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Sarah Emma Edmonds

AKA: Franklin Thompson

Born in 1842 in Nova Scotia, Sarah Emma Edmonds (she preferred her middle name) started life in a strict religious home where her father resented her for not being a boy. Emma endured her early childhood in Canada trying to please her father by exhibiting masculine traits. By 1859 she had suffered enough punishment and, dressed as a man, left Canada for the United States, where she sold religious books throughout New England and the upper Midwest.

Offended by the idea of slavery, when the first call for volunteers came from President Lincoln, Emma enlisted in the Army as a man. She utilized the name Frank Thompson and was given the rank of Private. At that time the Army did not require a physical, recruits simply answered questions. At first she was rejected as being too "small" but eventually was allowed to join the Michigan regiment of the Potomac. Private Thompson (Emma) was assigned as a male nurse to the hospital unit of the 2nd Michigan Volunteers, in her own words she "went to war with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded."

Due to the execution of a Union agent in Richmond, word was out that McClellan was looking for a spy to infiltrate the Confederacy. Private Thompson promptly volunteered and learned all she could on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities. She easily impressed the staff and was given the position.

Her first disguise utilized for entering the Confederacy was to dress as a black man. With the assistance of the wife of the local chaplain, the only person who knew her true identity, she used silver nitrate to darken her skin to the point that the doctor she worked for in the hospital did not recognize her. She wore men's clothing and a black minstrel wig and departed on her first mission as "Cuff."

She easily infiltrated the local Negro population as a slave and was assigned to work on the ramparts being built to counter McClellan. After her first day, her hands were so blistered she changed jobs with a fellow slave and worked in the kitchen. She managed to glean a lot of information on the morale of the troops, size of the army, weapons and even gun placements. She managed to get back to the Union where her information was well received by McClellan and she returned to duty as a male nurse.

After two months, she was once again tasked to go behind enemy lines. This time she went as a fat Irish peddler woman with the name of Bridget O'Shea. She again easily gained the admittance to the Confederate camps by selling her wares and collected information. During the process of returning, Private Thompson was shot in the arm, but managed to stay on her horse and return to the Union with valuable information.

Her ability to infiltrate the Confederacy cannot be undersold. She made several forays into the enemy's camp as "Cuff", and was successful in obtaining operational information. In August of 1862, she went again, but this time as a black "mammy" complete with black face and bandanna. She became a laundress in the camp and found official papers from inside an officer's coat. She again went in at the end of 1862, this time as a young man with Southern sympathies by the name of Charles Mayberry, her mission was to identify the Southern spy network in Louisville, Kentucky. She succeeded again, this time just in time for the battle of Vicksburg.

During one mission, she said she shot a rebel farm wife through her hand after the woman shot at her first. She said, "I told her that if she uttered another word or scream, she was a dead woman." She was also thrown from her horse once, seriously injuring her ribs. She did not seek medical treatment because that would have ended her ruse.

She went back to caring for the sick as a male nurse, when she contracted malaria. Unwilling to allow her ruse to be discovered, she left camp to recover. She went to Illinois, dressed as a woman and checked herself in for treatment. Once recovered, she wanted to rejoin her unit when she found she was listed as a deserter. With the last of her funds, she boarded a train for Washington, where she worked as a nurse (and as a woman), until the end of the war.

After the war, she wrote her memoirs, "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army," which sold 175,000 copies when published in 1865. Sarah gave all of her profits from the book to the U.S. War Relief fund. She returned to Canada, where she met and married Linus Seeyle. They returned to the U.S. and raised two adopted children (their natural children died young).

With the encouragement of friends, she petitioned the War Department for a full review of her case. On July 5, 1884, a special act of Congress granted Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson, an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus and a veteran's pension of twelve dollars a month. She lived out the rest of her life in La Porte, Texas, where she died of malaria on Sep 5, 1898. She was buried with full military honors in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) section of Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas, the only woman there. Her tombstone read, "Emma E. Seelye - Army Nurse."

In her own words, Emma Edmonds said of her adventures: "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my success."

References:

Spies, A Narrative Encyclopedia of Dirty Deeds & Double Dealing from Biblical Times to Today, Jay Robert Nash, M Evans Company Inc., NY 1997
Sunshine for Women, http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/whm2002/edmonds.html
Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War, http://www.civilwarhome.com/edmondsbio.htm