Edmonds, Emma (1841–1898)

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Edmonds, Emma (1841–1898)

Canadian-American nurse who, disguised as a man, served the Union Army during the American Civil War as a nurse, courier, and spy. Name variations: Sarah Edwards; Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonson;Emma Edmonds; Frank Thompson; Mrs. Sarah Emma E. Seelye. Born Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonson in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick province, Canada, in December 1841; died on September 5, 1898, in La Porte, Texas; daughter of Isaac Edmonson (a farmer) and Elizabeth (Betsy) Leeper; attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio; married Linus H. Seely (an "e" was added after marriage, creating "Seelye"), on April 27, 1867; children: Linus B., Homer, Alice Louise; (adopted children) George Frederick, Charles Finney.

Disguised as a man, joined the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War (1860), first duty was that of male nurse; later acted as postman, postmaster, courier, and spy for the Federal Secret Service; following military service, wrote memoirs and supported various charities.

During the American Civil War, one soldier served as a dispatch courier, male nurse, and spy for the Federal Secret Service. That same soldier was a Canadian expatriate, a teenager, and a woman. Disguised as a man, Emma Edmonds joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonson was born in December 1841 in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick province, Canada, one of six children of Isaac and Betsy Edmonson , who were potato farmers. Life was often difficult in the Edmonson family. Authoritarian and strongly patriarchal, Isaac was cruel and demeaning to Betsy and had a general resentment toward women. With a farm to run, he desired sons to handle the heavy work. Betsy gave him five daughters, with the only son being sickly and epileptic. Emma was their last child, thereby dashing any hope for a healthy male sibling. This seemed to add to Isaac's disgust with Emma, and she was often browbeaten by her tyrannical and quick-tempered father.

I felt called to go and do what I could for the defense of the right; if I could not fight, I could take the place of someone who could, and thus add one more soldier to the ranks.

—Emma Edmonds

In order to gain her father's approval, Emma took it upon herself to work, play, and think like a boy. Her duties around the farm were performed with physical gusto, and she excelled at equestrian skills, hunting, and fishing. Despite her best efforts, Isaac remained unimpressed and disappointed in his youngest child.

While still a girl, Emma received a gift from a traveling peddler. Fanny Campbell, The Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of the Revolution! was a novel about a girl who masquerades as a man to rescue her boyfriend from pirates. Emma idealized the heroine who had the bravery not only to seek out her lover but to experience the adventure and excitement of the then masculine world. The images within this novel, along with the expectations of her father, would leave a lasting impression.

Throughout her teenage years, Emma resisted conventional dating practices, along with any romantic social situations involving boys. This did not deter her father from arranging her marriage to an older, local farmer. Appalled, she desperately sought a way out. With the covert help of her mother, Emma was secreted out of town to stay with a family friend in the town of Salisbury, 100 miles away.

In her new home, Emma changed her last name to Edmonds and was schooled in the millinery trade, eventually becoming so successful that she and a partner opened their own hat shop. Her prosperity was short-lived, as her father got wind of her whereabouts and seemed sure to retrieve her. Again, she had to escape. She disappeared, evidently without informing her business partner or friends as to her destination, and resurfaced in Saint John, New Brunswick, sporting both a new appearance and name. Her hair was cut short, and she was dressed in men's clothing. In order to elude her father's wrath and live the fantasy of Fanny Campbell, Emma had become Frank Thompson.

Edmonds had worn male clothing for years, both as a practicality of heavy farm work and to gain acceptance from her father. Thus, she was accustomed to this mode of dress and may have found it more comfortable than typical female garb of the period. Though small in stature, her body had been made strong by years spent as a farmhand. This, along with a flat bosom, made for a convincing male disguise.

In her new role as an ambitious young man, Edmonds found a job selling Bibles and religious books door-to-door. She was quite successful in applying her trade throughout New Brunswick and later relocated to the United States, perhaps to satisfy her desire for travel and adventure. While tensions escalated among the states, Edmonds made Flint, Michigan, her home.

But Emma's peaceful life in Flint was not to last as the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Three days later, President Abraham Lincoln made a public proclamation requesting 75,000 militia; the Civil War had begun. As bands played and flags waved, the streets of Flint were swept up in the war hysteria. While Edmonds could have easily returned to her native Canada, she felt compelled to consider an alternative. "I was not able to decide for myself," she wrote, "so I carried this question to the Throne of Grace, and found a satisfactory answer there." With God and her loyalties in agreement, Emma decided to serve in the military.

