Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds

In the period leading up to and during the American Civil War, Canada was a sanctuary for runaway slaves, a base for Confederate secret operations, and a source of volunteers for both the Northern and Southern armies. It’s estimated that around 50,000 Canadians journeyed south to join the fight, the majority with the intention to abolish the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Among these brave individuals was Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was one of an estimated 400 women who successfully camouflaged themselves as men and served on the battlefield during the violent conflict. Yet, her distinctive character and extraordinary acts set her apart. Her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, published in 1865, provides a fascinating account of her incredible journey.

Emma, born in 1841, innocently crossed paths with her stern and demanding father, who expected nothing less than total submission from his wife and children in all matters. His disappointment at Emma’s birth – hoping for a healthy son to compensate for her epileptic older brother – was immediate and relentless.

Raised on a family farm in the rural settlement of Magaguadavic, Emma, by her early teens, was energetic and daring. She relished physical challenges and took pleasure in scaling the tallest trees and buildings.

At the age of nine, a traveling peddler gifted her a book about the adventures of Fanny Campbell, a teenage girl who, disguised as a man, embarked on a sea journey to rescue her lover from a gang of merciless pirates. This story sparked Emma’s imagination.

When she turned fifteen, faced with the unwelcome prospect of an arranged marriage to an older man, she fled to live and work with a family friend in the town of Salisbury, where she created ladies’ hats. Within a year, she had become a co-owner of a millinery shop in Moncton.

Upon discovering her whereabouts, Emma’s father demanded her return. However, perhaps inspired by Fanny Campbell, Emma abruptly packed her bags, relocated to Saint John, and “vanished” by adopting a male identity.

Emma later reflected on her decision to disguise herself: “I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward men—my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother’s endured wrongs—and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and my hatred of male tyranny”

Emma, now “Frank Thompson,” altered her appearance by trimming her fine, dark hair, staining her face for a tanned look, and dressing in men’s clothing. As Frank, she secured employment as a traveling Bible salesman. Her employer in Connecticut would later claim that in his thirty years of business, no other salesman ever outperformed Frank Thompson.

Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Emma Edmonds

By the fall of 1860, Emma had journeyed west to Flint, Michigan. There, the salesman known as Frank quickly earned the reputation of a respectable young man. When the Civil War erupted on April 12, 1861, twenty-year-old Emma, impassioned by her loyalty to her adopted country, traveled to Detroit to join the call for volunteers.

The army’s cursory enlistment medical examinations rarely necessitated recruits to undress. As long as a potential recruit was not blind, lame, an amputee, or prone to seizures, eager recruiters, driven by bonuses, were quick to enlist them.

Initially, Frank Thompson, standing at five feet and six inches, was turned away for falling short of the army’s height requirement. However, in order to meet President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops, the requirement was lowered a few weeks later, allowing Emma another chance. Her medical examination was simple, involving a few questions and a firm handshake. On May 25, 1861, Emma proudly stepped onto the streets of Detroit as Private Frank Thompson, part of Company F, Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Like many rural women of her era, Sarah Emma Edmonds was physically robust, comfortable with the outdoors, and, unlike her city-raised fellow recruits, adept with firearms and familiar with horses and mules.

Within her regiment, Emma blended in easily as Private Frank Thompson, among hundreds of fresh-faced boys in loosely fitted uniforms. The prevalent standards of male modesty and hygiene at the time were also advantageous. Soldiers often slept in their full attire and bathed in their undergarments. Many avoided the foul-smelling, open-trench latrines, opting instead for the privacy of nearby woods and fresh streams for personal needs. Emma’s similar habits raised no eyebrows.

Upon completing basic training, she was assigned the duties of a male nurse and postman for her brigade.

On July 15, 1861, the Second Michigan was deployed to Bull Run, a stream close to the crucial rail junction at Manassas, Virginia, where Confederate troops were reported to be assembling.

Six days later, Emma was plunged into the grim realities of war. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the blue ranks, she witnessed the horrific scenes of shrieking artillery shells cutting bloody paths through dense crowds of soldiers, hurling body parts, innards, and fragments of weapons and equipment into the air.

The stone church at Centreville, Virginia, where Emma tended wounded and dying soldiers after the Battle of Bull Run, July 1861. COLLECTION OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY / 75139
The stone church at Centreville, Virginia, where Emma tended wounded and dying soldiers after the Battle of Bull Run, July 1861. COLLECTION OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY / 75139

The battle, initiated at dawn, transformed into a calamitous defeat for the Union forces by late afternoon. Amidst the chaos of the retreating army, Emma navigated through the wreckage. Arriving at a stone church repurposed into a makeshift field hospital, she was confronted with swarms of flies buzzing over piles of severed limbs, injured flesh, and lifeless bodies. Undaunted, she offered her services to care for the wounded and dying soldiers.

COLLECTION OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY / 75140
COLLECTION OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY / 75140

In later writings, Emma stated that she had joined the war without any ambition beyond nursing the ill and caring for the wounded. She acknowledged inheriting a special nursing gift from her mother. When she wasn’t exhausted or weary, her hands had a magnetic power that could soothe the delirium.

In the days post-battle, the defeated fragments of the Union army gradually retreated back to Washington. With the victorious Southern flags waving visibly close by, the city’s residents anticipated a potential invasion and the government mulled over evacuation.

Upon reaching the beleaguered city, Emma searched for her comrades, visiting makeshift hospitals, providing care to friends and strangers alike, and writing letters for those too weak to do it themselves. She noted that the exhaustive march from Bull Run, plagued by rain, mud, and demoralization, contributed more to the crowded hospitals than the battle itself. She observed that strong men were dying around her, and even while writing, three men were being transported past her window to the morgue.

