There have been several stories of women dressing as men to serve in wars, particularly in the American Revolution as far as American history goes. However, the Civil War had its share of these feminine soldiers in disguise, as well, and some of them were serious soldiers. Most went unnoticed and undiscovered, even receiving pension money under their male pseudonyms. However, a few were discovered, or revealed themselves, and gained a certain amount of fame. One of them was Sarah Emma Edmonds.
Her story was well known during the early twentieth century but has been largely forgotten over the subsequent decades. It is a fascinating tale that is well worth remembering, as is the woman behind it all. Here is her story.
Sarah was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada, growing up on her family’s farm with her sisters. When she was fifteen, she left home to escape being forced into a marriage she did not want. She was aided in this escape by her mother, who was also forced to marry young against her will. When Sarah left home, she dressed as a boy and adopted the name “Franklin Thompson,” as traveling, working, and even eating alone in a restaurant was all easier to do as a man in those times.
Eventually, Sarah came to the United States and obtained a job with a prominent Bible seller and publisher in Hartford, Connecticut. When the Civil War broke out, she was interested in joining the Union as a soldier. This interest came from a book she read as a young girl called Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, about a girl who captained a pirate ship during the American Revolution. In the book, Fanny captained the ship while dressed as a woman, but dressed as a man after the Revolution so she could go on other adventures with ease. This idea of dressing as a man in order to be a soldier appealed to Sarah.
As Franklin Flint Thompson, Sarah joined Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861. Sarah later stated she felt patriotic toward her adopted home country and felt it was her duty to join the war to protect it. Because only cursory physical exams were required to join the Army at that time and did not involve being unclothed, she was able to pass for a man and was mustered into the Army.
Initially, Sarah served as a male field nurse and was present at some famous Civil War battles, including both Battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Fredericksburg.
Later during the war, she became a spy in order to avenge the death of a friend, James Vesey, who was killed in an ambush. A Union spy in Richmond, Virginia had recently been discovered by the Confederates and sent before a firing squad. This left an opening for a spy, and Sarah applied for and received it. Though her military records do not mention her spy service, she wrote about it in great detail in her memoirs.
As a spy, Sarah traveled into Confederate territory to gather information for the Union, and she often wore disguises to do so. In fact, she became a master of disguise, not only in passing for a man but also in transforming herself in other ways for her spy mission. As an example, she put silver nitrate on her skin during one spy mission in order to dye it black, so she could appear as an African-American man; she even wore a black wig for this mission. She worked as a male detective in Kentucky to find a Confederate agent on another spy mission.
She disguised herself as an African-American washerwoman behind Confederate lines on another mission, using the same silver nitrate skin coloring technique. On yet another spy mission, she disguised herself as a female Irish peddler selling apples and soap to Confederate soldiers. Because she was a woman, disguising herself as one was easy for her, but seemed brilliant to her fellow soldiers.
Eventually, Sarah’s military career came to an end when she contracted malaria, which was a common ailment among the soldiers on both sides. Instead of admitting herself to a military hospital, where she was concerned her identity as a woman would be discovered, she deserted the Army and checked herself into a private hospital as a female. Sarah said later that she intended to return to the Army once she recovered, but when she did recover, she saw posters with her image as a male on them, and her assumed name, wanting her capture for desertion. Concerned she might be executed for desertion if she returned as Franklin Thompson, and not wanting to risk taking on a new male identity and being recognized, Sarah served as a female nurse at a hospital in Washington, D.C. for wounded soldiers for the rest of the war.
Once the war was over, Sarah began talking openly about her experiences as a male soldier and revealed herself to the public. Soldiers who had served with her described her as a good soldier and spoke very highly of her and her service in the war. They also described her as brave, and as an active participant in every battle in which her regiment engaged.
Sarah wrote her memoirs, which were published by DeWolfe, Fiske, & Co. as The Female Spy of the Union Army. In 1865, a publisher in Hartford, CT re-published the book as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Both versions of her memoir were huge successes, selling more than 175,000 copies. Sarah donated the profits to various groups providing aid for Civil War soldier veterans.
Eventually, Sarah did decide to marry, on her own terms and when she was good and ready, in 1867, to Linnus H. Seelye, a mechanic from Canada who was also a childhood friend of hers. They had three children together, but all three died as babies or small children. Still desiring to be a mother, Sarah and Linnus eventually adopted two sons.
Sarah later became a lecturer and began receiving a government Civil War pension of $12 a month in 1886. After doing a bit of campaigning, she had the desertion charge against her dropped, and she received an honorable discharge from the Army. She was the only female admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a prominent Civil War Union veterans’ group, which admitted her in 1897.
Sarah died in La Porte, Texas in 1898, and was buried in the Grand Army of the Republic section of Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas. In 1901, she received a second burial ceremony with full military honors. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992.