Sarah Edmonds: The Canadian Chameleon of the American Civil War

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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When I turned 18, I did what most dudes do: I signed up for selective military service. It didn’t really mean anything—the United States hasn’t done the draft since 1973. Still, it’s a weird thing to sign yourself up for military conscription, no matter how unlikely it is.

This was around 2003, as America was warring up and I was a teenager, so I had lots of thoughts and feelings about things. Fortunately, my parents helped me figure out what to do: sign the agreement, because I had no choice. It was a good call—there was, of course, no draft, and not signing up for selective service comes with a range of lifelong consequences in the eyes of the government. And now I’m too old for the government to conscript me, even if they wanted to, which is pretty cool.

Sarah Edmonds was different than me, and not just because she was a 19th-century Canadian lady. While I mulled the idea of moving to Canada to avoid hypothetical military service, Edmonds did pretty much the opposite: she moved from Canada to the States, volunteered for a Michigan militia, and entered the Civil War. I guess, in a way, we were both playing the role of the masculine ideal, but Sarah Edmonds did it better.

What’d Canada Do to Her?

Edmonds moved to America to live as a man and become a war hero for the same reason many impressive people do incredible things: she had a sh*tty relationship with her father.

Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1841, originally under the surname Edmondson. Her old man was a farmer who had his heart set on having a son, basically so he’d have a farmhand. Rather than doing something healthy, like thinking “Oh, hey, you know what? Women can also farm, so this isn’t really a problem,” or “Wow, I’m a dad!”, Mr. Edmondson decided to instead treat his daughter like sh*t and force her into an arranged marriage.

Sarah Emma Edmonds, or maybe Franklin Thompson.
I don’t know—I’m not up on my 1860s hairstyles.

An arranged marriage conducted by a bad dad is, in some ways, a bit like a military conscription. It could work out, but it could also really suck. But at least military service had an endpoint; a loveless marriage might last the rest of your life (or, statistically, his).

So, in 1857, Edmonds bailed on all that, left home, and changed her name from “Edmonson” to “Edmonds,” and went by her middle name. Would I have suggested a slightly more different surname for a pseudonym? Yes. But I also appreciate the poesy of ditching your dad who wanted a boy, then axing “son” from your own last name. F*ck Mr. Edmondson and his son entitlement, you know?

At first, Edmonds stayed in Canada, living in a town called Moncton.1 If you’ve never heard of Moncton, I hadn’t either, so I gave it a Google. As of this writing, the last noteworthy thing to happen in Moncton was a bunch of people getting bear maced at the county fair.2 So, like I said: it’s in Canada. Not far from New Brunswick.

In Moncton, Edmonds lived in fear that her father would be able to find her, so she decided to move to the United States and put an international border between them.

After a somewhat milquetoast go at crafting a new identity by dropping the “-son” suffix from her last name in Moncton, Edmonds went full-tilt this time. She changed her whole name this time, as well as her appearance. Sarah Edmonds became Franklin Thompson.

I doubt Edmonds’ father would have appreciated the irony of his mistreated daughter leaving home to become the son he never had—farmers get up early, work long hours, and speak plainly, so they aren’t big irony junkies. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it.

Edmonds, as Franklin Thompson, made her way to Hartford, Connecticut, where she made a solid living as a bible salesman (this was before you could just steal ‘em from hotel rooms, if you wanted to). Being a man, it turned out, was easier than being a woman, especially in the 1850s. Big surprise, right?1

‘Franklin Thompson’ and the Civil War

In 1861, the Civil War was flaring up and Franklin Thompson (you know, Sarah Edmonds—shhh, though) was selling so many books she should’ve called herself Jeff Bezos, only that wouldn’t have even made sense in 1861.

Edmonds was living in Flint, Michigan, at the time, which was firmly on the Union side of things (rather than the Confederacy). She’d only been an American for a few years at this point, but she supported her new home team enough to get involved with the war. The best way, she figured, was to keep being Franklin Thompson and enlist as a man.

This may be a photo of Sarah Edmonds in uniform, though it could also be Jennie Hodgers—another woman who dressed as a man to fight in the Civil War.

On May 25, 1861, she joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a three-year recruit. Early on, Edmonds did some battlefield nursing. As Franklin, she helped to cover the Union retreat from the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861. Edmonds was nearly captured by the Confederacy as she stayed behind to treat wounded soldiers, but she escaped and got back to her regiment in Washington. She continued with the medical work as a hospital attendant for a few months after that.

The following spring, Sarah was tapped as a mail carrier (again, as Franklin), and her regiment was sent on campaign in Virginia, where she was at the Siege of Yorktown.1

Sarah Edmonds Goes Pro Incognito

It was during this campaign that Edmonds was first tasked with espionage work. For me, this is a bit of a paradox. Edmonds had apparently been fooling her own army superiors for about a year at this point, so she was a great pick for spy duty. That said—how did the Union army know she’d be a good pick? If someone’s great at being a spy, then, in theory, you’d never know it, right?

