Behind Rebel Lines Summary

Seymour Reit

Behind Rebel Lines

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Behind Rebel Lines Summary

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Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy (1988), by children’s author Seymour Reit, is based on the true story of a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to be drafted in the Union army during the US Civil War. Reit is perhaps best known for creating Casper the Friendly Ghost (1939).

As well as re-examining the role of women during the U.S. civil war, Behind Rebel Lines explores themes of freedom, justice, and the fight for personal integrity. Most of the novel is in told in the third-person, so that the reader feels and sees whatever Emma Edmonds experiences.

The book opens with the declaration that the following story is real. Reit tells us that the protagonist’s full name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, but she dropped her first name while still a child. Though Edmonds was born in St. John, Canada, she supported the Union’s goal of emancipation for enslaved populations and joined their forces soon after the war was declared. She was 21 at the time.

To reconstruct her life, the author interviewed several prominent historians, explored the U.S. Army records files, and analyzed the memoir she published shortly after the civil war: Nurse, Solider, and Spy, which sold nearly 200,000 copies in her lifetime. While Behind Rebel Lines has a substantial amount of research behind it, the author acknowledges that on occasion he invented small details in an attempt to evoke, for the reader, what it was like to live in the 1860s.

The novel opens on April 25th, 1861. A group of men in Flint, Michigan, joke with each other as they stand in line to sign up for the Civil War. Amongst them is Emma Edmonds. She hopes that the Union’s desperate need for able-bodied soldiers will be more important than their rule against females serving in the military; but just in case, she has disguised herself as a man.

The author describes advertisements Emma and the other 75,000 volunteers who immediately joined the Union army probably saw; these men worked in mines and on farms, as sailors and as clerks. Emma understands that women contribute plenty to the war effort: they maintain clothes, bandage wounds, and procure food for soldiers. But Emma wants to do more for the war effort. Fortunately, the supervisors overlook Emma’s suspicious appearance, and register her as a volunteer under the name Private Franklin Thompson.

Emma’s urge to join the military also stems from her past. Her father always wanted a boy, and ridiculed Emma constantly for what he perceived as her constitutional weakness. After her mother passed when she was 16, Emma ran away from home and immigrated to the U.S; she believed that principles like freedom and liberty are easier to attain in the U.S.

The second chapter takes place on March 19th, 1862. Her unit is now in Virginia. To convey Emma’s total transformation, the author starts using the male pronoun “he” exclusively.

The next day, while paying her respects to a fallen service member whom she does not know, Emma learns that the man was a spy for the Union, who was executed by the Confederacy. Emma volunteers to take his place. She has to pass several tests to prove her loyalty to the Union, as well as her knowledge of people, places, and guns. She passes.

Military leadership informs Emma that she now has the Union’s full blessing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish the various tasks they assign her. However, she will receive no guidance from her commanders; how she goes about completing a mission is solely her responsibility, and if she ever finds herself in a life or death situation, the Union will not be able to help her. Despite these risks, Emma accepts the challenge.

Two years pass, during which time Emma successfully completes several rogue missions for the Union army. She is a master of disguise, and has successfully crossed enemy lines to pose as both a black woman and a freed slave (Cuff), an older Irish beggar (Bridget O’Shea), a social-climbing man in Louisville (Charles Mayberry), and a Kentucky resident sympathetic toward the South (Kentucky was officially neutral in the Civil War until attacked by confederate forces).

With the help of these disguises, Emma retrieves oral and physical evidence of the Confederacy’s campaign plans. The reader also sees or overhears news of several important battles, including the capture of Fort Henry by Ulysses S. Grant, the first and second Battle of Bull Rum, and Antietam. Emma often receives praise from both the military leadership and her fellow soldiers for the fearlessness she shows when undertaking these missions.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, which turned the tide of war in favor of the Union, Emma catches “swamp fever.” She is nursed back to health by a Major’s wife.

Of the nearly half a million soldiers in the Union army, Emma was one of the few women to serve. While the extent of the role women soldiers played in the war is difficult to ascertain, the author points to some strong evidence that suggests the number may have been as high as 400.