Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Early Stage, Sarah Emma Edmonds: Departure

The piece that is currently commanding my attention deals with the life experiences of Sarah Emma Edmonds. The view seen above is from a very early stage of its development, in early August 2009.

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 born 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 readers draw the conclusion that Emma was suffering from ambivalence toward her gender identity, or perhaps was simply a cross-dresser, they should note not only that she secretly 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 that 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 three children and adopt two more. In the 1880's she petitioned the government for, and eventually became the only woman ever awarded, a full soldier's pension for her service during the Civil War.

I am finding Sarah Emma Edmonds to be an extremely complex and sometimes mysterious character and want to create a group of works to try to understand and describe her nature at various points in her life. This first piece deals with her early years, leading up to her escape from a dicatatorial father. It is not taking the form of a literal portrait, but rather will contain elements of her early experiences to give an impression of her nature during this time.

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