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An Appetite for Adventure
The adventures didn’t come to her—she came to them. Running away from home, disguising herself as a man, carrying mail on a galloping horse over rocky terrain, spying behind Confederate lines—these are just some of the adventures that Emma Edmonds had. Growing up as a mischievous little girl who played with boys, then following her favorite book heroine’s example and joining the army, it cannot be said that Emma was like other women of her time.
Emma Edmonds’ work as a nurse, soldier, and spy under the name Franklin Thompson was very important to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Although she was just one of an estimated 400 women to join the war disguised as a man, she was one of the most successful. She stood up for what she believed in, even though women were not allowed to be in the army.
Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds was born in December of 1841, in Nova Scotia, Canada. She was the sixth child and the fifth daughter of Isaac Edmondson and Elizabeth Leeper. Even though Sarah was her first name, she preferred to go by her middle name, Emma.
But why would an ordinary woman risk her life in the war? Most women left the fighting to the men. So what reason did a Canadian woman have to fight in an American war?
Growing up on a rural farm, Emma had always been adventurous and mischievous. She enjoyed hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and other activities usually associated with boys. Her father, however, didn’t approve of her doing such unladylike things. He was often angry and frustrated with her because she hadn’t been born a boy. Emma constantly tried to live up to his expectations, but her father was never satisfied.
Emma was friendly, and easy for people to like. One spring afternoon, a peddler came by the Edmondson farm. He took a liking to the spirited girl right away, when she generously invited him to stay for dinner. As a thank-you, he gave her a book titled 'Fanny Campbell: The Female Pirate Captain'.
Ordinary farm girls usually could not afford many books, so this was a treat for Emma. Whenever she had spare time, she read it. The story was about a teenage girl who fought pirates and made daring escapes to save her lover, all while disguised as a man. Fanny’s adventures sparked Emma’s imagination, and inspired her to be more courageous and adventurous. In one scene, where Fanny cut off her hair and put on men’s clothing, Emma jumped up and shouted, “Someday I will follow Fanny’s example!” She had no idea how true that would become.
When she was 15 years old, a nearby farmer started making advances on her. Emma was appalled, but her father encouraged the man. He made arrangements for them to get married. Emma had no interest in getting married. So the night before the wedding, with the help of her mother, she ran away. When she left her family behind, she also left her past behind, including changing her last name from Edmondson to Edmonds.
For several years, Emma lived with her mother’s friend Annie Moffitt in Salisbury, a lively town located near the U.S. border. She worked in Moffitt’s millinery shop and quickly became a favorite among customers.
A few years later, Emma heard that her father had learned of her whereabouts and was coming to bring her home. Afraid that he would still insist on her getting married, she hurriedly started planning her getaway. She followed her hero Fanny Campbell’s example and dressed as a man to make her escape. Emma didn’t stop there, though; she took it one step further and fully assumed the identity of a man, name and everything. Under the name Franklin Thompson, she got a job selling Bibles. Her employer was almost immediately impressed by her work. He commented that “...Frank is one of the best men I’ve ever had!” and “...nobody could ever outsell him!”
Emma stayed there for awhile, but then moved south to Flint, Michigan, thinking she could make more money in the United States. She continued to sell Bibles, and made more money than before. Emma was living comfortably as Frank. Her disguise was so convincing that young ladies often found ‘Frank’ attractive. Sometimes, she took them on carriage rides and even had to turn down a few marriage proposals. ‘Frank’ also had quite a few male friends.
When Emma heard about the war and the call for volunteers, she didn’t think twice. She went to enlist right alongside her male friends. At the time, the army didn’t require a physical examination. All that Emma had to do was answer a few questions and demonstrate a firm handshake. At first, the army rejected the 5’ 6’’ “beardless boy” because he was too small. But later, when the army was getting desperate for volunteers, Emma was allowed to join.
For the most part, Emma didn’t have to worry about her gender being discovered. She fit right in with the rest of the men. One of her comrades said that Frank “...was a whole-souled, enthusiastic youngster, frank and fearless.” Occasionally, Emma had to be careful not to do some of the things that came naturally to her, like washing her dishes, so no one would suspect her of being a woman. But if anyone had any doubts, they kept them to themselves.
For the first part of the war, Emma’s regiment didn’t do much fighting. Fevers and diseases did more for filling the hospitals than enemy weapons. When typhoid fever swept through the camps, Emma started spending more and more of her spare time helping out the doctors and nurses. One soldier wrote that “Frank seemed happiest when caring for the sick, and after the first fights at Blackburn's Ford and Bull Run, spent much of his time in the various hospitals." When her superiors noticed her interest in nursing, they asked her she wanted a full-time job in the hospitals. Emma eagerly agreed. 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 hands to soothe the delirium.”
While she was working in the hospitals, Emma met a man named Jerome Robbins. He was friendly, and had much in common with Emma. Both were very religious, strongly opposed to slavery, and had grown up on farms. Whenever they had spare time they would talk to each other, and they soon became inseparable.
After knowing Jerome for a while, Emma decided it was time for him to know the truth. One evening, she asked him to go on a walk with her. She told him about everything: her childhood, family, friends, and much more. It was difficult for her to let go off the secrets she had been keeping for so long. Everything she had been keeping inside herself was now out in the open.
