Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds, Union Soldier, Spy, and Nurse

December 1841–September 5, 1898

HIGHEST RANK:

Union Soldier, Spy, and Nurse

ASTROLOGICAL SIGN:

Sagittarius or Capricorn

NICKNAMES:

Frank Thompson, Our Woman

WORDS TO REMEMBER:

“I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward man. I hope I have outgrown it measurably, but my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother’s wrongs before I ever saw the light, and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and hatred of male tyranny.”

It is easy to forget through all the enormous casualty figures, savagery, and hateful noise of sectional rivalry that the American Civil War occurred during the Victorian Age—that its participants, in addition to being trapped in a mortal struggle that seemed interminable, were also imprisoned by a cage of stifling moral attitudes. One of those attitudes stipulated that those who marched “Into the jaws of Death,/Into the mouth of Hell,” as Tennyson wrote about another war, could only be men. Indeed, war was strictly the province of men, like voting or cigars or functional clothing. It was a man’s life in the army.

Not quite. According to DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook in They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, at least 250 women were “in the ranks” of Civil War armies, and probably many more. Many of them, confronted with the societal limits placed on their gender, conjured imaginative ways of realizing their martial ambitions. Simply put, they went to war incognito.

One of the most famous was Sarah Emma Edmonds. She was born Sarah Emma Edmondson into a remote New Brunswick community called Magaguadavic (say that ten times fast). Her mother was an earnest, hard-laboring carrier of numerous children—all of whom, save one, were girls, a disaster to family patriarch Isaac Edmondson. Stuck with five girls and an epileptic son, Isaac assumed a permanently surly aspect, getting as much labor as he could out of his daughters on the family farm and generally treating everyone churlishly. Little wonder Emma grew up critical of men. When she was seventeen, Isaac arranged a marriage for her with an older widower without so much as consulting her. It was the last straw.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was one of the many women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Her fellow soldiers hardly suspected a thing.

Desperate to get out of town before she lost her freedom, Emma cooked up an escape plan. It seems likely that her mother, Betsy, was a conspirator, having decided that arranging her daughter’s exile was preferable to watching her suffer in a lousy marriage as she herself had. According to one story, Emma was a stowaway on a wagon belonging to Betsy’s friend, who casually and inconspicuously delivered her young cargo beyond the reach of Isaac Edmondson’s grasp. The rest of Emma’s life had begun.

What followed was very odd indeed and offers a window on the resolution of this remarkable young woman. Determined to secure her newfound freedom by earning a living, Emma answered an advertisement for traveling booksellers from a subscription publisher in Hartford, Connecticut. Naturally, only men could be itinerant booksellers (duh!), so Emma … well, became a man. She responded to the publisher as “Franklin Thompson,” a suitably manly name, and set about perfecting her alter ego with a new suit of clothes, a new haircut, and a new walk (it was always the walk that gave a male impersonator away). It worked. Frank never got so much as a snicker out of his customers.

Ms. Edmondson wasn’t just good at transgender theater—she was also good at selling books. The spirited young woman from rural Canada had hit upon her dreams: She was as free as any bachelor, beholden to no one, and with plenty of money in her purse. Independence, which she was not raised to anticipate as a girl, had become her reality. It was intoxicating.

After some unidentified mishap in which she lost all her money and belongings (perhaps a robbery?), Emma journeyed to Hartford itself and secured another business relationship to sell books door-to-door. She soon made her territory in Michigan, where she found the same success that she had had in eastern Canada and New England. It was here that she cemented her relationship to her adopted country, acquiring a fondness for America that would soon be put to the ultimate test.

That being civil war, of course. Emma had become quite attached to the United States, whose sundering caused her no small amount of concern. Moreover, she was a very pious Christian who was brought up to view slavery as a dreadful sin. How could she stand by and let everyone else shed their blood for the cause?

It wasn’t enough to love her adopted country and to feel compelled by moral necessity. There was something else in her decision to go to war—a sense of adventure that had always been there, deep inside, and that had inspired her to defy convention once before with spectacular success. Much of the world already knew her as Frank Thompson. Why shouldn’t Frank volunteer with all the other wild-eyed young men?

Practiced as she was at passing herself off as a “him,” the only real obstacle to Emma’s—er, Frank’s—goal was the physical exam. “Physical exam,” indeed. The extent of Frank’s examination was the hands, whose small size should’ve been a clue. Instead, the doctor took the prospective soldier’s hands in his own and gruffly asked, “Well, what sort of a living have these hands earned?” Frank explained that he had been a student, which, rather mystifyingly, was enough for the examiner. Passed.

In fact, Mr. Thompson had been lucky. Depending on the location and circumstances, many physicals were much more thorough. And demands from officers in the field for closer scrutiny of volunteers would eventually produce standardized examinations that really got down to business. But in May 1861, Frank Thompson managed to squeeze through the system and become a private in the Second Michigan.

She made a peculiar soldier: she grew no facial hair and her feet were unusually small (especially for a “man” five feet nine inches tall), something that her comrades loved to razz her about. In time they called her “our woman,” having no idea how close to the truth they really were. To them she was a small, overly youthful man. But she earned their respect by taking their jibes in stride and by never shirking a task, no matter how onerous. She soon was assigned nurse’s duty, a job many hated because of its constant proximity to the maimed and dying. There she confronted her worst fears, but also became renowned for her bedside manner: brave, soulful, comforting. From First Bull Run to March 1862, Private Thompson was a highly esteemed, valuable nurse at the hospitals of the Second Michigan Infantry Regiment. When Colonel Orlando Poe assumed command of the unit, he made Thompson a mail carrier, citing his “effeminate” qualities (the new commander didn’t want to take a valuable soldier from the ranks). The freedom was like a breath of fresh air, and Private Thompson once again threw herself into her duties with impressive dedication, both in the east and when her unit was reassigned to Kentucky toward the end of 1862.

