At the age of sixteen in 1857, Sarah Emma Edmondson escaped an arranged marriage and an abusive father. She changed her last name to Edmonds. Emigrating to the United States from New Brunswick, she found a job more easily when disguised as a man, Franklin Thompson. When the war began, she lived in Flint, Michigan. Strong Union views led her to enlist in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a male field nurse named Franklin Flint Thompson.
Emma nursed her comrades at such battles as the Battle of Antietam. She worked as a hospital attendant. She was also a mail carrier for her regiment, a dangerous job that often required horseback rides of over 100 miles.
A recurrence of malaria struck Emma in the spring of 1863. She requested a furlough, which was denied. Since she dare not visit the army’s medical staff for fear of discovery, she left camp in the middle of the night—Frank Thompson became a deserter.
Emma boarded a train to Oberlin, Ohio, where she recovered in a boarding house as Frank. Then she became a female nurse with the United States Christian Commission, where she served until the war ended. She wrote her memoirs in Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, first published in 1864.
There are no official records of Emma acting as spy for the Union army. She seems to have been talented at disguises. While a spy, she pretended to be Charles Mayberry, a Southern sympathizer; Cuff, a black man; and Bridget O’Shea, an Irish peddler.
After the war, Emma applied for a military pension. An Act of Congress finally cleared Franklin Thompson of desertion and she received the pension in 1884.
In 1897, Emma became the only woman admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic.
Emma left home to escape an arranged marriage, much as one of the sisters faced in my Civil War novel, A Musket in My Hands. Two sisters disguise themselves as men and muster into the Confederate army in the fall of 1864—just in time for events and long marches to lead them toward the tragic Battle of Franklin.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Harper, 2014.
Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren M. They Fought Like Demons, Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Women in the Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
“Sarah Emma Edmonds,” Civil War Biography, 2018/12/10 https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-emma-edmonds.
“Sarah Emma Edmonds,” National Park Service, 2018/12/10 https://www.nps.gov/people/sarah-emma-edmonds.htm.