Sarah Emma Edmonds

Nurse, Soldier and Spy


Growing Up

Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada (Gansler, 2005). Her father was a cruel, harsh farm worker who only wanted a son and felt as though Emma was no use to him (Turner, 2002). Emma was the sixth child to be born. She had four other sisters and one brother, Thomas, who was an epileptic. Thomas's condition made it very difficult for him to help with the responsibilities of tending to the farm and because of this, Emma's father viewed him to be useless (Gansler, 2005). Emma's father resented the fact that she was born a girl and as a result he treated her badly, causing Emma to have difficulties early on in her life. Emma did all she could to show her father that underneath her feminine exterior, she could do all that a boy could do and more. Among all of her brother's and sister's, Emma was usually the one to volunteer to do the more difficult and dangerous chores (Gansler, 2005).

There is one significant event that changed Emma's life forever. One night, Emma's mother decided to offer a peddler a bed for the night since it was unusually late and dark. The next morning, to express his appreciation for letting him stay the night, the man gave a novel to the family to enjoy. Emma had always been very fond of reading but often did not have access, or her father's permission, to new reading material. The next day, when Emma and her sisters went out to the field to carry out their daily chores, Emma trimphantly exposed the novel to her sister's (Gansler, 2005). The girls took turns reading the novel aloud to each other. The novel was titled "Fanny Campbell, The Female Pirate Captain". The story was about a woman, Fanny Campbell, who decided to set off to rescue her lover, a sea captain who had been captured and imprisoned by pirates. Fanny cut off her long hair and set off impersonating a male pirate. This particular story had a great influence on Emma. She explains that "from that day forth I never ceased planning escape, although it was years before I accomplished it" (Gansler, 2005).

As Emma grew older her father grew more abusive and tried to arrange a marriage for her with an older neighbour. Emma wanted no part of it and her mother agreed, helping Emma flee to the United States (Sakany, 2004). Emma easily adapted to her new life and became a true American, with the United States being her country in which she wanted to defend (Markle, 2004).

Enlisting in the Union Army

Emma was settled in Flint, Michigan, when the first call for union enlistings went out. Emma decided to adopt the male alias of Frank Thompson and enlist. She cut her hair and wore men's clothing. At the time, the physical test for enlistment did not consist of a medical examination, and the men were only required to answer questions. After being turned away four times because she did not meet the height requirement, Emma (Frank Thompson) was sworn into the Union Army (Sakany, L., 2004). On April 25, 1861, Emma Edmonds, under the name of Frank Thompson, became a male nurse in the Second Volunteers of the United States Army, with the rank of Private (Markle, 2004). Edmonds performed many services for the Union Army for approximately two years. It is believed that at this time, one of Edmonds' friends was killed and she desired revenge. Emma requested a job as a spy. She was frequently known to disguise herself as a female Irish immigrant selling apples to the troops, a rebel guard, and a young black male named 'Ned' (Turner, 2002).

Life After War

After the war, Emma settled in Texas, where she married L. H. Seelye in 1867, a Canadian carpenter with whom she had three children. Sadly, these children died young; Emma and her husband then adopted and raised two children (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002). She used the name Sarah Edmonds to publish a book called Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It was a huge success, selling in excess of 150,000 copies, although she never denied nor validated her alias as Pvt. Frank Thompson or her work as a spy in the Army (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M, 2002). She also later admitted that the book was not only her recollections, but also contained content from the lives of others (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002). Emma donated most of the proceeds of her book to charity. It is thought that she did not come out with her alias because she had deserted the Union due to bouts of malaria (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002).

Eventually Emma sought a veteran’s pension and to do so she had to reveal the name of her alias (Anonymous, 2005). Emma was suffering from arthritis and rheumatism and needed the money to cover her medical bills (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002).To obtain her pension, she had to prove that she was Pvt. Frank Thompson and also had to clear the charge of desertion (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002). Emma pleaded directly to congress, her plea containing many of the values of a nurse. She stated that “I felt called to go and do what I could for the defence of the right... I went with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded” (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002, p. 168). Her comrades also read statements supporting Emma’s good character and eventually in 1884, Emma Edmonds received her pension under her wartime name of Pvt. Frank Thompson (Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M., 2002).

In 1898, Edmonds died in La Porte, Texas, at the age of 57 and is buried in Washington Cemetery, in Houston, Texas. In 1992, she was inducted into the Michigan Woman's Hall of Fame (All Experts, 2006). She remains one of the most celebrated women of the Civil War.

Here is a video recounting the life of Sarah Emma Edmonds:

For more information on Sarah Emma Edmonds, visit Civil War Women.


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Blanton, D. and Cook, L.M. (2002). They fought like demons: Women soldiers in the american civil war. United States: Lousiana State University.
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Sakany, L. (2004). Sarah Emma Edmonds. Women civil war spies of the union (1st ed., pp. 69-85). United States: Rosen Publishing Group Inc.
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Turner, M. (2002). Sarah emma edmonds biography. Retrieved from