At the time, entry into the Union Army required no physical examination. However, there was a height requirement of 5′8¼″, which Edmonds did not meet, being only 5'6". Though bitterly disappointed, she reapplied the following month. Demand for recruits had become so great by then that the recruiting agents overlooked shortcomings and signed up as many men as possible. Accepted into the Union Army, Edmonds was sent to Fort Wayne, Detroit, for basic training. On May 25, 1861, ironically the same day that draft boards received more stringent regulations regarding the selection of new recruits, Emma Edmonds became Private Frank Thompson, Union Army nurse.

Her assignment as a male nurse may have been the result of Emma's small size, though descriptions of her demeanor suggest that her stature was irrelevant. Fellow soldiers described her as "dependable as well as conscientious" and "ready for duty, brave, willing and cheerful." Perhaps most flattering was the comrade who noted Edmonds as being a "strong, healthy and robust soldier." Such praise would follow her throughout her varied military service.

Emma arrived in Washington on June 10, 1861, with the Second regiment of Michigan Volunteers. There she continued her military drills and began nursing training. She had the good fortune to acquire Damon Stewart as her bunk mate. They had been friends in Flint before the war began, and his companionship was a comfort to her in this new and strange environment.

Emma and the Union Army would experience their first major military engagement at the Battle of Bull Run. On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate forces clashed near the town of Manassas, Virginia. Although both forces were relatively inexperienced, the North suffered from poor timing and overconfidence. The South, getting the upper hand, began to drive the Union into a retreat that soon digressed into a headlong panic. Expecting a decisive Union victory, picnicking Washingtonians, who had taken up spectating points on the neighboring hillsides, now vied for space on the crowded roads and bridges leading to the safe haven of Washington. During the battle, Edmonds tended to the wounded and dodged sniper fire to obtain needed supplies. She stayed with the wounded until the advancing Rebels compelled her to join the retreat. Despite the Union loss, Emma met her first battlefield experience with the courage and professionalism of a model soldier.

The Battle of Bull Run became a rout to the Confederacy and a wake up call to the Union. The Federal troops were reorganized to form the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan. The general spent the remainder of the summer and the following winter retraining his new army.

It was during this hiatus that Edmonds would make an important friendship. James V. (an alias) had been a childhood friend from New Brunswick. He was now Lieutenant James V. of the Army of the Potomac, whom Emma describes with the highest respect, honor, and warmth. Her memoirs state plainly that the lieutenant did not recognize his transformed schoolmate, and they proceeded to develop a "new friendship." While this scenario is certainly possible, it's unlikely that the lieutenant didn't see past Emma's charade, especially when considering how deeply she was touched by him. In any event, their relationship became a mutual asset in the face of the impending hostilities. Another friendly acquaintance was that of Colonel Poe, her new regiment commander. The colonel seemed to favor Emma, making her letter carrier and later postmaster to the entire brigade. As in the case with Lieutenant James V., the nature of their relationship was suspicious.

The spring of 1862 found the refurbished Army of the Potomac ready for action. The plan was to land at the Union-held Fort Monroe at the mouth of the James River and push northwest up the Virginia peninsula to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Heavy rains and food shortages plagued the troops as they plodded up the peninsula. Edmonds continued delivering the mail, while fighting a case of malaria developed in the swampy and soggy conditions. Upon returning from one of her rounds, she received horrible news: Lieutenant James V. had been killed by a sniper while delivering orders to the outer picket line. "Now he was gone," she wrote in her memoirs, "and I was left alone with a deeper sorrow in my heart than I had ever known before." Her reaction added support to their suspected, deeper relationship, and helped to explain her next rash and dangerous decision.

A Federal spy had been captured and executed in Richmond, and someone was needed to take his place. Edmonds applied for the post and was sent to Washington for interviews and evaluations. Having been found worthy of the position, she returned to her regiment as a sworn member of the Federal Secret Service.

