Thursday, October 18

Sara Emma Edmonds

In honor of Women's History Month, an accounting of a Canadian woman who left her mark on the US during the Civil War.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in Nova Scotia, in 1842. Her early childhood was marred by the fact that her father resented her because she wasn't a boy. Things were so bad, that eventually Emma ran away from home. She fled to the United States.

Emma adapted well to life in her new country. So much so, that when the Civil War broke out she wanted to enlist. Emma was living in Flint, Michigan at the time. When the first call went out for Union enlistment, Emma went into action. She dressed in men's clothing, cut her hair and took the name of Frank Thompson. No medical was required to enlist in those days, but it took four attempts before she was successful. On April 25, 1861, Emma was sworn in as a male nurse in the Second Volunteers of the United States Army. She was sent to Washington for training. Her unit was then sent to join McClellan in Virginia. Emma was assigned to the hospital unit of the Second Michigan Volunteers.
McClellan sent out word that he was looking for a spy. Private Frank Thompson (Emma) volunteered for the position. She studied local geography, weaponry, military strategy and military personalities. When McClellan interviewed her, he was so impressed with her knowledge that he immediately gave her the job.

Emma needed a disguise. She decided to enlist in the Confederate Army as a black man. The wife of a local chaplain helped her dye her skin with silver nitrate. She dressed in men's clothing, wore a minstrel's wig, and called herself, "Cuff."

When Emma reached the Confederate front, she was assigned to work on the ramparts that were being built by local black men. At the end of the day her hands were bloody and blistered. She switched jobs with a slave. The second day she worked in the kitchen. She learned the size of the army, how many weapons they had, and learned of the "Quaker Guns" (logs painted black to look like cannons from a distance) that the Confederates planned to use at Yorktown.

The next day Emma was assigned picket duty. She escaped and rejoined the Union Army. The information she took back impressed McClellan. He gave her a personal interview. She then returned to her duties as a male nurse.

Two month later, Emma received orders to return to the Confederate lines. She knew she couldn't return as "Cuff," since he was a deserter. She assumed the identity of an Iris peddler woman. Her name was Bridge O' Shea.

Emma had no trouble getting into the Confederate camp. She sold her wares and kept her ears open. She returned to McClellan with information after being wounded while making her escape. She had helped herself to a beautiful horse that she named Rebel.

The Second Michigan was sent to the Shenandoah Valley. Frank Thompson's skill as a nurse and spy proceeded her. When she arrived, General Sherman issued orders for her to resume her job as spy.

Emma used her disguise as "Cuff" several times while spying. In August 1862, she used the disguise of a black mammy. She took the job of laundress in the Confederate camp. While sorting clothes, she discovered official documents in an officer's coat. She took the papers and went back to the Union lines. Her commanding officer was delighted with the find.

Emma's unit was transferred again at the end of 1862. This time they joined the Ninth Corps, under the command of General Ambrose Burnside, who was camped near Louisville, Kentucky. Once again Private Thompson's accomplishments proceeded Emma. Her spying missions continued.

Emma assumed the identity of Charles Mayberry, a young man with Southern sympathies. She went to Louisville to identify the Southern spy network. Emma was again successful. She returned unit and was immediately transferred to serve under the command of General Ulysses Grant, who was preparing for the Battle of Vicksburg.

Under Grant's command, Emma worked long hours in her role as male nurse. Then, disaster struck. Emma had malaria. If she sought medical attention, her true identity would be revealed. She went to Cairo, Illinois, assumed her true identity and entered a private hospital for treatment. When she was well, she would return to her unit.

Upon her release from hospital, Emma was walking past the post office when she saw an army bulletin. It was a list of deserters. On the list was the name of Private Frank Thompson.

Emma used the last of her money to buy a train ticket to Washington. Once there, she was hired as a nurse. She worked there until the end of the war.

Emma, disguised as Private Thompson, had successfully completed eleven spying missions. After the war, she wrote a book about her escapades. "Nurse and Spy of the Union Army" sold thousands of copies. Emma gave the profits to the United States War Relief Fund and returned to Canada.

In her native land, Emma met Linus Seeyle. They married and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. The couple raised three sons.

Though happy with her husband and children, Emma hated the fact that she'd been branded a deserter. She petitioned the War Department. On July 5, 1884, Congress granted her an Honorable Discharge. She received a bonus for her work as a spy and received a pension of $12.00 a month. Emma was now completely happy. She spent her remaining years in La Porte, Texas. She died on September 5, 1889. She was buried in the military section of Washington Cemetery in Houston. She is the only woman to become a member of the Grand Army of the Republic.


  1. I learn so much from your blog, thank you dear one.

  2. Denise,

    This post is a little long, but wanted to post this. Sara Emma Edmonds has always piqued my interest. Thanks for visiting.


  3. This is one story I did not know.

    Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Philip,

    I'm glad I could inform you about Sara Emma Edmonds. I ran across her story some years ago and found her life intriguing.

    Thanks for visiting. It's always nice to see you here.

    Have a great day.

  5. I had heard about Emma, but not in such detail. What a story hers is! Great post once again.

  6. Paula,

    I'm glad you enjoyed learning more about this intriguing woman.

    Thanks for your comments. Have a great Friday.


  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Hi, Mary! I found you via Morning Glory and I loved this story. I'm surprised Sarah's story hasn't been made into a movie. We have families of that name living here in Alberta. I wonder if there's a connection? I'll be back to visit again :))

  9. Mary,

    Wow!! What a great article. Sara Emma Edmonds was one creative and brave woman. Those were the days when they hanged spies. I enjoyed learning about her. Thank you!


  10. Yes, if Sara had been caught, she would have been hanged in a blink of an eye. Brave women, indeed.

  11. What a remarkable woman. I so love hearing of history like this. Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. Cynthia,

    I also love history, though I find that Canadian history is a little dull compared to the US. I believe it's because much of it wasn't recorded. I love digging through archives to find those interesting little tidbits.

    Thanks so much for visiting.

  13. This is such an interesting story. Thank you for sharing it.
    For those wanting to learn more about her family, I found this info:

  14. nana cheryl,

    I'm glad you enjoyed learning about Sarah and thanks so much for leaving the URL. I find her story intriguing. I'll check it out.


  15. Her birthday is in December....Not november ;)
    Check out my blog:
    It is different than yours

  16. I'm pretty sure Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick - not Nova Scotia - and she was born in December of 1842, and not in 1842. There has been a film made about her, it was filmed at Kings Landing Historical Settlement, where I once worked - it was called "The Unsexing of Emma Edmonds".

    Not saying this to be contrary, just thought I'd point it out - I was googling for some info about her when I came across your blog post.

  17. Hi, Sara, as it turns out, is my the mother of my mothers father's father. I've been aware of her story for quite some time and I am glad that people are interested it.

  18. Thanks Sarah, I needed to do a biography about her and I learned SO much! Thank you.

  19. Your biography was so interesting, I was glad I did a report about her and it as good, so thanks:)