Monday, July 18, 2016

Soldier, Spy, Heroine

In case you were wondering what I've been up to lately, I have gained a writing partner, Cheryl Bartlam du Bois, and we have recently completed a Civil War novel based on the real life adventures of Michigan's own Sarah Emma Edmonds.  It's called Soldier, Spy, Heroine and will be published in January, 2017.  Here's a glimpse of Emma's story:

Union Army Private Franklin Thompson was good at keeping secrets. A true hero, Thompson not only fought beside his regiment with a valiant spirit, but also tended the sick and wounded during some of the Civil War’s deadliest battles.  He even took a turn at spying for the newly formed Secret Service.  Thompson donned disguises, sometimes posing as a cook or a peddler, as he made his way behind enemy lines.  Revealing his true identify was never an option—to either the Confederacy or the Union.  This soldier’s best-kept secret was a personal one—Private Franklin Thompson was really a woman.

Isaac Edmondson was bitterly disappointed when his fourth daughter, Sarah Emma, was born in 1841.  The Edmondsons lived on a farm in Canada and Isaac wanted sons—strong sons who could work the land.  Instead he had one sickly boy and, in his eyes, four useless girls whom he forced to wear boys’ clothing.  Emma, a tomboy, could outride and outshoot any boy in town, but she could never please her father.

When a local farmer wanted to marry her, Isaac agreed since it would mean one less mouth to feed.  Emma, however, hated the idea so she ran away and changed her name to Edmonds.  When her father discovered her whereabouts, she knew what had to be done.  Sarah Emma Edmondson disappeared and traveling salesman Franklin Thompson emerged. 

Franklin Thompson sold bibles as far west as Flint, Michigan where he became friends with Captain William R. Morse and his volunteer troop, The Flint Union Greys.  After the attack on Fort Sumter, Thompson and his newfound friends offered up their services.  The group was assigned to Flint’s Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry under the command of Colonel Israel B. Richardson or ‘Fighting Dick’.  As for Thompson, he was given nurse duty.

Company F was sent to Washington, D.C. where Private Thompson found himself in the midst of the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia.  With little rest and dampened spirits, Thompson did his best to comfort and administer aid.  Working closely with the doctors, he tied countless tourniquets, set dozens of broken bones and assisted with multiple surgeries including many amputations.  

After the battle, Thompson traded his nursing duties for the mail under the command of Colonel Orlando Metcalf Poe, who now replaced Colonel Richardson.  Mail always caused excitement among the troops, but mail carriers often faced danger as they traveled alone on horseback.  His superiors noted Thompson’s tireless dedication and hard work.  They recommended him for a special assignment with the newly formed Federal Secret Service originally created to spy on Confederate ranks.  Only the finest were chosen.  Thompson made the grade and, in between delivering the mail and his nurses’ duties, he was given a secret mission—cross Confederate lines into Yorktown and return with vital information from enemy troops. 

Thompson bought old work clothes, shaved his head, colored his skin and completed his costume with a black, wooly wig topped by a worn hat.  Slipping past enemy lines, he joined a group of black men forced to build Confederate fortifications.  Calling himself ‘Cuff’, he worked alongside them, learning all he could.  By night, he wrote detailed notes about what he’d seen and heard, then hid the papers in the soles of his shoes. 

Realizing that he needed critical information that only officers could give, Thompson traded places with a water boy.  He carried a pail throughout the camp picking up the details he needed.  Thompson left enemy territory with orders to take food to an outlying post.  Once there, he was told to replace a picket who had been shot and killed.  Thompson walked the line until dark then ran away to safety. 


Another mission found him disguised as a black woman assigned to Rebel headquarters.  Posing as a cook for Confederate officers, he overheard them discussing military plans.  One morning as he picked up an officer’s coat, papers fell out—military orders for General Lee’s army and his plan to capture Washington.  Anxious to take them back to his superiors, he slipped them inside his skirt and left camp.  In less than two weeks, Private Thompson made three visits to the Rebel High Command bringing back valuable information each time. 

Despite his malaria, Thompson took part in the Second Battle of Bull run in late August, 1862 before traveling with his troop to Antietam, where one of the Civil War’s deadliest battles occurred.  Never had Thompson witnessed so much bloodshed.  Whenever there was a break in the action, or the Union troops retreated, the medical team quickly raced across the field attempting to save whomever they could.  They bandaged wounds, set broken bones and comforted the dying as best they could often times with no more than a sip of water and a whispered prayer.

Illness and the severe winter cold left him with frostbite, nonetheless Thompson accepted another spy mission in the spring of 1863.  This time when he infiltrated enemy lines in Lebanon, Kentucky, he pretended to be a loyal Confederate.  When the Rebel soldiers ran into a band of Union men, bullets were exchanged.  Thompson escaped when the Union soldiers recognized him and whisked him away.  The Confederates labeled him a traitor. 

The Secret Service knew that further missions could be deadly for Thompson if captured by the Rebels.  He remained a Union soldier, but became a civilian spy.  Sent to Louisville, he took a clerk job at a dry-goods store and traveled to Confederate camps selling goods to the soldiers.  He gained the confidence of a Confederate spy who not only bragged about his own accomplishments, but boasted about other Rebel spies, as well.  Two were arrested thanks to Thompson’s clever ruse. 

