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Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Edmonds.jpg
Edmonds as Franklin Thompson
Nickname(s) "Franklin Thompson"
Born December 1841
Doodlebutt, Province of New Brunswick, British North America
Died September 5, 1898 (age 56)
La Porte, Texas
Buried
Glenwood Cemetery
Houston, Texas
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch Seal of the United States Board of War.png Union Army
Years of service 1861–1865
Rank Spy
Unit Michigan state coat of arms (illustrated, 1876).jpg 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry
Battles/wars American Civil War
Awards In 1992 she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.
In 1897, she became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic

Sarah Emma Edmonds (December 1841 – September 5, 1898) was a Canadian-born woman who served as a man with the Union Army during the American Civil War. In 1992, she was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame.

Early life

Edmonds was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, then a British colony, and grew up with her sisters on their family's farm near Magaguadavic Lake, not far from the border with the State of Maine. She fled home at age 15 to escape an arranged marriage and the abuse of her father, who wanted a son instead of a daughter; she was aided by her mother, who also had married young. She escaped the marriage and ultimately adopted the guise of Franklin Thompson to travel more easily. A male disguise allowed Edmonds to eat, travel, and work independently. She crossed into the United States and worked for a successful Bible bookseller and publisher in Hartford, Connecticut.

Claims of Civil War service

Edmonds' interest in adventure was sparked by Maturin Murray Ballou's book Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain', telling the story of Fanny Campbell and her adventures on a pirate ship during the American Revolution while dressed as a man. Campbell continued dressing as a man after the war in order to pursue other adventures, to which Edmonds attributed her desire to cross dress. She enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. On her second try, she disguised herself as a man named Franklin Flint Thompson, the middle name possibly after the city of Flint, Michigan where she volunteered. She felt that it was her duty to serve the United States, as it was her new country. She at first served as a field nurse, participating in several campaigns under General McClellan, including the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign, Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and others. However, some historians claim that these reports place her in more than one location at the same time.

Edmonds' career took a turn during the war when a Union spy in Richmond, Virginia was discovered and put before a firing squad, and her friend James Vesey was killed in an ambush. She took advantage of the open spot and the opportunity to avenge her friend's death. She applied for the position in the guise of Franklin Thompson. There is no proof in her military records that she actually served as a spy, but she wrote extensively about her experiences in disguise during the war.

She travelled into enemy territory to gather information, requiring her to come up with many disguises. One disguise required her to use silver nitrate to dye her skin black, wear a black wig, and walk into the Confederacy disguised as a black man by the name of Cuff. Another time, she entered as an Irish peddler by the name of Bridget O'Shea, claiming that she was selling apples and soap to the soldiers. Again, she was posing as a black laundress working for the Confederates when a packet of official papers fell out of an officer's jacket. She returned to the Union with the papers, and the generals were delighted. Another time, she worked as a detective in Kentucky as Charles Mayberry, uncovering a Confederacy agent.

Edmonds' career as Frank Thompson came to an end when she took a trip to Berry's Brigade in order to deliver mail to Union forces. In an attempt to take a shortcut, she was thrown into a ditch by her mule before reaching the brigade; she sustained severe injuries and could not finish the trip before the First Battle of Bull Run had commenced. She abandoned her duty in the military, fearing that she would be discovered if she went to a military hospital. She checked herself into a private hospital, intending to return to military life once she had recuperated. Once she recovered, however, she saw posters listing Frank Thompson as a deserter. Rather than return to the army under another alias or as Frank Thompson, risking execution for desertion, she decided to serve as a female nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital for wounded soldiers run by the United States Christian Commission.

There was speculation that Edmonds may have deserted because of John Reid being discharged months earlier, and there is evidence in his diary that she had mentioned leaving before she had contracted malaria. Her fellow soldiers spoke highly of her military service, and even after her disguise was discovered, they considered her a good soldier. She was referred to as a fearless soldier and was active in every battle that her regiment faced.

Memoir

In 1864, Boston publisher DeWolfe, Fiske, & Co. published Edmonds' account of her military experiences as The Female Spy of the Union Army. One year later, her story was picked up by a Hartford, CT publisher who issued it with a new title, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It was a huge success, selling in excess of 175,000 copies. Edmonds donated the profits from her memoir to "various soldiers' aid organization."

Personal life

In 1867, she married Linus. H. Seelye, a mechanic and a childhood friend with whom she had three children. All three of their children died in their youth, leading the couple to adopt two sons.

Later life

Edmonds became a lecturer after her story became public in 1883. In 1886, she received a government pension of $12 a month for her military service, and after some campaigning, was able to have the charge of desertion dropped, and receive an honorable discharge. In 1897, she became one of two women admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans' organization. Edmonds died in La Porte, Texas, and is buried in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) section of Washington Cemetery in Houston. Edmonds was laid to rest a second time in 1901 with full military honors.

Legacy

A number of fictional accounts of her life were written for young adults in the 20th century, including Ann Rinaldi's Girl in Blue. Rinaldi writes of Edmonds' life and how she came to be Franklin Thompson.

She was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1992.

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