Sarah Emma Edmonds
a.k.a. Private Franklin Thompson
Sarah Emma Edmonds, was born December, 1841, in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick, Canada. With the help of her mother, she left home to travel to the United States where disguised as a boy, she found employment selling Bibles and other books in New England. At the encouragement of her employer, she, disguised as Frank Thompson, moved to Flint, Michigan and continued to sell Bibles and books.
However, when the call to arms for Union soldiers came to Michigan, she could not turn away. As she stated:
It was not my intention, or desire, to seek my own personal ease and comfort while so much sorrow and distress filled the land. But the great question to be decided was, what can I do? What part am I to act in this great drama? I was not able to decide for myself—so I carried this question to the Throne of Grace, and found a satisfactory answer there.
That answer led her to enlist with the United States Army, Company F, Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 25, 1861. As Emma explained, “I thank God that I am permitted in this hour of my adopted country’s need to express a tithe of the gratitude which I feel toward the people of the Northern States. Soon after she was mustered into her unit, they were on the train to Washington, D.C. where she participated in many of the early engagements of the Civil War, including First Bull Run, the Peninsular campaign, Fredericksburg, and Antietam.
In December 1862, Emma rode as an orderly to General Poe in the Battle of Fredericksburg with such skill and fearlessness to receive commendations of field and general officers. She served as a field nurse, soldier, regiment and spy. When approached about serving as an intelligence gatherer, she gladly agreed. Creative disguises enabled her to move about in Confederate camps and retrieve information valuable to the federal cause.
In 1863, when her unit was transferred to Kentucky, Emma’s activities for the Secret Service resumed. Her spying adventures ranged from disguising herself as a Rebel soldier, taking on the role of a young man with Southern sympathies to try to uncover southern spies, becoming a civilian dry goods clerk in Louisville, and posing as a peddler of goods in Confederate camps.
Unfortunately, the malaria Emma originally contracted in the swamps of the Chickahominy River resurfaced. She became so ill that the doctors wanted to hospitalize Private Thompson. Emma had a tough decision to make. Stay and hope she would not be examined and discovered, or desert the army that had been the recipient of her loyalty and devotion the last two years? On April 19, 1863, Private Frank Thompson disappeared from the ranks of Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry.
While recovering from her illness, Frank became Emma once again, discarding her male attire and donning a dress. During this time she wrote Female Spy of the Union Army (1864). Emma dedicated her memoirs to the sick and wounded soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. It was an overnight best seller. Emma donated the proceeds from the book to the Christian Commission and to veterans’ aid organizations.
In 1864, with the Civil War still raging and many wounded soldiers still in need of care, Emma joined the Christian Commission and worked at a hospital in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, under the direction of Reverend J.R. Miller. In 1867, she married Linus Seelye, a fellow Canadian, and together they raised a family, finally settling in Texas.
It was always a concern to Emma that the name “deserter” stood by the name of Frank Thompson, and as time went on, it became important to her that the government recognize her two years of service for the Union. Finally, in 1882, Emma was ready to let the world know that Frank Thompson and Emma Edmonds Seeley were one in the same.
She contacted members of Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry who had served with her, and surprised them with the true story of “Frank Thompson.” Emma sought their assistance to secure a government pension for her years of military service. Her fellow soldiers submitted numerous affidavits to Congress that attested to her faithful service as soldier and nurse in the Union army1. For example:
“S. Emma E. Seelye is the identical person who enlisted under the name of Franklin Thompson. . . and performed cheerfully and fully and at all times any duty which was assigned her.” --Damon Stewart
“More than one member of the company can attest to the care, kindness and self-sacrificing devotion of “Frank” to the sick soldiers of the regiment.”
“Frank Thompson was a strong, healthy, and robust soldier, every willing and ready for duty.” “In view of her many ministrations of tenderness and mercy, thousands of soldiers who were the recipients of her timely attention and nursing must remember her with the most filial regard.” –William Shakespeare
The many affirmations may best be summed up by the captain who mustered her into the army:
S. Emma E. Seelye, by her uniform faithfulness, bravery, and efficiency, and by her pure morals and Christian character, won the respect, admiration, and confidence of both officers and men in said company and regiment.”
--Captain William Morse
In 1884 the U.S. Congress granted Emma her soldier’s pension, stating that the fact that “Franklin Thompson and Mrs. Sara E .E. Seelye are one and the same person is established by abundance of proof and beyond a doubt.”
Two years later, the charge of desertion was finally removed from Emma/Frank Thompson’s military records.
In 1897 Emma became the only woman to be mustered into the Grand Army of the Republic as a regular member. She died on September 5, 1898. In 1988 she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Much of Emma’s story as told in the history books focuses on her bravery as a soldier and spy or her acts of compassion as a field nurse. Rarely do they mention her motivation for her service—her Christian faith. However, her own story in The Female Spy of the Union Army reveals the depth of her faith commitment, and the final statement in her book expresses the passion of her heart:
And now I lay aside my pen, hoping that after “this cruel war is over” and peace shall once more shed her sweet influence over our land, I may be permitted to resume it again to record the annihilation of rebellion, and the final triumph of Truth, Right, and Liberty.
O Lord of Peace, who art Lord of righteousness,
Constrain the anguished worlds from sin and grief
Pierce them with conscience, purge them with redress,
And give us peace which is no counterfeit!
1 House Report No. 820 to accompany H.R. 5334, U.S. Congress, March 18, 1884