Her first assignment was to infiltrate the Rebel lines at Yorktown and take note of fortifications and troop numbers. To pose as a black male worker, she used walnut juice to darken her skin, shaved her head, donned a black wig, and wore "real plantation style" clothing. She had no trouble sneaking past the Rebel lines and freely walked throughout the Yorktown fortifications. A Confederate officer found this idle black to be suspicious and ordered Emma to the gun barriers where she spent an exhaustive day in heavy labor on the fortifications. That evening, she bribed a black worker for his job and spent the next two days carrying water to the Rebel troops. This gave her an excellent opportunity to observe the camp and to listen in on camp talk. On the evening of the third day, after gathering sufficient information, Edmonds volunteered to bring water to the outer pickets. She slipped into the night and quietly crossed the line to Union ground. Along with descriptions of armaments and troop estimates, Edmonds' report included overheard conversations claiming that Yorktown could not be held if attacked. This proved to be correct, for as the Union readied their attack the Confederates quietly pulled out of Yorktown.

The Federal advance toward Richmond was slower than expected, due in part to the heavy rains, but also to the reticence of General Mc-Clellan. Inaccurate intelligence reports convinced the general that he was badly outnumbered when in fact the Union had a numerical advantage. Disappointed by their lack of progress, one of McClellan's officers nicknamed him "the Virginia Creeper." For her second spy mission, Edmonds was to enter a Rebel camp and discover how they interpreted the Union's slow advance.

Disguised as an Irish peddler woman, Edmonds set out toward the Rebel line, forging through rain swollen rivers and swamps. Soaking wet from her travels, she became ill and spent the next three days in the swamp, incapacitated. Finally, she stumbled upon an abandoned house that contained food and, to her surprise, a dying Confederate officer. She fed both herself and the officer, then stayed with him until he died. Emma agreed to honor his final wish; to inform his friends at the Rebel camp about his fate. She touched up her peddler disguise and walked straight into the Rebel headquarters.

Her act worked flawlessly, enabling her to casually eavesdrop on the camp scuttlebutt. She then sought out the friend of the officer whose death she had witnessed. Grateful for the information, he asked if Edmonds would lead them back to retrieve his comrade's body and loaned her a horse for the escort. As they tended to the corpse, Edmonds was asked to check for any sign of Yankees further down the road. She casually rode in that direction but did not stop until she found the Union Army.

The peninsula campaign became a bitter failure for the North. Numerous battles had been fought, bringing Richmond within reach of the Union. Yet General McClellan's fear of the thousands of nonexistent "ghost" troops sacrificed the Union's momentum and advantage. McClellan pulled back to Harrison's Landing on the James River, appealing to Lincoln for more new troops. On August 3, 1862, McClellan and his Army of the Potomac were ordered to leave the peninsula.

For Edmonds, the campaign had brought her the challenge of Secret Service work and the loss of her bunkmate. Damon Stewart had been badly injured and was sent home to Flint. Despite this loss, she dutifully continued her nursing and courier work when not involved in espionage. While still suffering a lingering illness from her mission in the swamps, Edmonds was also severely bitten and kicked by her horse while tending a wounded officer. As the Army of the Potomac prepared to leave for Alexandria and Aquia Creek, she returned to Washington to convalesce.

Instead of going back to her regiment when she recovered, Edmonds was first ordered on a series of spy missions. Disguised as a black female cook, she entered Confederate headquarters and obtained information on troop numbers and locations. She also procured written orders describing the proposed capture of Washington the following day. All told, Edmonds "visited the rebel generals three times at their own camp-fires, within a period of ten days, and came away with valuable information, unsuspected and unmolested."

Back once again with the Army of the Potomac, Edmonds took part in three more battles in 1862. In the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 29, she again spied as a black woman. She then served as a nurse during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, the single bloodiest day in American history with more than 23,000 casualties. Finally, during the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, Edmonds served as orderly to her friend General (formerly colonel) Poe.

Throughout this time, Edmonds was suffering from an escalating medical condition. Injuries received during the peninsula campaign when she was kicked by her horse, and more recently during the Second Battle of Bull Run when she was thrown from her horse, caused "frequent hemmorhaging [sic] from the lungs." The degree of her loyalty was such that she avoided medical care for fear of exposing her gender. Her strong sense of duty would come at great personal expense. When her friend General Poe was transferred to the Ninth Corps, Western Department in Kentucky, Edmonds asked to be transferred with him. There she would take part in two final covert missions.

