“I probably drew from [my mother’s]
breast with my daily food my
love of independence and hatred
of male tyranny.”
Becoming a soldier might not sound like the geekiest calling, especially if, growing up, you were more into reading stuff than stabbing stuff. But becoming a soldier because you read about an awesome lady pirate in a book? One of us, one of us! Meet Sarah Emma Edmonds, the baddest bookish lady ever to take up arms.
The book that helped Emma discover her calling was Maturin Murray Ballou’s 1844 novel Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of the Revolution, the thrilling account of a British heroine who dons a sensible pair of trousers and sets out on the wild seas to rescue the love of her life, captured overseas during the American Revolution. (I know—it’s so Alanna of Tortall!) Emma tore through the book, and she was pumped about it: “Each exploit of the heroine thrilled me to my finger tips,” she later recalled. “I went home that night with the problem of my life solved. I felt equal to the emergency. I was emancipated, and could never be a slave again. When I read where ‘Fanny’ cut off her brown curls and donned the blue jacket, and stepped into the freedom and glorious independence of masculinity, I threw up my old straw hat and shouted.”
Emma had a good reason to desire a little escapism. She grew up the youngest of four girls in a farming family from New Brunswick, Canada, and since her dad had always wanted a boy (cue groaning), he was not the most thrilled with her arrival. When her parents did eventually have a son, things got even tougher after the boy showed signs of epilepsy. Though Emma had been educated a bit at grammar school, she found herself picking up the “man slack” by taking on the responsibilities of running the homestead, learning how to ride, hunt, shoot, chop wood, forage for food, even how to manage a household and nurse the sick.
As a reward for all her hard work, Emma’s father decided that, at the ripe old age of seventeen, she needed to marry the old guy next door because…he also owned a farm. Entirely disgusted by the idea, Emma (with the help of her mother and her best friend Linus, who may have hooked her up with some sweet duds) snuck out amid wedding preparations in the middle of the night and ran to a neighboring town. She learned millinery, worked in a hat shop, and all was going great—until her mother alerted her that dear old dad had found out where she was. So Emma, that clever bookish gal, took a cue from her literary heroine, Fanny: she chopped off her hair, threw on some pants, had a telltale mole removed from her left cheek, and high-tailed it to a new town as the newly christened “Franklin Thompson.” (And when I say “moved to a new town,” I mean just up and walked the 450 miles to Connecticut.)
As Franklin, Emma experienced firsthand all the fantastic freedom she had felt while reading Fanny Campbell. Suddenly she could get a job (as a Bible salesman for a large publisher in Nova Scotia, eventually); go out unescorted, even at night; and eat in a restaurant by herself. Understandably, Emma loved her life as a dude, and she was darn good at her job to boot. As her company’s top salesman, she could now afford nice clothes and a carriage to take “lady friends out riding occasionally” and, as she put it, have “a nice time generally.” As it turned out, though, Bible selling wasn’t the steadiest work, since people don’t constantly need a whole lot of Bibles. (They’re not iPhones, you know? Once you have one, you’re good for pretty much forever.) So with only five dollars to her name, Franklin headed out to start a new life in Michigan—though she “came near marrying a pretty little girl who was bound that I should not leave Nova Scotia without her.” (Oh, hey! Just gals bein’ pals!)
It was in Flint that Emma heard of President Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand men to fight for the cause of uniting the country in the Civil War. On May 25, 1861, at just twenty years old, she joined up with Company F of the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. How’d she pull it off? Well, given that so many guys were enlisting simultaneously, the medical intake procedures were a bit lax (i.e., if you had ten fingers, ten toes, and most of your teeth, you were good to go). Accustomed to dressing and behaving like Franklin, Emma had no problem fitting in with her division. She was assigned to be a field nurse and mail carrier and took part in a ton of terrifying, unforgiving battles against the Confederates, racing across battlefields covered in blood to give soldiers aid (or brandy) as they lay wounded on the muddy ground.
But nursing wasn’t enough for Emma. One of the Union’s spies had been captured by the Confederates and subsequently executed—a now-vacant position that needed filling. Eager to get her espionage on, Emma/Franklin submitted to a bunch of tests designed to challenge her values as well as her military knowledge, including a phrenological examination—that thing where they read the bumps on her head to see if the ones that corresponded to her “secretiveness and combativeness” were large enough. She passed muster, but her superiors were unsure if she would be any good at disguise. (Ridiculously ironic, given that no one, not even her tentmate or a fellow soldier she’d known in Canada, had yet figured out her true identity.) To prove her skills, Emma left camp for three days and came back with a completely altered appearance, introducing herself as “Cuff,” a Black man (a problematic, but effective, disguise). No one in camp had any idea who she was, and so she got the job. Emma would later infiltrate enemy lines undercover as an enslaved man named Ned, a female Irish pie seller named Bridget O’Shea, a Black laundrywoman, and more. She consistently maintained her disguise, even under duress, allowing her to obtain official papers and information about military numbers, formation, and strategy (including that the Confederates were using “Quaker guns,” or big logs painted like cannons, to appear better armed than they were).
