Sarah Emma Edmonds (Frank Thompson)

American Civil War Soldier, Spy, Nurse

Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Emma Edmonds. Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

About Sara Emma Edmonds, Civil War Nurse and Soldier

Known for: serving in the Civil War by disguising herself as a man; writing a post-Civil War book about her wartime experiences

Dates: December 1841 - September 5, 1898
Occupation: nurse, Civil War soldier
Also known as: Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye, Franklin Thompson, Bridget O'Shea

Sarah Emma Edmonds was born Edmonson or Edmondson in New Brunswick, Canada.

Her father was Isaac Edmon(d)son and her mother Elizabeth Leepers.  Sarah grew up working in the fields, wearing boys’ clothing.  She left home to avoid a marriage instigated by her father.  Eventually she began dressing as a man, selling Bibles, and calling herself Franklin Thompson.  She moved to Flint, Michigan as part of her job, and there she decided to join Company F of the Second Michigan Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, still as Franklin Thompson.

She successfully evading detection as a woman for a year, though some fellow soldiers seem to have suspected. She participated in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, First Bull Run / Manassas, the Peninsular Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Sometimes, she served in the capacity of nurse, and sometimes more actively in the campaign.  According to her memoirs, she sometimes served as a spy, "disguised" as a woman (Bridget O'Shea), a boy, a black woman or a black man.

She may have made 11 trips behind Confederate lines.  At Antietam, treating one soldier, she realized that it was another woman in disguise, and agreed to bury the soldier so that none would discover her real identity.

She deserted in Lebanon in April 1863. There’s been some speculation that her desertion was to join James Reid, another soldier who left, giving as a reason that his wife was sick.

After deserting, she worked - as Sarah Edmonds - as a nurse for the U.S. Christian Commission. Edmonds published her version of her service -- with many embellishments -- in 1865 as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. She donated proceeds from her book to societies founded to help veterans of the war.

At Harper's Ferry, while nursing, she had met Linus Seelye, and they married in 1867, first living in Cleveland, later moving around to other states including Michigan, Louisiana, Illinois and Texas. Their three children died young and they adopted two sons.

In 1882 she began to petition for a pension as a veteran, asking for assistance in her pursuit from many who had served in the army with her. She was granted one in 1884 under her new married name, Sarah E. E. Seelye, including back pay and including removing the designation of deserter from Franklin Thomas’ records.

She moved to Texas, where she was admitted into the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic), the only woman to be admitted.

We know of Sarah Emma Edmonds primarily through her own book, through records assembled to defend her pension claim, and through diaries of two men with whom she served.

On the Web

    Print Bibliography

    • Moss, Marissa. Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero. Ages 9-12.
    • Sequin, Marilyn. Where Duty Calls: The Story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Soldier and Spy in the Union Army. Young Adult Fiction.
    • Reil, Seymour. Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy. Ages 9-12.
    • Edmonds, S. Emma. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps and Battle-Fields. 1865.

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