Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Nurse and Spy

Today's task (and yesterday's and tomorrow's, perhaps) is shifting pretty much every book in the History of Medicine Collection to make space for the new acquisitions which were the subject of yesterday's post. (We're a little cramped for space here in the History of Medicine Room.)

There are about 3500 books in the collections here in Historical Collections & Archives, and I certainly am not familiar with all of them. So, as I move, I browse. Several things caught my eye; among them: Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: comprising the adventures and experiences of a woman in hospitals, camps, and battle-fields, with illustrations, published in 1865 by Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Edmonds, a New Brunswick native, had been in the United States for five years before the outbreak of hostilities between North and South. In response to a call for soldiers, she signed up with the Army and was assigned to duty as a Field Nurse. In this role, according to the publisher's notice, she joined the "Secret Service" as a spy and "penetrated the enemy's lines, in various disguises, no less than eleven times; always with complete success and without detection." Wow! Apparently, one of these disguises was an African-American appearance; the plate illustrating that particular episode is labeled "Disguised as Contraband."

But did she actually nurse wounded soldiers? She gives no account of her early experiences, saying only that she was drawn to America by "an insatiable thirst for education" and a desire to become a "Foreign Missionary." Her role (from the small amount I read) seems to have been one of supporter, comforter, and confidante to the wounded men. Small wonder she turned to espionage where, she may have felt, her strengths could be used to greater advantage.

A great read, no doubt. While my own personal knowledge of the history of military nursing was not much expanded by my brief dip into the book, I was able to contribute materially to the volume's preservation: I removed a small leaf pressed between inner pages.