Even surrounded by men, Emma still managed to support her fellow ladies and develop female friendships (as should we all!). Already close with a Mrs. B, one of the first and only female front-line nurses in the Civil War and her “constant companion,” Emma even befriended women across enemy lines. While on a supply run (aka begging Confederate plantation owners for stuff for the Union army, yikes), Emma found herself invited into the home of a Confederate lady, Alice, who packed Emma a nice basket and showed her on her way—only to up and try to shoot her in the back. Undaunted, Emma ducked over her horse’s neck, whipped around in her saddle, and returned fire at Alice, nailing her clean through the palm of the hand she’d raised in surrender. Emma then tied Alice’s wrist to the back of her horse and dragged her several feet until she apologized, at which point Emma let her ride on her horse back to the Union camp, giving her water and even catching her when she fainted from being shot in the hand. When they reached camp, a distraught Alice revealed that she had just lost her father, husband, and two brothers to the war—but instead of resisting, she begged Emma to let her help the Union cause. Over the next few years, Alice—who took the name Nellie—“became one of the most faithful and efficient nurses in the army” and Emma’s “faithful friend and companion, my colleague when on duty, and my escort on all occasions in my rides and rambles. She was a splendid woman, and had the best faculty of dispelling the blues, dumps and dismals of any person I ever met.”
But life as a soldier in the Union army wasn’t all Yankee bro-fists and campfire songs. Emma was still human, and she didn’t let her whole “I’m a dude” act stop her from falling in love. In October 1861 she developed a hardcore thing for Jerome Robbins, an assistant surgeon who was in love with another woman. Robbins called his relationship with Franklin “the friendship of one true heart,” but after Emma pulled the big reveal (along the lines of “I’m a girl and I love you!”), he rejected her. After her confession, Jerome noted, puzzled, that Emma acted “strangely,” “disagreeable,” and “very much out of humor” toward him (thereby proving that men two hundred years ago were just as obtuse as they are today). Still, Jerome never revealed Emma’s secret, even after he suspected she’d moved on to the handsome (and married) assistant adjutant general James Reid.
Worse than the heartache, though, were the disease and ill health that caused more battlefield deaths than the actual combat. Nasty things like dysentery, diarrhea, and dehydration were rampant in camps constantly battered by wind and rain, and nurses and surgeons were barely trained to care for the ill. Emma had suffered from a broken leg, a horse bite, a lung hemorrhage, malaria (which she contracted while delivering letters across a buggy swamp), and what was likely posttraumatic stress disorder after a shell exploded in front of her tent. With all those injuries adding up, Emma realized she really needed medical attention or she would be on the fast track to corpse town. Denied leave for medical aid and fearing that a military doctor would poke around and discover her secret (we’ve all seen Mulan), on April 19, 1863, Emma took off for a civilian hospital in Ohio, planning to return to her unit after she’d recovered. By the time she left the hospital, however, Franklin Thompson had been labeled a deserter—meaning she’d be put to death if she returned to battle. Instead, “with much reluctance,” Emma threw on a dress, resumed her real name, and volunteered as a nurse at a Christian Commission hospital in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
It was during this time that she also penned her war memoirs, Unsexed; or, The Female Soldier, later retitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Published by the same folks for whom she used to sell Bibles, the book was a massive success, selling nearly 200,000 copies (a lot for a book today, let alone in the 1860s); it is the only evidence we have of Emma’s time as a spy, since no official government records corroborate her claims. But most historians agree that Emma was on the level about most of her tales, even if she exaggerated some of her story for entertainment value. You might begrudgingly think, “well, a girl’s gotta eat,” but Emma didn’t even keep most earnings from her book sales. She donated the majority of the profits to war aid efforts, including the United States Sanitary Commission, newly founded by none other than Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell (remember them from chapter 2?).
After the war (and by complete fluke), Emma ran into her old hometown friend Linus, who was then a carpenter in West Virginia. After three years of correspondence, they married—Emma liked that Linus was from home and that he never judged her for her exploits. Moving constantly across the United States in pursuit of work, the couple had three children, none of whom lived past age six, and subsequently adopted two boys they raised as their own. Emma enrolled at Oberlin College but hated it (not to put too fine a point on it). She’d never really gotten over being labeled a deserter. She knew she deserved a military pension, but she also knew it would be difficult to convince the government she truly had fought in the war (even though it’s probable that nearly four hundred women were active in the Civil War). So she did the most dramatic thing possible: at a reunion of her Michigan Infantry division, she showed up in full skirts and was like, “Hey guys, it’s me, Franklin!” Everyone was utterly confused until her colonel admitted, “I recall many things which ought to have betrayed her, except that no one thought of finding a woman in a soldier’s dress.”
Getting over the initial shock (and acting way cooler about the situation than one would anticipate), Emma’s fellow veterans submitted to Congress all kinds of praise on her behalf, saying that (as Franklin) she had “performed cheerfully and fully and at all times any duty which was assigned her,” that “more than one member of the company can attest to the care, kindness and self-sacrificing devotion of ‘Frank’ to the sick soldiers of the regiment,” and that she “rode with a fearlessness that attracted the attention and secured the commendation of field and general officers.” Her old captain (the one who mistakenly admitted her into the army; awkward) even said that she “won the respect, admiration, and confidence of both officers and men.” The secretary of war then verified that Emma was “a female soldier who served as a private—rendering faithful service in the ranks.” In 1884 Congress passed a bill allowing her to receive a $12 monthly pension, $100 in back pay (over $300 and $2,500, respectively, in Today Dollars), and an honorable discharge. Two years later, her desertion charge was expunged.
Finally settling in Texas, Emma became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans’ organization. She died on September 5, 1898, at age fifty-nine. Her coffin was carried by delegates from the Grand Army, and she is the only woman buried in a cemetery plot reserved for veterans of the Civil War—an ending that would make even Fanny Campbell proud.