves.

Edmonds makes it to Hartford, Connecticut, where she finds work selling Bibles for Mr. Hurlbut. After the war begins, using the alias Frank Thompson, she enlists in the army as a private in Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry of the Potomac Army. There, “Frank” shares a tent with Damon Stewart. They go to Washington to undergo military training, where she goes to great lengths to learn how to convincingly present as male. Binding her breasts, she adopts the crude mannerisms of her fellow soldiers. Edmonds and Damon march with their company to Centreville, Virginia, where they fight in the first Battle of Bull Run. The battle sees horrible Union losses, and Edmonds tends to the sick and dying.

In Washington, Edmonds meets Jerome Robbins, a soldier from Matherton, Michigan. They form a strong friendship; Edmonds falls in love with him without being able to reveal her gender. Eventually, she tells him the truth just before he sends a letter to his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Though horrified at first, he keeps her secret for years afterward. Edmonds conceals her persistent affection for him. She goes on to work as a mail carrier and a spy. During a series of campaigns in the swamplands of Virginia, she falls ill with malaria, then termed “swamp fever.” It worsens, forcing her to leave the army for medical treatment.

The known timeline of Edmonds’s life is complemented with sketches, many hypothetical, of her insights and attitudes toward the roles and constraints of women in the nineteenth century. She loved performing as a man, working under pressure, and training as a horseman, activities normally not considered in the domain of women’s affairs. She considered normative womanhood to be a stifling template that too many people blindly followed. She constantly yearned to belong to an alternative society where she could freely dress, marry, and work. Although she maintained, in some aspects, such an existence, she was constantly torn between it and caring for her family back on the farm. Yet, once the war ended, she resolved to rejoin the men she fought beside, considering them her true brothers.

Moss’s story of Edmonds represents one of the more than four hundred known women who joined the Civil War by masquerading as men. A Soldier’s Secret vividly recreates what such a life might have been like, articulating both the difficulties of battle and the difficulties of belonging in the binary gender categories of the nineteenth-century United States.