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Sarah Emma Edmonds

200px-Sarah_Edmonds_lg_sepiaSarah Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841. She grew up on a farm, so along with her sisters, she participated alongside her one brother to perform the hard physical work of farming. She tended to the animals, chopped wood, milked cows, planted and harvested. She also learned to ride horses, hunted and fished.
Her upbringing caused her to develop a lean, masculine-looking physique.
In 1860, she was nineteen. She moved south into the United States dressed in men’s garb. Pretending to be a man, she called herself “Franklin Thompson.” She worked in Hartford, Connecticut as a publishing agent, selling Bibles in Canada and Michigan.

In 1861 the Civil War began. She enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry Volunteers, signing up for three years.

As Franklin Thompson, Sarah spent her first months of military service at the regimental hospital, serving as a “male” nurse. She then became postmaster and then a mail carrier.

One of her superior officers, General O. M. Poe, recalled that “Frank Thompson was effeminate looking, and for that reason was detailed as a mail carrier, to avoid taking an efficient soldier from the ranks.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 171.

As a mail carrier, Edmonds carried two or three bushels of mail over a distance of 50 or 60 miles.

In her own words: “I was often compelled to spend the nights alone by the roadside. It was reported that the bushwackers had murdered a mail carrier on that road and robbed the mail, and there seemed to be evidence of the fact, for, in the most lonely of spots of all the road the ground was still strewn with fragments of letters and papers, over which I often passed when it was so dark that I only knew it by the rustle of the letters under my horse’s feet.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 171-172.

She was also engaged in combat starting with the battle of First Bull Run in July 1861.

According to a Congressional report: “Franklin Thompson, gave his heart and soul to the regiment, sharing in all its toil and privations, marching and fighting in the various engagements in which it participated… (He was) never absent from duty, obeying all orders with intelligence and alacrity, his whole aim and desire to render zealous and efficient aid to the Union cause.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 172-173.

While serving, Sarah became good friends with a young medical steward and assistant surgeon for the 2nd Michigan. She fell in love with the man, confessing that she was female. She felt rebuffed when he told her he was betrothed.

Besides soldiering, Sarah also served the Union as a spy. She disguised herself as a male fugitive slave wearing a wig and coloring her skin with silver nitrate. At other times she portrayed a female Irish peddler by the name of Bridget O’Shea.

In Kentucky in the spring of 1863, Sarah fell ill with chills and fever. She feared a hospital stay would expose her sex, so, after a request for a leave of absence was denied, she deserted the army. She checked herself into a civilian hospital, planning to return to the army once she’d recovered.

sarah_emma_edmonds-image-85On learning that Franklin Thompson was wanted for desertion, she donned women’s clothes, resumed using her real name and returned to the army to serve as a female nurse for the remainder of the war. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, p. 178

After the war ended, she published her autobiography, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army under the pen name of S. E. Edmonds. “In 1887, she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian carpenter with whom she had three children.”

For more on Sarah Edmonds and other women soldiers of the American Civil War…

Sources: All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard







  1. It would be interesting to have a sitdown chat with this woman. Amazing what you can accomplish when you put your heart to it. Great post, Susan.

  2. Thanks, Paisley! It is amazing that these women even tried to pass themselves off as males and most weren’t found out.

  3. This is fascinating, Susan. Talk about versatile! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Gwynlyn!

  5. Helaina Hinson says:

    Documentation exists for 400 women who disguised their sex to enlist. DeAnne Blanton, archivist at the National Archives, is updating her book on women soldiers in the war, and believes the number is actually closer to 700.

    Some of the women weren’t hiding. By the end of the war, several were serving under a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario, such as Sarah Jane Perkins, in a Virginia artillery unit. Her commanding officer admitted that he knew she was a woman, and said that he wasn’t about to send home a skilled artillerist when he was so desperate for trained personnel. By 1864 Jane went so far as to grow out her hair and wear it braided under her hat. She was captured in battle with her comrades and served as a POW in Point Lookout.

    My distant cousin, Malinda Blaylock, enlisted with her husband Keith as his younger brother Sam. This was with the knowledge of the recruiter.

    British Colonel Sir Arthur Freemantle, traveling with the Army of Northern Virginia, noticed a woman among the troops who were about to depart from Richmond. The men replied that her sex was notorious throught their regiment but ignored so long as she conducted herself properly.

    The bodies of four women were found on the field after Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.

    That’s just a few of the stories. I reenact as a woman, and it’s fun to see the guys do a double take when they see me in a ball gown at the dance after the battle…..

  6. Helaina Hinson says:

    Also check into Deborah Sampson, who fought in the American Revolution.

  7. Hi, Helaina! I would imagine that men did realize some of the soldiers were women, but the further along the war progressed, the less they cared. I’m sure it was the same with underage soldiers.

    From battle uniform to ball gown? That’s got to be fun!

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Helaina Hinson says:

    It was. One of my grandfathers was fifteen when he was paroled by the Yanks in 1865. I have a minor character in one of my books who’s serving as a drummer boy at twelve….he’s the hero of a later book. Now if I can only get pubbed. Sigh.

  9. Helaina Hinson says:

    I’ll put in a plug for your book on the women soldier reenactor e-group I belong to. We’ll love reading it.

  10. Thanks, Helaina! Good luck with your book. I almost gave up on my first Civil War romance, my time travel, Erin’s Rebel, but revised and persevered until I found an editor who just loved it.

  11. Helaina Hinson says:

    Thanks. I quit writing for three years because I was also dealing with infertility and it was all just too crushing. I took it up again because I needed something to do.

    Was anyone at Cedar Creek last week? Going to Gettysburg next month?

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