Born December 1841
New Brunswick, Canada
Died September 5, 1889
La Porte, Texas
Union soldier, nurse, and spy
Disguised herself as a man to
serve in the Union Army
Historians estimate that more than four hundred women disguised themselves as men in order to serve as either Union or Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Of all these women, Emma Edmonds was the most remarkable. Adopting the name "Franklin Thompson," she joined the Union Army early in the war and served for two years without revealing her true identity. She started out as a battlefield nurse, then made eleven successful missions behind Confederate lines as a spy. Edmonds used a variety of disguises during her spy missions. For example, she posed as a black man, a middle-aged Irish woman, a black woman, and a white Southern businessman. Many years after the war ended, the U.S. government recognized her contributions and awarded her a veteran's pension.
An adventurous tomboy
Emma Edmonds was born on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, in December 1841. Her full name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, but she used her middle name for most of her life. Edmonds had a difficult life as a young girl. Her father had always wanted a son and took out his disappointment on his daughter. To please him, she dressed as a boy from the age of six and worked hard in the fields. She also learned to enjoy rough-and-tumble, outdoor activities like swimming, horseback riding, and climbing trees. After her mother died, though, her father became more and more abusive towards her. When she was sixteen, Edmonds ran away from home. She left Canada and went to the United States in search of freedom.
After spending some time on the East Coast, Edmonds settled in Flint, Michigan. She had trouble finding a good job as a young woman, so she pretended to be a man named Franklin Thompson. She then found a job selling Bibles for a publishing company. But this was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, including slavery. By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. Before long, the two sides went to war.
Civil War soldier and nurse
By the time the Civil War started, Edmonds had developed strong feelings about the United States and considered it her home country. She wanted to help defend the Union against the Southern rebellion. But roles for women were limited in those days. They were not allowed to be soldiers, and they were discouraged from taking on other jobs that were not considered ladylike. But Edmonds did not want to sew clothing and blankets for the soldiers, or work in an office or factory, or be a nurse in a city hospital far from the lines of battle. She wanted to be in the middle of the action. So she decided to enlist in the Union Army as Franklin Thompson.
Disguised as a man, Edmonds went to an army recruiting office to volunteer. Luckily, the officials there did not require a complete physical examination. Instead, they just asked her some questions. On May 14, 1861, Franklin Thompson was accepted as a private in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry unit of the Union Army. Edmonds (Thompson) received special training to serve as a field nurse. She would work in a tent hospital near the front lines of battle, providing medical treatment to wounded soldiers. She served in this capacity in the first major battle of the Civil War—the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia in July 1861.
Edmonds continued working as a soldier and nurse until March 1862, and no one discovered her true identity. But then two things happened that made her want to contribute even more to the Union war effort. First, she learned that a fellow soldier who had been a close friend since she had moved to the United States had been killed by the Confederates. His death made her want to do anything in her power to make the war end sooner. Next, she heard that an important Union spy had been caught and executed in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Without information from this spy, the Union generals in charge of her unit could not move ahead with their plans. After thinking about these two things, Edmonds volunteered to become a spy.
Secret agent for the Union
By this time, Edmonds was a master of disguise. After all, she had fooled everyone for almost a year by pretending to be a man. To increase her value as a spy, she also studied weapons, military strategies, local geography, and biographies of the South's military leaders. For her first mission, she used a chemical called silver nitrate to darken her skin and posed as a black man named Cuff. She knew that the Confederate Army used black slaves as laborers in their camps, so she hoped Cuff would not attract much attention. The disguise worked. She crossed into Confederate territory and began working in the kitchen of an army camp. She overheard valuable information there, then slipped back to the Union side to report her findings.
For her next assignment, Edmonds tied pillows around her waist, put on a dress, and posed as a heavy Irish peddlar woman named Bridget O'Shea. Once again, she crossed into Confederate territory without attracting attention. She wandered into the Confederate Army camp and sold thread, paper, matches, soap, and tea to the soldiers. She also took note of the Confederate defenses and collected other valuable information. When she was finished, she stole a horse to ride back to the Union line. She was shot at and wounded in the arm by Confederate forces, but she escaped. Another time, Edmonds went behind enemy lines disguised as a middle-aged black woman. While doing laundry for the Confederate soldiers, she found official papers in an officer's coat. She slipped out of the camp in the middle of the night and took the papers to Union leaders.
In late 1862, Edmonds's unit was transferred from Virginia to Kentucky. Kentucky was one of four "border" states that allowed slavery but remained loyal to the Union. Many people in Kentucky and the other border states, however, secretly supported the Confederate cause. As a result, a great deal of information about Union forces and strategy in the state was passed to the Confederates. Edmonds was assigned to go to the city of Louisville to learn the identity of Confederate sympathizers and spies there. This time she posed as a young Southern gentleman named Charles Mayberry. She got a job, attended society parties, and generally blended into the population of Louisville. Over time, she successfully uncovered the Confederate spy network that had been operating in the city.
Forced to leave the army
In 1863, Edmonds contracted malaria, a serious disease carried by mosquitoes. She could not check into the military hospital, because everyone there knew her as Private Franklin Thompson. She decided that the only way to prevent her unit from discovering that she was a woman was to leave the army. Without telling anyone, she went to a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois, on April 22. She checked into the hospital under her real name and spent several weeks recovering. Afterward, she hoped to rejoin her old unit. But then she saw an official notice listing Private Franklin Thompson as a deserter, meaning that he had left the army without permission before his term of service ended. Edmonds knew that she would be punished if she went back as Thompson.
Instead of creating a new male identity, Edmonds joined a relief organization as herself. She worked as a female nurse in Washington, D.C., until the end of the war in 1865. The following year, she published a book about her wartime adventures called Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In it, she finally revealed the secret she had kept for so many years. The book sold many copies, and she donated all the profits to the U.S. war relief fund.
Wife and mother honored for wartime service
In 1867, Edmonds met and married Linus Seeyle. They had three sons together. The family lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for awhile, and then moved to Kansas and Texas. Over the years, Edmonds kept in touch with some members of her old Union Army regiment. She was very proud of her wartime service, but she was always disappointed that the government still considered Franklin Thompson a deserter.
In 1884, some of her fellow Civil War veterans urged her to file for a veteran's pension (a monthly payment the government provides to retired service people). She asked the government to review her case, mostly because she hoped to have the desertion charge removed from her record. Government investigators found numerous witnesses willing to state that Emma Edmonds Seeyle and Franklin Thompson were the same person, and that Thompson had provided valuable service to the Union cause as a soldier, nurse, and spy. On March 28, 1884, the U.S. Congress granted Thompson an honorable discharge from the army and awarded Edmonds a veteran's pension of $12 per month.
Edmonds died in La Porte, Texas, on September 5, 1889. She was buried in the military section of the Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas. At the time of her death, she was the only female ever admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic—an organization of Union Civil War veterans that had over four hundred thousand members. Her incredible story has continued to capture people's imagination for generations. As Edmonds once wrote about her exciting Civil War experiences, "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic—but patriotism was the true secret of my success."
Where to Learn More
Edmonds, Sarah Emma. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battlefields. Hartford, CT: W. S. Williams, 1865.
Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Reit, Seymour. Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Seguin, Marilyn. Where Duty Calls: The Story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Soldier and Spy in the Union Army. Boston: Branden, 1999.