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This first appeared in BTL in Sept. 2012
Footnoted in the pages of Civil War history is the intriguing story of a “Mrs. Nash.” First name unrecorded. She’s listed in 1878 U.S. Army military records to have had “a succession of soldier-husbands” (a not unenviable achievement, then as now, I reckon).
Her last, a naive corporal in General George Armstrong Custer’s ill-fated Seventh Cavalry, blew his brains out when his “Mrs,” so-called, upped and died unexpectedly. Undertakers told hubby she was actually a he.
Another deceiving duo got moonshine drunk one night and tumbled amorously interlocked into a nearby river. They almost drowned. Resuscitated by their Army counterparts, it soon became obvious to all concerned that there was something amiss both above and below their conjoined Mason-Dixon line.
A chance happening also 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”.
Of the thousands of brave women who served as nurses (including Florence Nightingale), some 400 “others” – Northerners, Southerners, free, slave, citizen – also served as combatants or spies. They close-cropped their hair, pledged honest loyalty to serve – no physical 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 did received high honors for valor: Dr. Mary Walker, and Flint Michigan’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 butchly 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, rafted 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).
Pvt. “Frank” spied as “Cuff,” a black man. Silver nitrate darkened 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 cook 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.