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soldier Emma Edmonds

by Allison Brewer | June 28, 2000

A young soldier lay dying in a Union hospital during the American Civil War after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. A fellow militiaman, an army nurse named Franklin Thompson, attracted by the pale sweet face of the young man, stopped at his bedside to offer comfort. While it was small comfort he could give, the confession he received in return rocked him to his core. The young man revealed, in the greatest of confidence, that he was in fact a woman. Her dying request was that her body be buried with her secret intact.

Had the two young soldiers more time, or had they met under different circumstances, they would have had lots of confidences to share, for unbeknown to the dying private, the man to whom she revealed her secret was also a woman; one who was destined to be remembered as a hero of the American Civil War.

Franklin Thompson was in fact Sarah Emma Edmonds of Magaguadavic Settlement, near the capital of New Brunswick. Emma, as she was known, was born in 1839. She was the last of four children, a final insult to her father, Isaac, who never wanted daughters and had only one son – a sickly boy at that. Emma was always considered “very like a boy.” She swam, rode horses, worked the fields and was skilled with a rifle. But even at that, life was especially hard for a woman.

“You have expressed a desire to know what led me to assume male attire,” she said in her autobiography, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.

I will try to tell you. I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward man. I hope I have outgrown it measurably, but my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother's wrongs before I ever saw the light and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and my hatred of male tyranny.

One way she saw to escape male tyranny was to become like men. The idea came from a book she read as a child about a woman named Fanny Campbell, a pirate who dressed as a man and who “with just a blue sailor’s jacket, breeches, a haircut shorn of her long, brown curls she stepped into the freedom and glorious independence of masculinity.”

Emma’s longing to escape to that freedom became more than a dream when, at the age of 19, she was ordered by her father to marry an elderly farmer whom she greatly disliked. Disguised as a man in clothes borrowed from a neighbour, Emma left home and began a new life in Hartford, Connecticut, selling family bibles under the guise of Franklin Thompson.

She soon made her way back to the Maritimes, selling bibles for the American company in Nova Scotia. Not only did her career flourish there, but so did her social life. As she recounted later, “I came near marrying a pretty little girl who was bound I should not leave Nova Scotia without her.” But leave she did, and fortune found her back in Michigan at the beginning of the American Civil War.

It was April 12, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 military recruits to form what would be the Union Army. Franklin Thompson was among the first to oblige. There has been some speculation concerning the ease with which she passed the scrutiny of the recruiting officer, but apparently based on Thompson’s reputation was impeccable and “by looking ‘his’ examiner square in the eye and gripping his hand in a firm handshake,” there was no question as to the authenticity of the earnest young man’s gender.

Her two-year military career was marked by a series of successes and narrow escapes as a spy who proved particularly adept at impersonating women! Her courage in slipping behind Confederate lines, risking and nearly losing her life on a number of occasions, made her a hero. But her real ambition was to be a nurse, and her sense of compassion and gift for healing made her a natural.

“I went [to the war] with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded,” she later wrote. “I had inherited from my mother a rare gift of nursing, and when not too weary or exhausted, there was a magnetic power in my heart and soul to soothe the delirium.”

She deserted the army in April 1863. It is believed that a prolonged illness put her in danger of being found out. It wasn’t until long after the war, in 1882, she revealed her identity to some of her comrades in a bid to enlist their support in getting a pension. Despite her desertion, she was successful in her petition, and became the first woman to receive an army pension from the American government.

By this time she had married, incredibly enough, the neighbour who had given her his clothes many years ago at Magaguadavic Settlement. She and Linus Seelye married in 1867, and travelled throughout the United States in search of prosperity. They had a tragic life. Of their five children, only the two adopted ones survived childhood. Dogged by ill health, she saw affluence for just a brief time during the 12 years she lived in Fort Scott, Kansas, before losing everything in the Panic of 1893. She moved once more before her death at the age of 59.

On a September afternoon in 1898, in the city of La Porte, Texas, a bugle sound drifted sorrowfully through the still afternoon air. For the first time in the history of the American states she had helped to unite, a woman was being buried with full military honours; a woman who would be remembered as a truly remarkable hero of the American Civil War.

more to consider

If you think about all the women and girls that were featured in CoolWomen, there are ways to group them. Some have connected, by chance or by design, with other like-minded women and men; they have worked for changes for many. Others, like Emma Edmonds/Franklin Thompson, have made change happen for themselves or in their immediate family or circle.

Sometimes this is a function of when they lived – Emma was born in 1839, not 1939 or 1989. She might well have done something different in another time as the status of women is constantly changing. Look, for instance, at the CoolWomen features on Sylvia Stark, Persons Case 1929, Remembrance Day and Denise Campbell and Bindu Dhaliwal. You can see the changes in status and how slowly, painfully they have come.

Some choose to work alone, or within a community. Others choose to work on a wider national or international platform. Some seek change for individuals, others seek to change the system fundamentally, forever.

There are ways to make justice for women a reality all around the world. What’s yours?

resources for this story
  • This Coolwomen feature was written by Canadian writer Allison Brewer, from a Canadian perspective. Sarah Emma Edmonds is included on many websites that originate in the United States, although there is little said of her life in Canada (and some errors). Much has been written on the American Civil War and the 400 women who fought in it.
  • Edmonds’ original memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, has been edited and republished by an American civil war scholar, Elizabeth D. Leonard, as Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman's Adventures in the Union Army, Northern Illinois University Press, ISBN 0875805841 | 1999
  • For an overview, see They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War, by DeANNE BLANTON and LAUREN M. COOK, Louisiana State University Press, ISBN 0807128066 | 2002

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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