Nurse, Soldier, Spy

Sarah Emma Edmonds -- Franklin Thompson

Emma enlisted in the Second Michigan Cavalry as a male nurse but according to her book, Nurse and Spy, she served as nurse, spy, mail carrier and soldier. Sarah’s reasons for enlisting had some similarity to Rosetta. She grew up on a farm that had to struggle to make ends meet. As a child, Sarah dressed in boys’ clothes and worked as farmhands. With her stern father’s approval she learned to swim, hunt, fish, paddle a canoe and row a boat. But more important to her future career, she became an expert shot and learned many survival skills that would stand her in good stead as a soldier.

Her nursing skills she learned from her mother. She, like Rosetta, yearned for independence and freedom, a privilege held only by men at the time. She said later, “I greatly preferred the privilege of earning my own bread and butter.” Emma left home to apprentice in a millinery shop without her father’s knowledge to avoid an arranged marriage. It is believed she left with her mother’s help. When her mother sent word her father had discovered her whereabouts, she decided to go it alone. As a woman she would lose her freedom so she dressed as a man and continued to do so until she left the army. She supported herself as a bookseller for several years until she joined Company F of the 2nd Michigan Regiment of Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1861. She described her feelings in making the decision in an interview after the war: "I spent days and nights of anxious thought in deciding in what capacity I should try to serve the Union cause; and during all my deliberations this fact was borne in upon me, viz.: That I could best serve the interests of the Union cause in male attire -- could better perform the necessary duties for sick and wounded men, and less embarrassment to them and to myself as a man than as a woman."

Emma fought in the battle of the 1st Bull Run and in the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. In March, Colonel Orlando Poe, commander of the 2nd Michigan, appointed Frank Thompson regimental mail carrier. Emma described postal duties as a perfect cover for her “secret service” spying missions behind enemy lines, and away from prying eyes, which might have had more time to see through her disguise. While there is no documentation to prove it, Emma writes that General McClellan interviewed her personally for a position in the secret service.

She had her first mission in the Peninsular Campaign. Dressed as a black man named “Old Ned” she infiltrated the Confederate lines in Yorktown to determine the ordinance and layout of defenses. She played her part well, being put in a work detail building fortifications with about one hundred other Negroes. Before she made her escape back to the Union lines with the information she collected, she was put on guard duty. Emma wrote about seeing the soldiers from Yorktown in a field hospital after the battle in Williamsburg: "Upon visiting the wounded rebels I saw several whom I met in Yorktown, among them the sergeant of the picket post who had given me a friendly shake and told me if I slept on my post he would shoot me like a dog. He was pretty badly wounded, and did not seem to remember me." Frank turned out to be a master of disguise, being able to dress as both man and woman, black or white. On one occasion she dressed as a poor Irish female peddler named Bridget; on another she was a black woman who became a cook for the Confederate army. Emma seemed to enjoy the danger and excitement of her job.

At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, Frank was sent around to the field hospitals to warn them of the army’s retreat. She described her experience when she got caught between enemy and friendly lines: "A perfect blaze both of musketry and artillery. Nothing but the power of the Almighty could have shielded me from such a storm of shot and shell, and brought me through unscathed. It seems to me now that it was almost as much of a miracle as that of the three Hebrew children coming forth from the fiery furnace without even the smell of fire upon them." While women like Emma were always afraid of discovery, they seemed to know others in the same predicament. On September 17, 1862, Emma was detached to provide medical support at the battle of Antietam. While she was caring for the wounded soldiers, one in particular caught her attention. When she approached the soldier and offered assistance the look between them confirmed their suspicions. The dying soldier said: “I can trust you, and will tell you a secret. I am not what I seem, but am a female. I enlisted from the purest motives, and have remained undiscovered and unsuspected. I have neither father, mother nor sister. My only brother was killed today. I closed his eyes about an hour before I was wounded. I shall soon be with him. I am a Christian, and have maintained the Christian character ever since I entered the army. I wish you to bury me with your own hands, that none may know after my death that I am other than my appearance indicates.” Emma assured the dying woman her request would be honored and stayed with her until her death. Then: "…making a grave for her under the shadow of a mulberry tree near the battlefield, apart from all others. …I carried her remains to that lonely spot and gave her a soldier’s burial, without coffin or shroud, only a blanket for a winding-sheet. There she sleeps in that beautiful forest where the soft southern breezes sigh mournfully through the foliage, and the little birds sing sweetly above her grave."

