Marissa Moss has written and illustrated many books for children, including the popular Amelia’s Notebook series, the picture book Nurse, Soldier, Spy, and a middle-grade novel, The Pharaoh’s Secret. She lives in Berkeley, California.
I love stumbling on little-known stories that grab my imagination and sense of history. Those are the stories I turn into books, the tales of courage and achievement against the odds that deserve to be widely known.
When I started researching the Civil War, I wanted to find someone who had made a real difference. I read widely, about both the North and the South, and I learned that more than 400 women had disguised themselves as men and fought as soldiers for one side or the other. Women disguised as men? Definitely a promising story there!
Grand review of the Union Army, Washington, D.C.
I plowed through books about these women, but they all lacked some essential characteristic. Most enlisted to be with a husband, brother, father, or fiancé. Many were adventurous, but not particularly patriotic or admirable. Very few cared about the issue of slavery.
Sorting through all these women, one stood out. The first book I read about her wasn’t detailed, but it gave me enough of a sense that I wanted to learn more. When I saw she’d written her own memoir of her soldiering life, that I could hear in her own voice her motives and intentions, it was like finding a treasure trove.
That woman was Sara Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson. She was everything I’d hoped for – she had integrity, bravery, loyalty to the Union. As a bonus, she wrote movingly about the horrors of slavery. But there was more. Edmonds was the only woman to successfully petition the government after the war for status as a veteran. She wanted her charge of desertion changed to an honorable discharge, and she wanted a pension for her years of service. Suffering from malaria she’d caught in the Virginia peninsula campaign early in the war, she needed medical care she couldn’t afford without the pension.
Sara Edmonds, dressed as a woman, wearing a dress, with her long hair swept back in a bun.
It took several years and two separate acts of Congress, but Edmonds received the legal recognition she so richly deserved. Men she’d served with testified on her behalf, praising her steadiness under fire, her work as a battlefield nurse, a general’s adjutant, a postmaster, and even a spy.
Hers was a great story, a vast canvas that covered many of the pivotal battles of the war. Now that I’d found my subject, I had to shape this big life into a book. And a short book at that. I first wrote about Sara Emma Edmonds for a picture book, choosing to showcase her first spy mission, one emblematic event to stand for such a complicated life. That text became Nurse, Soldier, Spy, beautifully illustrated by John Hendrix, and published this past April by Abrams Books for Young Readers.
As pleased as I was with the picture book, there was so much more to say about Sara than could fit in that constrained format. In A Soldier’s Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, a young adult novel out this fall, I could show her tenderness as a nurse, her bravery as a postmaster on lonely roads known for ambushes, her fierce loyalty to her fellow-soldiers in battle, her quick thinking as a spy. And I could show the loneliness and stress that her disguise cost her, the burden that living a lie took on a deeply ethical and honest person.
Sara Edmonds, with her hair cut short, dressed as Frank Thompson. She is wearing a man’s suit and a bow tie.
Sara had to dress as a man to serve the country she loved. Women in the military now aren’t officially allowed “in combat,” but since they’re in active combat zones, they face the same risks as the men without the same possibilities for promotion and recognition. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, woman are still living little known stories that we’ll only learn about later. Someday we’ll read about how courageous and capable they’ve been in Afghanistan and Iraq. So this Veteran’s Day, think about those people who haven’t been fully recognized for their service to this country – all those women who fought in the Civil War so long ago and the young women in the military today.
A Soldier’s Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss (Amulet Books, 2012) is available now wherever books are sold.
Laura Mihalick is Assistant Manager for Children’s Marketing & Publicity at ABRAMS.