Sarah Edmonds: Soldier Girl
Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841. In 1861, she was living in Flint, Michigan and felt strongly about the need to end slavery. So, having already changed her appearance she enlisted in Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment as Frank Thompson.
A Difficult Early Life
Sarah’s father was a tyrant who “demanded immediate and complete submission from wife and children alike” (Canada’s History).
As a farmer, Sarah’s father wanted strong, muscular sons to help with the crops, but his wife produced two daughters and a weak, epileptic boy.
Sarah was only 15 when she faced the prospect of being married off to an older man. She was having none of that so she ran away and found work in a milliner’s shop. Soon, she was co-owner of a millinery store in Moncton, New Brunswick.
Her father tracked her down so she took flight again, ending up in Saint John, New Brunswick, disguised as a man.
Move to America
She called herself Frank Thompson and took up the profession of selling Bibles. His/her employer was based in Connecticut and is reported to have said that in 30 years in the business he’d never come across so gifted a salesperson as Frank Thompson.
She was selling books in Flint, Michigan when the Civil War broke out in April 1861.
In her 1865 book, The Female Spy of the Union Army, she wrote “It was not my intention, or desire, to seek my own personal ease and comfort while so much sorrow and distress filled the land. But the great question to be decided was, what can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama? I was not able to decide for myself - so I carried this question to the Throne of Grace, and found a satisfactory answer there.”
The answer was that she should enlist in the Union Army.
But, wouldn’t her gender be revealed in a recruiting physical? The answer is what physical? As Tom Derreck writes, the Union Army needed “cannon fodder [that] wasn’t blind, lame, missing limbs, or subject to fits …” If the aspiring soldier could fog up a mirror he, or in Sarah Emma’s case she, was given a uniform and told to muster.
Back in those days, recruits signed on and were put into the field with only rudimentary training. Having been raised on a farm, Sarah/Frank was accomplished with horses and was also a crack shot. So, cavalry would be an obvious choice. But, armies being what they are, the obvious choice is rarely made. Private Frank Thompson was assigned the duties of postman and male nurse.
In July 1861, her unit was sent to Bull Run, which turned out to be a catastrophic defeat for the Union. She volunteered to tend to the wounded and dying soldiers. Later, she wrote that her purpose in going to war was “to nurse the sick and care for the wounded. I had inherited from my mother a rare gift of nursing, and when not too weary or exhausted, there was a magnetic power in my hands to soothe the delirium.”
She continued nursing and carrying messages from headquarters to the battle lines as the Union Army was rebuilt.
Emma the Spy
When she heard that a Union spy had been executed by firing squad she volunteered to take his place.
The official military records offer no proof that Emma actually engaged in spying, however, she wrote about her experiences in her memoirs.
Using a variety of disguises, Sarah Emma travelled into Confederate territory. She shaved her head, donned a curly black wig, and darkened her skin with silver nitrate. As a black slave named Cuff she was able to get into Confederate camps, note troop movements, and sketch fortifications.
On other occasions she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea or as a black laundress. Apparently, the Union Army brass was delighted with the intelligence she gathered.
Early in 1863, the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment was ordered to Kentucky, where Emma came down with malaria.
If she sought treatment in an army hospital her true gender would certainly be revealed. So, she absconded and turned up in a dress at a hospital in Pittsburgh.
Once cured, she decided to head back to her unit but, on the way, she saw an army notice in a window. It listed one Private Frank Thompson as a deserter; if apprehended, the poor man would likely face execution. Clearly, it was time for Frank Thompson to cease to exist.
Emma went to Washington where she served out the rest of the war as a female nurse working for the United States Christian Sanitary Commission.
After the war, when her true identity was revealed, a group of her old army buddies started a petition to recognize her service. In 1884, a special act of Congress granted Emma an honourable discharge and a small pension.
“I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward men—my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother’s endured wrongs—and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and my hatred of male tyranny.”
Sarah Emma Edmonds explaining her disguise
While nursing she had met a fellow New Brunswicker called Linus Seelye. The two returned to their home province and married. Then, they moved back to the United States and finally settled in La Porte, Texas, near Galveston.
Life was hard and there was never enough money. Sarah Emma was plagued by poor health brought on by the arduous life she had endured during the Civil War.
The couple raised three boys and one of them enlisted in the U.S. Army, just as his mother had done. (Some sources say all the boys died in their youth).
In September 1898, Sarah Emma Seelye suffered a stroke and died. She was 56.
The Grand Army of the Republic was an organization of Union Army veterans. In 1897, Sarah Emma Edmonds became the only woman admitted to the group. In 1998, she was inducted into the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and the State of Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. New Brunswick similarly honoured her in 1990.
According to History.com “More than 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.”
In his 2013 book, Blood and Daring, John Boyco says an estimated 40,000 Canadians fought in the U.S. Civil War, some in support of the Confederacy. Meanwhile, about 12,000 Americans headed north to Canada to avoid the draft.
- “Soldier Girl: The Emma Edmonds Story.” Tom Derreck, Canada’s History, March 14, 2017.
- “Sarah Emma Edmonds.” American Battlefield Trust, undated.
- “The Female Spy of the Union Army.” S. Emma E. Edmonds, DeWolfe, Fiske, and Co., 1865.
- “New History Documents Canada’s Surprising Role in U.S. Civil War.” Tim Cook, Globe and Mail, December 28, 2017.
- “Women in the Civil War.” Matthew Pinkster, History.com, undated.