Sarah Emma Edmonds Biography

Biography of Sarah Emma Edmonds who served for two years in the Union army, disguised as a man during the Civil War. She was known as Frank Thompson.

Sarah Emma Edmonds served in the Union Army during the Civil War. She was a master of disguise and was thought to be a man by all her comrades. She was a brave woman and served many capacities during this period.

Sarah was born in December of 1841 in York County, New Brunswick, Canada. Her childhood was very difficult and lonely. She was the daughter of a stern and cruel farm worker who had wanted a son to help him with his work. He never let Sarah forget that she was of no use to him. Sarah received very little education or nurturing of any kind and left home sometime during the 1850's.

Sarah called herself Frank Thompson, dressed as a man and traveled the countryside selling Bibles. Sarah a.k.a. Frank, made her way west by 1861 and set up residency in Flint, Michigan.

On May 25, 1861, she enlisted as a private in the Second Michigan Infantry as Frank Thompson. This was a volunteer infantry company that later became known as Company F. Sarah found herself at the front in Virginia working in a field hospital a short time after enlisting.

Sarah was able to continue this charade for two years. During this time she performed many services for the Union Army. It is said that after a close friend was killed she wanted revenge and asked for a job as a spy. She was known to "˜disguise' herself as a female Irish immigrant selling apples to the troops, a rebel guard and also a black youth calling herself "Ned." Sarah took many personal risks to gather information about the rebel forces and was successful in gathering much needed intelligence.

One of the popular stories told about her centers around a spying mission she did for the Union army in Yorktown. She disguised herself as a black man by coloring her exposed skin with silver nitrate and donning a wig. She then managed to sneak past the Confederate guards during the night and entered Yorktown with the other slaves who brought the guards breakfast.

Once inside she labored with the other slaves during the day building ramparts for the Confederates. That night she gathered information about the camp by switching duties with the slave who carried water to the troops.

Sarah stayed in Yorktown for three days. While she was bringing dinner to the guards she was given a rifle and told to take the place of a guard who had been shot that day. After the camp was asleep, she used her advantage as a guard to slip back to the Union troops carrying vital information about the enemy.

Sarah participated in the battles of Blackburn's Run, the First Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsular campaign, the First Battle of Manassas and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, in December of 1862, she was an aide to Colonel Orlando M. Poe. She also performed duties as a regimental nurse and mail and dispatch carrier during this time.

Sarah accompanied the Second Michigan Infantry to Kentucky early in 1863. She deserted the Union Army at this time, some sources say it is undetermined why, but most say she contacted malaria. Sarah did not want the Army doctors to find out she was a female, so she deserted.

Sarah then took her real name back and worked as a nurse for the United States Christian Commission. In 1865, she published "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army," a scandalous and popular fictional account of her experiences in the Union Army.

Sarah married a Canadian mechanic, Linus Seelye in 1867. Accounts differ regarding how many children the couple had, most say three, some say two and that they both died in infancy. Either way she married and moved around frequently over the years, going to Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana and Kansas.

Sarah was living in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1882 when she began attempting to get affidavits from her old army comrades in order to receive a veteran's pension from the government. She also worked very hard during this time to have her records cleared of the desertion charges on grounds of not being able to reveal her identity. Sarah was granted her pension in 1884. The pension was granted by Congress to "Sarah E. E. Seelye [her married name], alias Frank Thompson." A letter from the secretary of war, dated in June of that year, recognized her as "a female solider who . . . served as a private . . . rendering faithful service in the ranks." Sarah was also successful in having the charge of desertion removed from her military records.

Sarah attended an army reunion in 1884 and shocked her fellow veterans when they realized that Frank Thompson was indeed a woman. Many were amazed at the courage and strength this woman had displayed during the war. Sarah is the only woman to be marshaled into the Grand Army of the Republic as a regular member.

Sarah died in Texas on September 5, 1898. She is buried in Washington Cemetery, Houston Texas in lot G-26. This lot belonged to George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. She is considered to be one of the more famous women of the Civil War era.

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