All of this is fact. What is open to speculation is Thompson’s activities as a spy. In her very successful memoirs, Emma Edmonds (she ended up dropping the last syllable from her family name) claimed to partake in many clandestine missions on behalf of the Union forces that, for the most part, are impossible to verify. If true, Emma went behind the lines during the Peninsula campaign as an ersatz black man made possible by silver nitrate, which she rubbed onto her face to great effect, and a wig. She reported directly to McClellan, offering valuable information on Rebel fortifications. In later campaigns she assumed the identities of an Irish woman hauling goods on an old wagon and an older black woman. On both occasions, she found herself well behind enemy lines.

Whatever the truth about her spying activities, they were all conducted while maintaining the Frank Thompson falsehood—meaning that, on at least two occasions, Emma Thompson fooled everyone, North and South, by pretending to be a man who was pretending to be a woman. Quite a feat. But if anyone could have pulled it off, Emma Edmonds could.

Then, in April 1863, Frank Thompson disappeared as quickly as he’d been fabricated. Emma later said that she had contracted malaria, which, in addition to placing her life in danger, put her in another sort of jeopardy: that of being discovered in a hospital. On the rolls of the Second Michigan, Thompson’s name appeared in the “deserter” column. Faced with court martial, Emma allowed Frank Thompson to die for good. She spent the rest of her war years as an outwardly female nurse.

She also began writing her memoirs, which went on to be published to great acclaim. More important, Emma found love, perhaps for the first time in her life. His name was Linus Seelye, a carpenter and fellow New Brunswick native whom Emma became reacquainted with after making a reluctant return to her Canadian home. The two married in 1867 and, through a series of homes that ran from the South to the Midwest to Texas, ended up raising a family. It was an astonishing saga for a woman who once believed she would never marry.

Though her years in a man’s uniform (and, it seems likely, in other guises behind enemy lines) comprised an impressive accomplishment, her greatest triumph—the thing that ended up setting Emma apart from everyone else—was yet to come. Aided by former comrades (who were shocked to learn of Frank Thompson’s true identity), Edmonds/Thompson initiated a campaign to validate her bold masquerade. To begin with, she worked to have the smirch of “desertion” removed from her record, which it was. But more significantly, she lobbied Congress to give her a pension, just like her fellow males. In 1884, a special act of Congress voted to give her a veteran’s pension of twelve dollars a month. Now out in the open, the deception had been made complete by those it was meant to dupe. When she died in 1898, probably from a stroke, she had the satisfaction of knowing that she was the only woman to have been made a member of the Union Army’s veteran organization, the Grand Army of the Republic. It would be impossible to conceive of a more fitting capstone to such an extraordinary life.

By the Book

Emma Edmondson didn’t come to the idea of dressing like a man to realize her destiny entirely on her own. In fact, a traveling salesman had a lot to do with it. After being offered a place to stay one night at the Edmondson homestead, the peddler thanked his hosts by giving them a rare gift indeed—a book. It was a novel entitled Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, in which a woman rescues her beloved by going to sea and disguising herself as a pirate captain. When Emma decided to flee her home and join the other gender, she no doubt had Fanny Campbell’s adventures in mind.

THE SHOOTIST

When Emma Edmonds began her campaign to repeal her deserter status and get a pension, she needed to secure the testimony of old comrades-in-arms, many of whom had no idea that Frank Thompson had in fact been a woman. First on her list was an old tentmate, Damon Stewart, who was stunned by the revelation but more than happy to help. Though his account of the war years was flattering with respect to Frank’s military service, it did mention in passing that Thompson hadn’t been very handy at all with firearms—a point that Emma hotly disputed, as she had always considered herself quite a shot.

Though we may never know for sure how good her marksmanship was, a story from Emma’s years before the Civil War certainly merits consideration. Feeling lonesome for home while out selling books, she once returned to Magaguadavic to see her beloved brother Thomas, who suffered from epilepsy. Concealing her visit from her despotic father, Emma savored her time with loved ones and prepared to leave. Before going, however, she went hunting and managed to drop six partridges with little effort—certainly not the work of an amateur.

As for the birds themselves, Emma gave them to Thomas to take back home after she departed. He then had to explain how he shot six partridges to his cynical father, who didn’t think his son was capable of such a feat.

LEARNING TO REID

Emma may have grown to womanhood with resentment toward men. But she seems to have gradually gotten over it and long before she married Linus Seelye. While on the road as a subscription bookseller, she admitted to having actually courted women to make her character all the more convincing. During the war, she formed a close friendship with Jerome Robbins, a fellow recruit from Michigan who shared Emma’s pious disdain for swearing, drinking, and gambling. In fact, their bond grew to the point that Emma felt secure enough to divulge her true identity to Robbins, who kept her secret safe. Despite this, and a likely attraction on the part of Emma for her friend, there was no romance between the two (Robbins was infatuated with a sweetheart back home).

James Reid, however, was another matter. A handsome Scottish lieutenant in the Seventy-Ninth New York Highlanders, Reid became the object of Emma’s affections—and it seems that the feeling was mutual. They were careful to keep their romantic liaisons a secret, and not just because Emma was supposed to be a fella: Lieutenant Reid happened to be married. In any event, their efforts at remaining discreet failed. Stories that Reid was sleeping with the mail carrier, who was in fact a mail carrierette, hit the rumor circuit just as Reid was discharged to return to his ailing wife in Scotland. Very shortly afterward, an ailing Frank Thompson went AWOL. Hmmm.

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