At first, he was a bit shocked. Now knowing all of his friend’s secrets, Jerome could have betrayed her. But he didn’t. Instead, he continued to be a friend and companion to Frank, who he now knew as Emma.
A few weeks later, Emma heard about a comrade who had been shot and killed. There was now a job opening for anyone who wanted to be a spy. To avenge her comrade’s death, and perhaps to satisfy her ever-growing hunger for adventure, Emma volunteered. Her first mission was to gather information about Confederate fortifications. So, she obtained a slave’s clothes and a black curly wig. Then, she darkened her skin with iodine and set off toward a Confederate camp as a slave who called himself ‘Cuff’.
When she passed an enemy soldier, she was asked to identify herself. She told him that she was a freeman on his way to find work in Virginia. The soldier replied that there were no free men in Virginia, and set Cuff to work building a wall. Emma took this as an opportunity to learn valuable information that could help the Union. For a day, she worked on the wall, talking to slaves and trying to learn as much as possible. It was hard work. When she spotted a slave working in the kitchens, Emma talked him into switching jobs.
In the kitchen, Emma was able to overhear soldiers’ conversations. In one soldier’s coat pocket, she found some papers. She looked them over, and realized that they were Confederate battle plans and sketches of fortifications. Quickly, before anyone saw her, she hid them in her sleeve.
Later that evening, she was put to work carrying water and supplies to the picket line, a line of soldiers guarding the area and watching for enemies. Emma made a point to talk to each soldier for as long as possible, to gain information. When one of the generals noticed her dawdling, he ordered her to take the post of a Confederate soldier who had recently been shot. Eagerly, she took the position, knowing it would give her the perfect chance to escape to the nearby Union encampment.
That night, it was pouring rain. The pickets huddled together, taking shelter from the rain, even know most of them were already soaked. Emma used this opportunity to make her escape. With the soldiers distracted by the rain, it wasn’t difficult for her to slip off toward the Union camp. When she got back, many of the soldiers were glad to see their friend Frank. Her superiors were impressed by what she had found—she was able to give them information about the size and moral of the enemy troops, rough sketches of fortifications, gun placement, and even the ‘Quaker guns’, logs painted black to look like cannons from afar.
Despite the danger, Emma’s first successfully completed mission only whetted her appetite to do more reconnaissance work. For her next assignment, she disguised herself as a somewhat fat Irish peddler woman named Bridget O’Shea. She went into the Confederate camps to sell her wares, and gained even more valuable information.
When Frank Thompson wasn’t working as a spy, she continued to nurse wounded soldiers. When she wasn’t needed as a nurse she also worked as a mail carrier, often putting herself in danger, galloping her horse over streams and in bad weather to make sure the mail got to the soldiers. It was always a welcome sight for them, to see the mail coming in, because they knew it would often bring letters from family and friends far away. Because of this, Frank became popular and well-known among the soldiers.
As the list of her accomplishments grew, it became increasingly likely that she would be recognized by the Confederates as a spy. After ten successful missions, her last took place in Louisville, Kentucky. Her mission was to find out information on any counter-spy activity. Like all her previous missions, it was successful. She managed to uncover three Confederate spies, who were immediately arrested.
In April of 1863, Emma became severely ill. This time, she was not able to shake it off as she had done so many times before. She did not want to go to the army hospitals, for fear of her gender being discovered. She requested a two week leave, which was denied. That only left her one option—deserting. It was a hard decision for Emma to make, but a necessary one.
She wasn’t quite ready to give up her disguise, though. Several months passed before she gave up Franklin Thompson forever and reclaimed her identity as Emma Edmonds. When she recovered her health, she began working on a fictionalized book of her adventures and experiences in the army. Titled 'Nurse and Spy in the Union Army', it was published in 1865 and became an immediate bestseller.
A few years later, Emma married the carpenter Linus Seelye, who was also a Canadian. They had two sons, George and Charles, and adopted three more. Emma was happy living with her family in Texas, but she was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the way she had left the army. She didn’t receive any wages or pension, and ‘Frank Thompson’ was still labeled a deserter. Nearly twenty years after the war had ended, Emma started a campaign to receive a pension from the government and clear Frank’s name.
It took almost three years and lots of hard work, but eventually Emma’s pension was granted. In March of 1884, a special act of Congress granted Frank an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus and a veteran’s pension of twelve dollars a month. It reads:
“Truth is often times stranger than fiction, and now comes the sequel, Sarah E. Edmonds, now Sarah E. Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, is now asking this Congress to grant her relief by way of a pension on account of fading health…That Franklin Thompson and Mrs. Sarah E. E. Seelye are one and the same person is established by abundance of proof and beyond a doubt.”
Emma died on September 5, 1898, at age 57 from complications of the same illness that drove her to leave the army. She was buried in Washington Cemetery, a military cemetery in Houston, Texas.
Emma followed Fanny Campbell’s example more than she ever would have imagined. The crucial information she gained from spying was very important to the Union. She never specifically said why she dressed as a man and joined the army, but perhaps it came from the love of adventure she had had since she was a child. It would never be expected that a Canadian woman would fight, dressed as a man, in the American Civil War, but Emma did and many call her a hero because of it.
She wrote, “I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic—but patriotism was the true secret of my success.”