Sarah Emma Edmonds

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Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Edmonds lg sepia.jpg
Edmonds as Franklin Thompson
Nickname(s) "Franklin Thompson"
Born December 1841
Magaguadavic, Colony of New Brunswick, British Canada
Died September 5, 1898 (age 56)
La Porte, Texas, U.S.
Buried at Glenwood Cemetery
Houston, Texas, U.S.

United States United States of America

Service/branch Seal of the United States Board of War.png Union Army
Years of service 1861-1863
Rank Private
Unit Michigan state coat of arms (illustrated, 1876).jpg 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry
Battles/wars American Civil War

Sarah Emma Edmonds (December 1841[1] – September 5, 1898[2]), was a Canadian-born woman who is known for serving as a man with the Union Army during the American Civil War. A master of disguise, Edmonds exploits were described in the bestselling Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In 1992, she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.

Civil War Service[edit]

Sarah Emma Edmonds had always been adventurous; her interest in adventure was sparked by a book she read in her youth by Maturin Murray Ballou called Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain,[3] telling the story of Fanny Campbell and her adventures on a pirate ship while dressed as a man. Fanny remained dressed as a man in order to pursue other adventures, to which Edmonds attributes her desire to cross dress. During the Civil War, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on her second try, disguising herself as a man named "Franklin Flint Thompson," the middle name possibly after the city she volunteered in, Flint, Michigan. She felt that it was her duty to serve her country and it was truly patriotic. Extensive physical examinations were not required for enlistment at the time, and she was not discovered.[4] She at first served as a male field nurse, participating in several campaigns under General McClellan, including the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign, Vicksburg, and others. However, some historians today say she could not have been at all these different places at the same time.

Frank Thompson's career took a turn during the war when a Union spy in Richmond, Virginia was discovered and went before a firing squad, and a friend, James Vesey, was killed in an ambush. She took advantage of the open spot and the opportunity to avenge her friend's death. She applied for, and won, the position as Franklin Thompson. Although there is no proof in her military records that she actually served as a spy, she wrote extensively about her experiences disguised as a spy during the war.[5]

Traveling into enemy territory in order to gather information required Emma to come up with many disguises. One disguise required Edmonds to use silver nitrate to dye her skin black, wear a black wig, and walk into the Confederacy disguised as a black man by the name of Cuff. Another time she entered as an Irish peddler woman by the name of Bridget O'Shea, claiming that she was selling apples and soap to the soldiers. Yet another time she was "working for the Confederates" as a black laundress when a packet of official papers fell out of an officer's jacket. When Thompson returned to the Union with the papers, the generals were delighted. Another time, she worked as a detective in Maryland as Charles Mayberry, finding an agent for the Confederacy.

Edmonds' career as Frank Thompson came to an end when she contracted malaria. She abandoned her duty in the military, fearing that if she went to a military hospital she would be discovered. She checked herself into a private hospital, intending to return to military life once she had recuperated. Once she recovered, however, she saw posters listing Frank Thompson as a deserter. Rather than return to the army under another alias or as Frank Thompson, risking execution for desertion, she decided to serve as a female nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital for wounded soldiers run by the United States Christian Commission. There was speculation that Edmonds may have deserted because of John Reid having been discharged months earlier. There is evidence in his diary that she had mentioned leaving before she had contracted malaria. Her fellow soldiers spoke highly of her military service, and even after her disguise was discovered, considered her a good soldier. She was referred to as a fearless soldier and was active in every battle her regiment faced.[5][6]

Edmonds' Memoir[edit]

In 1864, Boston publisher DeWolfe, Fiske, & Co. published Edmonds' account of her military experiences as The Female Spy of the Union Army. One year later, her story was picked up by a Hartford, CT publisher who issued it with a new title, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It was a huge success, selling in excess of 175,000 copies.[7]

Personal life[edit]

In 1867, she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic, with whom she had three children.[7]

Later life[edit]

In 1886,[7] she received a government pension of $12 a month for her military service, and after some campaigning, was able to have the charge of desertion dropped, and receive an honorable discharge. In 1897, she became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans' organization. Edmonds died in La Porte, Texas, and is buried in the GAR section of Washington Cemetery in Houston.


A number of fictional accounts of her life having been written for young adults in the 20th century, including Ann Rinaldi's Girl in Blue.

She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1992.[8]

Edmonds' book was reprinted again in 1999 with a new title, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy.

See also[edit]



  • Bearce, Stephanie (2014). Top Secret Files: The Civil War: Spies, Secret Missions, and Hidden Facts from the Civil War. Prufrock Press Inc. ISBN 9781618212504. 
  • Boyko, John (2013). Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. ISBN 9780307361448. OCLC 845340026. 
  • Caravantes, Peggy (2002). Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Morgan Reynolds Publishers. ISBN 1883846889. OCLC 49305580. , a non-fiction title geared towards a young adult audience.
  • Dannett, Sylvia G. L. (1960). She Rode with the Generals: The True and Incredible Story of Sarah Emma Seelye, Alias Franklin Thompson. T. Nelson. OCLC 1731436. 
  • Gansler, Laura Leedy (2005). The Mysterious Private Thompson: The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier. Free Press. ISBN 0743242807. 
  • Hoehling, Mary Duprey (1959). Girl, soldier and spy: Sarah Emma Edmunds. , a young adult novel.
  • Leonard, Elizabeth D. (1999). All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393047121. OCLC 40543151. 
  • Michaelides, Marina (2006). Renegade Women of Canada: The Wild, Outrageous, Daring and Bold. Folklore Pub. ISBN 1894864492. OCLC 63194846. 
  • Moss, Marissa (2012). A Soldier's Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. Amulet Books. , a fiction title geared towards young adults.
  • Reit, Seymour (1988). Behind Rebel Lines:: the Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 0152004165. OCLC 16922886. , a non-fiction title geared towards a juvenile audience
  • Rinaldi, Ann (2001). Girl in Blue. Scholastic. ISBN 0439073367. OCLC 44914161. , a fiction account geared towards a young adult audience
  • Winkler, H. Donald (2010). Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Cumberland House. ISBN 9781402242748. OCLC 515413226. 


  • Pistols and Petticoats: Shadows of Sarah Emma Edmonds by Emily Bossé, Jean-Michel Cliche, Thomas Fanjoy, Jake Martin, Lisa Anne Ross and Julia Whalen, produced in 2011 by the Next Folding Theatre Company.[9]
  • "The Secret War of Emma Edmonds," an original play by Bonnie Milne Gardner, produced 2013 at Ohio Wesleyan University
  • "Comrades Mine: Emma Edmonds of the Union Army" by Maureen Gallagher received its world premiere production in April 2013 as part of Chicago-based City Lit Theater Company's Civil War Sesquicentennial Project.[10]


  1. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 23
  2. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 30
  3. ^ Ballou, Maturin Murray (1845). Fanny Campbell, the female pirate captain : a tale of the revolution. Boston: F. Gleason. 
  4. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 25.
  5. ^ a b Tsui, Bonnie. Emma received very little education or nurturing. She started to act as a man early in her life. She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War.
  6. ^ Eggleston, Larry G. (2003). Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 0786414936, page 29.
  7. ^ a b c DeAnne Blanton (Spring 1993). "Women Soldiers of the Civil War, Part 2". Prologue Magazine: Selected Articles 25 (1). 
  8. ^ Sarah Emma Edmonds: Michigan Women's Hall of Fame page
  9. ^ "The Next Folding Theatre Company - Past Productions". Retrieved 2014-04-25. 
  10. ^ "City Lit Theater Company". Retrieved 2014-04-25. 

External links[edit]