While disguised as a male Confederate sympathizer in Lebanon, Kentucky, Edmonds happened upon a wedding party and mingled with the guests. She caught the attention of a Rebel captain who was suspicious of this healthy young man who was not serving the military. Despite her most imaginative arguments, the captain persisted and shanghaied Emma into the Confederate cavalry. As they departed the following day because of the impending advance of the Union, Edmonds and her new Rebel comrades encountered a party of Federal cavalry. During the resulting skirmish, she was able to slip away to the Union side of the fray. As the tide of the battle shifted, Edmonds found herself opposing, face to face, the Confederate officer who had enlisted her. With military professionalism, she "discharged the contents of my pistol in his face." As the Union infantry arrived to assist, the Confederates fled.

Edmonds' final spy mission took place in Union-held Louisville, Kentucky. In order to expose Confederate sympathizers, she disguised herself as a young Canadian man who wished to support the Rebel cause, and she found a job as a clerk in a dry goods store. The employer, impressed with her naive, farm-boy act, turned out to be a Confederate sympathizer who happily assisted her in entering the Confederate service. When Edmonds finally ended the charade, one Confederate sympathizer and three spies had been exposed. But Edmonds' health continued to decline, and she was under more pressure to seek medical treatment. Her plight became serious when General Poe's commission expired, leaving him chief engineer on a general's staff. Without her friend's support, and feeling "that I would certainly die if I did not leave immediately," Edmonds went "AWOL" from the army in April 1863.

She first traveled to Oberlin, Ohio, where she rested and recuperated. In a transformation as sudden and unexpected as the first, Frank Thompson became Emma Edmonds. For the remainder of her life, she would keep her female identity. As she recuperated, she wrote her memoirs. Published as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army by S. Emma E. Edmonds, it became a bestseller at 175,000 copies, the profits of which Edmonds contributed to Civil War charities. For the remainder of the war, she volunteered her nursing skills to the war injured.

Later, Edmonds returned to Ohio and briefly attended Oberlin College. Not long after, she received a proposal of marriage from Linus H. Seely, a carpenter from Emma's native New Brunswick, Canada. They had met after her army service while Edmonds was a volunteer nurse in Harper's Ferry. On April 27, 1867, Emma and Linus were wed in Cleveland, Ohio. As had happened so often in her life, Edmonds was dissatisfied with the name she now carried. Citing personal aesthetics, she added an "e" to her new married name, creating "Seelye." The couple moved often, working in diverse fields such as farming, orphanage management, and carpentry. They had three children, all of whom died young. Through adoption, they acquired two boys who survived to adulthood.

Since her war years, Emma had suffered chronic illnesses that were attributed to her army service. This often put a strain on her family budget, since she did not receive a military pension. While in the midst of just such a financial and medical hardship, Edmonds found the justification not only to apply for her well-earned pension but to attempt to clear her military record of the "AWOL" charge. Through correspondence with her former military companions, Edmonds gathered statements and affidavits that attested to her army service. A general reaction of surprise if not shock was felt by the men who fought beside her. Eventually, most accepted her as an endeared and respected veteran, prompting her to attend the 1884 regimental reunion in Flint, Michigan.

Following years of legislative persistence, Emma finally received a proper honorable discharge from the army, along with her monthly military pension. In April of 1897, while living in La Porte, Texas, she was accepted into the George B. McClellan Post No. 9 of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Upon her death, September 5, 1898, Emma E. Seelye was buried by her GAR post in La Porte cemetery. On Memorial Day, 1901, her body was moved to the GAR plot in Washington Cemetery, Houston, Texas. That same year, in a tribute while addressing the veterans of the Second Michigan, Colonel Frederick Schneider said of his comrade Emma Edmonds:

No war ever developed so much bravery and devotion among women as did the great Civil War of 1861–1865. But none of the many instances recorded have surpassed the record for pure, unselfish patriotism and zeal for the cause of humanity, daring bravery and heroic fortitude as that of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Frank Thompson of Company F, in the summing up of whose life, find an extraordinary amount of patriotic devotion to the cause of her adopted country in the greatest crisis of its history, and nearly her whole life devoted to the alleviation of human suffering and the whole world made better from her having lived in it.


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Matthew Lee , freelance writer, Colorado Springs, Colorado

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Edmonds, Emma (1841–1898)

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