This summer I’m going to the reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg on its 150th anniversary. I am not a Civil War buff, though I do find it interesting. I’m going in place of my dad. My dad, Robert H. Fowler, Sr., was a Civil War Buff, published Civil War Times Illustrated magazine and wrote an award winning novel on the Civil War entitled Jim Mundy. He passed away 11 years ago. My 3 siblings and I grew up in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg. Many weekends, my older brother and I went with my Dad to the battlefield and walked it with him as he took notes for his research. As a reward he bought us each hats in the gift shop- Billy Yank and Johnny Reb and a packet of hardtack. I think it was meant as a souvenir and not a snack. But we ate it and later, even tried to make some at home. It’s probably not something you would eat if you had other options. But, as our dad explained, the young soldiers of the Civil War often didn’t.
If my Dad were still living, he would be at the 150th anniversary reenactment of the gruesome battle. And since he can’t be there, I feel like I should be there. And I’ve corralled my husband, daughter and son in law to go too. Perhaps I’ll tell more in future blogs.
In preparation for the trip, I’m reading some books on the Civil War. I browsed the shelves of our local Half Price Bookstore recently and brought home a copy of Amazing Woman of the Civil War: Spies, Soldiers, Journalists, and Angels of Mercy. It’s by Webb Garrison. I’m reading one story per night. Last night I read about Sarah Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson. She was a young woman from Canada who came to the U.S. to escape an abusive father. She became a nurse and spy for the Union Army. In July 1884 a bill was signed into law that gave her a military pension of $12 a month for life in honor of her service. She cut her hair and donned male attire, and because she was small and agile, was able to enter as a nurse with the rank of private. She enlisted during a period when all military nurses were male; pioneer like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix hadn’t yet persuaded officials at the US War Department to use females. During his/her career, Sara Edmonds aka Frank Thompson was a nurse and a spy. She dressed as a man to be a nurse and sometimes, as a woman, to be a spy – since she could get behind Rebel lines more easily as a woman. Eventually, she contracted malaria, and, realizing the illness would mean a physical exam that would reveal her gender, she resumed feminine attire. She eventually married and spent two decades in obscurity until she attended a reunion of her 2nd Michigan regiment. Then it was revealed that Pvt Frank Thompson had been a young Canadian woman in disguise.
Her memoir Nurse and Spy may be embellished, but is still compelling.
The most poignant scene for me is her recounting of her nursing duties on the bloodiest day of the Battle of Antietam. While kneeling on the field ministering to a fatally wounded soldier, she discovered that the wounded soldier was also a female in disguise.
I’m not sure why I find this scene so compelling. Perhaps because it makes me wonder if there are times when we feel we are the only ones in our situation, trapped in our own stories, for our own reasons. And in such times, might we find that we are by no means the only ones? I wonder if these words came to her mind and lips as she knelt over the dying woman “You too?
She arrived too late to meet a kindred spirit and share stories. But she arrived in time to clasp her fellow soldier’s hand, and comfort her into the next life. I have no neat words with which to wrap this up. Just a scene that stays in my mind.