An Explanation of the Sarah Emma Edmonds Series


Born on a farm on the shores of Magaguadavic Lake in New Brunswick, Canada, Sarah Emma Edmonds grew up with the constant awareness of her father’s deep resentment that she was  female rather than male.  As a child, Emma tried to prove herself “worthy” by assuming many of the more difficult tasks on the farm and becoming proficient in riding horses, canoeing and other skills traditionally associated with boys. When at the age of 17 her father tried to “marry her off” to a much older neighbor in order to reduce the number of mouths he had to feed at home, she had had enough. Though specific accounts vary, the record shows that she left home and in less than a year, reappeared having assumed the clothing, mannerisms, lifestyle – and name -- of a man. She was now living as Franklin Thompson, and became a successful traveling book salesman.


Her work eventually brought her to the United States and she was living in Flint, Michigan when the Civil War began.  When the first call for Union volunteers went out, Emma (now Frank) saw many of her friends enlisting and wished to do the same.  After training in Washington, Emma Edmonds (alias Frank Thompson) was assigned as a male nurse to the hospital unit of the 2d Michigan Infantry, a position she held at the time of the First Battle of Manassas.


Lest viewers draw the conclusion that Emma was suffering from ambivalent gender identity or was perhaps simply a cross-dresser, they should note not only that she actually revealed her true identity in late 1861 to a fellow hospital steward with whom she had fallen in love (only to be rejected), but that in 1863, for fear of having her true identity discovered when she developed malaria, she deserted the army eventually to resurface in Oberlin, OH where she resumed her life as a woman. After the war she went on to marry and give birth to 3 children and adopt 2 more. In the 1880’s she petitioned the government, and eventually became the only woman ever awarded, a full soldier’s pension for her service during the Civil War.


I have found Sarah Emma Edmonds not only to be a very intriguing study from the Civil War era, but also to be an extremely complex and sometimes mysterious character and therefore decided to create a series of works to try to understand and describe her nature at various points in her life.  




Sarah Emma Edmonds I: Departure



Sarah Emma Edmonds I: Departure,deals with her early years, leading up to her escape from a dictatorial father. It obviously does not take the form of a literal portrait, but rather it contains elements of her early experiences to give an impression of her nature during this time. I wanted to have the water present as a backdrop for this piece, because of what I believe would have been the significance of Magaguadavic Lake in Sarah Emma’s formative years.  The image of the book represents an incident that Emma says had a tremendous impact on her when she was about thirteen. A peddler had visited their home, and as it was getting late in the day, Emma’s mother invited the man to stay with them until morning. When he was leaving the next day, as a token of appreciation for the family’s kindness, the peddler gave Emma a novel -- something that her strict Calvinist father would never have allowed had he known about it. The novel was a melodramatic account of a young heroine who disguised herself as a man in order to rescue her lover from pirates. Emma recalled her feelings after reading the novel by saying, “I felt as if an angel had touched me with a live coal from off the altar,” (reminiscent of an account in the Biblical book of Isaiah). “I was emancipated.  And I could never again be a slave.” In my composition, the birds flying away from the book and the live coals, represent that emancipation.  The water, very dark in the lower portion of the painting, brightens as the birds continue upward in their flight.



Sarah Emma Edmonds II: Transformation is the next piece in this series. This composition relates to the period when Emma left her home in Canada and worked on developing her male persona, hiding in the woods by day and travelling only under cover of darkness until she felt confident in her new role. To see this work in-progress, please visit my blog beginning in November 2010.





Direct Links to All Civil War Artwork:
Beyond the Battlefield - The Battle of Gettysburg - More Civil War Drawings - Gettysburg Civilians During the War
Christmas During the Civil War -
Gettysburg Today - Plein Air Drawings of Gettysburg

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