Parting Glances : Whistlin’ Dixie with ‘Frank’

By |2018-01-15T21:31:03-05:00May 25th, 2006|Opinions|

Footnoted in the pages of Civil War history is the intriguing story of one “Mrs. Nash,” first name unrecorded. She’s reported in 1878 U.S. Army military records to have had “a succession of soldier-husbands” (a not unenviable achievement, then as now, I reckin).
Her last husband was, one infers, a naive corporal in General George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated Seventh Cavalry. Poor Cpl. Nash blew his brains out when the bigamous “Mrs.” upped and died unexpectedly. Army undertakers discovered that she was actually a he.
Whether Cpl. Nash killed himself due to apoplexy or to anatomical malfeasance is not specified as a matter of governmental condolence. Nor is it known whether or not the Nashes, together and/or singly, died with their boots on or off. (George Armstrong got deservedly whacked in his 9 Ds at Little Big Horn.)
A chance happening exposed two other unknown Civil War Pvts. with unknown privates of their own. They may likely have been the first dykes in American wartime service. If so, they started a long and time-honored tradition. These bivouac butches get passing mention in Union General Philip Sheridan’s memoirs: “An intimacy had sprung up between them,” he comments succinctly, describing one as “masculine,” the other as “prepossessing” [an evaluation that might be aptly applied to our present U.S. Secretary of State].
This deceiving duo got drunk on moonshine one night, and managed to tumble somehow amorously interlocked into a nearby river. They nearly drowned. Resuscitated by their male counterparts, it soon became obvious to all parties concerned that there was something amiss both above and below the Mason-Dixon line.
Of the thousands of brave women who served as nurses (including Florence Nightingale), some 400 “others” – Northerners, Southerners, free, slave, and citizen – also served as combatants or spies. They close-cropped their hair, pledged honest loyalty to serve – no physical was required – polished their rifles not their nails, learned to “chaw tuhbacie,” fought like hell, and died in fields where blood ran so deeply and so richly red.
Two well-known cross dressers received high honors for valor: Dr. Mary Walker, and Flint’s neglected hero(ine), Sarah Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson. Dr. Walker, a surgeon, lived in drag most of her long life, and spent four months undetected in a Confederate prison. She received a Medal of Honor from President Andrew Johnson.
Once Sarah Emma Edmonds (later Mrs. Seelye) proved – 19 years after the Civil War ended – that she was Pvt. Thompson, she was granted a Congressional honorable discharge and a handsome $12 monthly pension. She became the only female veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Edmonds was born in Canada, fled a brutal father at 19, crossed the Windsor border to settle in Flint. When a call for 2nd Michigan Volunteer enlistment came, she decided to cross dress. She passed muster after four tries and became a male nurse, then a spy (once shadowing General Robert E. Lee).
“Frank” spied as “Cuff,” a black man. Silver nitrate was used to darken her skin. When an observant slave noticed she seemed to be getting lighter, Cuff quipped, “I always suspected I had a white mother.”
Other disguises were Irish peddler Bridget O’Shea and kitchen hand Aunt Sunny. It was all very Victor/Victoria, Civil War style. Unfortunately, “Frank” contracted malaria. Fearing army hospital detection, she went AWOL. Sarah Emma Edmonds (Seelye) died in Texas in 1897.
She was Michigan’ first drag king, and, with two years of distinguished Army service, a damn fine soldier to boot.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.