With his spying days nearly over and his malaria flaring up, doctors urged Thompson to admit himself to a hospital.  Rather than give up his secret, he deserted.  And so, on April 19, 1863, Franklin Thompson, Civil War Hero, disappeared and Sarah Emma Edmonds emerged.

Emma checked into an Ohio hospital.  Once recuperated, she intended to rejoin her troop, but soon learned that Franklin Thompson was now considered a deserter.  Therefore, Emma could not resume his identity. She married Linus H. Seelye, a carpenter and wrote a best selling book about her Civil War adventures titled, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy. She donated her royalties to a variety of groups that supported the soldiers.

As she grew older, clearing the name of Franklin Thompson and collecting her Army pension became important.  She traveled to Flint, Michigan and looked up her old Union buddies.  Amazed that their comrade, Franklin Thompson, was really a woman, they rallied around her and submitted statements verifying Thompson’s bravery and acts of heroism. 

Of course, lots more happened before, during and after the Civil War, making Emma's story unique.  Just ask the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame--she was inducted there in 1992.  Read all about it here... Soldier-Spy-Heroine-Novel


Monday, January 4, 2016

Bonaparte's (New Jersey) Retreat

What happens when you’re done being the King of Naples?  You move on to be the King of Spain.  What happens when you’re done being the King of Spain?  You move on to New Jersey and build yourself a mansion and a man-made lake stocked with white swans imported from Europe.  At least that’s what Joseph Bonaparte did after his little brother, Napoleon, made a mess of things and got the whole clan kicked out of France. 

In 1816, the Bonapartes were forever banished from French soil.  Napoleon was exiled to the Island of Elba.  Big brother, Joseph, fled to Switzerland where he buried, and later retrieved, some of the family jewels.  From there, he sailed incognito to New York.  Carrying a suitcase filled with the jewels he hadn’t buried, Bonaparte traveled to Philadelphia and then on to New Jersey where he introduced himself as the Count de Survilliers.  But his alias never fooled the Garden State citizenry.  They knew a Bonaparte when they saw one. 

Back then, it was illegal for someone born outside of the United States to buy land here.  That minor detail hardly stopped the former king from procuring approximately 211 acres near Bordentown, New Jersey between the Delaware River and Crosswick Creek for $17,500.  In 1817, the State of New Jersey saw the error of their ways.  They passed a law allowing Bonaparte to own property.  Like a kid in a candy shop, he went on a spree and bought well over 1,000 acres. 

In three years time, Bonaparte created Point Breeze, a magnificent country estate unlike anything the locals had ever seen before.  In addition to the elaborate brick and wood mansion, he laid twelve miles worth of winding carriage trails, planted exotic trees, imported wildlife and built a picturesque lake complete with boats and an arched stone bridge crossing over it.  He also created a network of underground tunnels—something that gave his Bordentown neighbors plenty to gossip about.  They weren’t too crazy about the nude statues dotting the property either, but that’s how it was with kings—even ex-ones.
Along with his extravagant lifestyle, Joseph kept good company.  While living in New Jersey, he entertained famous Americans like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clary and Daniel Webster.  Distinguished international visitors also came to Point Breeze including several adventurers who offered Joseph the throne of Mexico--twice.  He refused--twice.  After Naples and Spain, he knew better.  Wearing a crown wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  He now favored the quiet life.
That quiet life was interrupted in 1820, when the mansion caught fire.  An avid art lover, Bonaparte’s vast collection of paintings, including works by Rembrandt and daVinci, were almost lost.  His good New Jersey neighbors came to the rescue leaving the ex-king ever so grateful.  Genuinely touched by their bravery and kindness, he embraced the locals welcoming them and their children at Point Breeze any time.  In the summer, the kids played in his gardens and in the winter, they skated on his frozen lake.  A soft touch, Bonaparte was always good for fresh oranges and apples—a luxury their parents could rarely afford.
Ex-King Joseph rebuilt his home, which included one of the nation’s finest art galleries, an enormous library filled with 8,000 books, and a large formal dining room where 24 guests could eat.  He lived in this house until 1832 when he returned to Europe coming back to Point Breeze for sporadic visits over the next several years.  He ended up in Florence, Italy, where he died in 1844 at the age of 76.  His grandson and namesake eventually inherited the place.  Overwhelmed by the extravagance, the younger Joseph sold the estate in 1847 and then auctioned off his grandfather’s furniture and artwork.  Kids!
Henry Beckett purchased the property in 1850 and razed the house.  In its place, he built an Italian-style villa.  Harris Hammon later remodeled the villa in 1924.  In 1941, the Divine Word Mission bought the property to open a seminary.  Three schools were built on the grounds in 1963, and twenty years later Beckett’s remodeled villa burned down.  The Divine Word Mission still occupies the site. 
 As for the man himself, Joseph Bonaparte is remembered as a gracious gentleman who brought fine European culture into the United States.  The hard-working people of Bordentown had never met royalty before, but as neighbors, they shared a mutual respect and sincere affection for each other.  When all was said and done, the ex-king of Naples and Spain much preferred the serene kingdom he built in the land of New Jersey where the good citizens of the Garden State knew a Bonaparte when they saw one!