Within a few weeks of the catastrophic battle, President Lincoln appointed a new military leader, General George B. McClellan, tasked with organizing the chaotic troops back into a functioning army. As Northern divisions reclaimed their martial vigor, Emma discovered renewed confidence. She was appointed as her brigade’s postmaster, often covering forty kilometers a day on horseback to collect and deliver letters and packages. It was risky work, evidenced by a time when she rode through strewn papers marking the location where a fellow postman had been ambushed and shot the day before.

Emma endured the violent Virginia campaigns of 1862, including the brutal battles of Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Antietam, where the Union regiments were mercilessly decimated.

When a Union agent was executed for spying, Emma volunteered to replace him. Despite being scrutinized by a panel of high-ranking officers for the perilous assignment, she successfully hid her true gender. Using her ingenuity, she shaved her head, darkened her skin with silver nitrate, dressed in a plantation suit with a curly black wig, and infiltrated the Confederate camp at Yorktown, posing as a slave named “Cuff.”

She blended with a group of black labourers, hauling barrows full of gravel to workers atop an eight-foot wall. The intense, sweaty labor caused the silver nitrate on her skin to fade. At one moment, a slave pointed at Emma, exclaiming, “Durned if’n that feller ain’t turnin’ white.” Emma, quick to react, responded, “I’ve always expected to come white, my mother’s a white woman.”

Following a day of grueling labor, Emma’s wrists and hands were severely blistered. She managed to persuade another slave to swap jobs with her. For the subsequent two days, Emma moved around the camp as a water bearer, constantly observing, listening, and even managing to sketch rough outlines of the enemy fortifications.

According to her 1865 memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, from which this illustration is taken, Edmonds disguised herself as a black slave and passed into the Confederate camp.
According to her 1865 memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, from which this illustration is taken, Edmonds disguised herself as a black slave and passed into the Confederate camp.

Hearing a familiar voice loudly addressing a group of soldiers, she identified the speaker as a peddler who frequented the Union lines weekly to sell newspapers and stationery. He was meticulously describing the Northern camp, referencing a map that illustrated its layout and the positions of the troops. “From that moment, he was a marked man,” Emma later recalled. “His life wasn’t worth the copper in three pennies.”

On the third night, she was unexpectedly handed a musket and instructed to assume a position on the picket line. At an opportune moment, Cuff stealthily retreated into the darkness, holding a rebel musket, and safely reached her own headquarters. Leveraging the information provided by Emma, General McClellan accurately bombarded the Confederate fortifications, forcing the rebels to quickly abandon them.

Emma made additional forays across enemy lines, sometimes as an Irish immigrant woman, other times as a black female slave. Once, while disguised as the latter and sporting a calico bandana, she found herself cooking rations at Confederate headquarters, within observational reach of Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee.

During the gruesome Battle of Antietam, Emma encountered a young soldier severely wounded in the neck and on the brink of death. As she provided comfort, the young man confessed to being a woman, who had enlisted as a man to stay close to her only brother, who had been killed earlier that day. Respecting the dying woman’s wish, Emma buried her nearby, with no coffin or shroud, only a blanket as a burial wrap. Through poetry, she gave voice to the profoundly moving experience:

Her race is run. In southern clime, She rests among the brave;
Where perfumed blossoms gently fall, Like tears, around her grave.
No loving friends are near to weep, Or plant bright flowers there;
But hirdlings chant a requiem sweet, And strangers breathe a prayer.
She sleeps in peace; yes sweetly sleeps. Her sorrows are all o’er;
With her the storms of life are past: She’s found the heavenly shore. 

On March 20, 1863, Emma was reassigned to Louisville, Kentucky. Donning the disguise of a local Kentucky youth, she embarked on another espionage mission. She stumbled upon a wedding in a remote village, where the groom, a captain in the rebel cavalry, was actively recruiting. Requesting some food, Emma was spotted by the captain and suddenly found herself drafted into a unit of rebel horsemen.

The following day, dressed as a Confederate soldier, she rode out to confront the Yankees. “I did not despair,” Emma later noted, “but put my faith in Providence and my own resourcefulness to extricate myself from this predicament.”

A skirmish erupted upon encountering a Union cavalry detachment. Amid the chaos, Emma engineered an incident where her horse appeared to lose control, unintentionally carrying her across the Union lines. Fortuitously, she was recognized and shielded once on the other side.

Upon rejoining the fray, the captain who had conscripted her into rebel service spotted Emma. Furious and intent on impaling her with his sabre, he charged, only to receive a shot from Emma’s pistol to his face. “This act shifted all attention to me,” Emma reminisced. “Every rebel seemed bent on having the honor of killing me first. I managed to escape unscathed, though my horse suffered a severe cut across the neck from a sabre.”

Despite being praised for her actions, Emma was prevented from further spying in the area to avoid the risk of recognition and execution. She noted, “Not being particularly inclined towards such a prominent position, I shifted my focus towards less perilous and more peaceful duties.”

But before retiring from espionage, Emma had one final task—dismantling a Confederate spy network operating from Union-held Louisville. Posing as “Charles Mayberry”, she secured a low-ranking job with a local merchant known for his fervently outspoken Southern sympathies.

Over several weeks, Emma won the merchant’s trust and simulated an interest in joining the Confederate forces. The merchant obligingly introduced her to a Confederate agent, who revealed a sutler spying for the South while selling supplies to Union soldiers, and another Southern agent operating as a photographer selling pictures to Union generals.

Armed with Emma’s information, the Louisville spy ring was effectively neutralized. Later in 1863, while stationed at a military hospital near Vicksburg, Mississippi, Emma fell ill with malaria. Unable to admit herself for treatment without exposing her true gender, she journeyed to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she donned a dress and checked into a hospital.

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