Emma also wrote about the senselessness of war from her experience as a battlefield courier for General Poe at the battle of Fredericksburg: "…charging again and again upon those terrible stone walls and fortifications, after being repulsed every time with more than half their number lying on the ground… But when it was proved to a demonstration that it was morally impossible to take and retain those heights, in consequence of the natural advantage of position which the rebels occupied. …whose fault was it that the attempt was made time after time, until the field was literally piled with dead and ran red with blood?" Many historians after her have asked the same question. In the spring of 1863, the 2nd Michigan Regiment was transferred to Kentucky to join the Army of the Ohio. Emma’s first reconnoitering mission in the area led to her temporary capture. She dressed in a prisoner’s clothes and set out by rail behind enemy lines under the ruse of buying eggs and butter for the rebel army at the farmhouses. She came upon a wedding party of a recruiting officer, Captain Logan: "I was questioned pretty sharply by the handsome captain in regard to the nature of my business in that locality, but finding me an innocent, straightforward Kentuckian, he can to the conclusion that I was all right. But he also arrived at the conclusion that I was old enough to be in the army." Emma was put under guard and put her into service in a newly formed Confederate unit. The next day the company encountered a Federal-reconnoitering unit. In the confusion, Emma got behind the Federals who recognized her. She shot Captain Logan and was attacked by some of the rebel soldiers but Emma was not injured. The Federal cavalrymen intervened and drove the attackers back. Emma reported later: "I was highly commended by the commanding general for my coolness throughout the whole affair, and was told kindly and candidly that I would not be permitted to go out again in that vicinity, in the capacity of a spy, as I would most assuredly meet with some of those who had seen me desert their ranks, and I would consequently be hung up to the nearest tree." Her restrictions led to her appointment as a detective inside the lines to identify double agents in their unit. Emma dressed in civilian clothes and as Frank, was befriended by a Rebel sympathizer merchant who gave “him” a job as a clerk. Emma won his confidence and learned about three rebels within Federal lines. Through the merchant she arranged a meeting with one of them so she could enter into Confederate service. She continued the story: "That afternoon I was sent out again to dispose of some goods to the soldiers, and while I was gone took the favorable opportunity of informing the Provost Marshal of my intended escape the following night with my brother spy. The night came, and we started about nine o’clock. As we walked along toward the rebel lines the spy seemed to think that I was a true patriot in the rebel cause, for he entertained me with a long conversation concerning his exploits in the secret service; and of the other two [spies] who were still in camp he said one of them was a sutler, and the other sold photographs of our generals. As soon as we were captured we were searched, and documents found on my companion which condemned him as a spy.… The next thing to be done was to find the other two spies. The sutler [A sutler or victualer is a civilian merchant who sells provisions to an army in the field, in camp, or in quarters.] was found and put under arrest, and his goods confiscated, but the dealer in photographs had made his escape. I never dared go back to Louisville again, for I had ample reason to believe that my life would pay the penalty if I did." In mid-April 1863, Emma suffered a relapse of a serious case of malaria she originally contracted while fighting in Chickahominy Swamps, Virginia. Fearing disclosure of her true identity, she requested but was denied leave. Now feeling desperate, she disguised herself once more and slipped through the lines, ending up in Oberlin, Ohio. In an interview after the war, Captain William B. Morse described the concern for “Frank” by her fellow soldiers: “Franklin [Thompson] was known by every man in the regiment and her desertion was the topic of every campfire. The beardless boy was a universal favorite, and much anxiety was expressed for her safety.” In Oberlin, she took four weeks to recuperate before traveling to Pittsburgh to acquire women’s clothes and forever change back into Emma. When she returned to the Oberlin boarding house, they didn’t recognize Emma and “Frank.” During this time she wrote her book, dedicating it “To the sick and wounded soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.” She also instructed the publisher to contribute most of the proceeds to the Sanitary Commission, the Christian commission and various soldier aid societies. Her book was an instant success, reportedly selling more than 175,000 copies. When asked about its authenticity after the war, Emma admitted it was exaggerated. She said, “…most of the experiences there recorded were either my own or came under my own observation.”

Now fully recovered, Emma returned to hospital duty as a female nurse for the Sanitary Commission at Harpers Ferry, serving in hospitals of the Army of Cumberland. She continued to care for Union soldiers until the close of the war. At Harpers Ferry she met and later married Linus Seelye, a widower and carpenter from New Brunswick, Canada. Idealistic northeners, Linus and Sarah (she began to use Sarah after her marriage) volunteered to help freed men find jobs and to educate them. In 1875 they were recruited to take charge of a Negro orphans’ home in Lateche, Louisiana. Biographer wrote of Sarah: "A good part of [her] life, aside from her daring and adventurous exploits in the Union army, was devoted to helping other people, both before and after her marriage. Perhaps this great selflessness is what makes Emma Seelye appear so much more admirable than many of her contemporaries." She didn’t apply for her pension until she needed funds to build a soldier’s home. She was eventually able to satisfactorily prove to the Federal government that she had served honorably during the conflict and in 1884, was given a pension of twelve dollars a month and a $100 bounty. She was also the only woman mustered as a regular member into the Grand Army of the Republic. Emma died on September 5, 1898, after recurring bouts of malaria, never realizing her dream of a veteran’s home but well respected and loved by those who knew her.


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