Anyway, it’s spycraft, so details are fuzzy—to the point where her espionage work hasn’t been confirmed outside of Edmonds’ own memoirs—but the Union army clearly picked the right woman for the job, especially if they thought she was a man the whole time. You know, if said job ever existed, which I can neither confirm nor deny.1

According to Edmonds’ memoirs, however, she infiltrated the Confederates a number of times under different aliases. Most of these aliases were men: One, “Charles Mayberry,” was a southern sympathizer. Another was a black man named “Cuff,” which, yeah, meant dying her skin and wearing a wig. That’s not a cool thing to do today, but keep in mind this was the 1860s and she was fighting to bring down slavery.

My favorite of Sarah Edmonds’ aliases was ‘Bridget O’Shea,” who was an Irish soap and apple peddler. Edmonds was so good at being a spy that she managed to be a Canadian woman, pretending to be an American man, who was pretending to be an Irish woman. In order to appreciate what Sarah Edmonds did here, try and fake an Irish accent right now. Was it good? That was a rhetorical question—it was not good. And now you’re dead.2

Forced Retirement

Sarah Edmonds kept on with the Civil War for a couple of years in various capacities, outside of her possible spy work. At the Battle of Williamsburg, she beared stretchers and lobbed lead with her brothers in arms. She crossed dangerous territory as a mail carrier, evading guerrilla soldiers known as ”bushwackers,” and saw action during other battles throughout the campaign.

In August 1862, she took some hard knocks at the Battle of Second Manassas. She was again on courier duty when her horse was killed. She hopped on a mule and kept at it until she found herself in a ditch with a broken leg and internal injuries that’d stick with her the rest of her life.

However, it wasn’t these injuries, or the bushwackers, or any counter-spycraft that took Sarah Edmonds out of action. Instead, she was forced to retire by one of humankind’s greatest enemies: malaria.

Engraving of Sarah Edmonds published in her book, The Female Spy of the Union Army in 1864
(you can buy it on Amazon).

Edmonds couldn’t seek medical attention for obvious reasons. Or, if those reasons aren’t obvious, then here you go: she was a lady, but she was supposed to be a dude. She applied for furlough—a leave of absence from the military—and was denied. So, rather than be discovered by her own army as an impostor, she furloughed herself long enough to get well at a private hospital.

By the time she got out, Franklin Thompson had been branded a deserter. The penalty during wartime for desertion is death and, during the Civil War, they’d actually follow through with the executions. Lucky for Franklin, he didn’t exist. Sarah Edmonds went back to being Sarah Edmonds, and kept on nursing through the United States Christian Commission until the end of the war. In 1864, she published her memoirs, revealing her double life and alleged spy work during the war, and donated the profits to soldiers’ aid groups.1 2

Life as a Secret War Vet and Recognition

In 1867, Edmonds married Linus Seelye and they traveled across the country looking for work. They had three kids and lost them all to illness, but adopted two boys from an orphanage Sarah ran during the late 1870s in Louisiana.

Even years later, the whole desertion charge didn’t sit right with Edmonds—particularly the part where she couldn’t receive her veterans’ pension. She had tried to apply for her proof of service using only her initials, but the War Department wanted full names. She came clean:

“To that Adjutant Genl. State of Michigan my full name is Sarah Emma Evelyn Seeyle. I enlisted and served as Franklin Thompson in Co “F” 2nd Mich Vols. And refer you to Capt Damon Stewart of Flint Mich, Lieut Wm Turner of same, Capt Wm R Morse, Lawrence Kansas of Flint Mich, Gen O.M. Poe of Sherman’s staff. I would say if you don’t want to give me the certificate of service just say so. Sarah Emma E. Seeyle.”

Sarah Edmonds ducking bushwackers in the woods.

Her war buddies came out in full support, singing Edmonds’ praises in interviews and affidavits. The Captain Morse mentioned in the above letter said the following to the Kansas City Star:

“Franklin was known by every man in the regiment, and her desertion was the topic of every campfire. The beardless boy was a universal favorite, and much anxiety was expressed over her safety. We never heard of her again during the war, and could never account for her desertion.”

Finally, in 1884, Congress finally decided to give her a pension—a whopping $12 a month, which is like $282 in today money (going by inflation in 2016). Two years later, Congress cleared Edmonds’ name of the desertion charge originally applied to Franklin Thompson.

In the end, malaria finally got Edmonds—another bout hit her in 1897, and complications eventually led to her death in 1898. But she died a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans organization.3

Looking back, it’s not clear how much of Edmonds’ memoirs were totally true, as historians tend to disagree on the particulars. Also unclear is how many of her wartime comrades she actually fooled. As Captain Morse pointed out, she was paid special attention and branded the “beardless boy.” Was she actually a master spy who fooled even her closest compatriots into believing she was a man? Or was she known, at least among her fellow infantrymen, to be a woman all along? Did they care?

The point is, whether she fooled her comrades or not, she earned their respect in the field. If her dad had given her a chance, she probably would’ve kicked ass at farming, too.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. American Battlefield Trust. (Accessed June 3, 2018). Sarah Emma Edmonds. Retrieved from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-emma-edmonds
  2. Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. (2012, December 19). Sarah Emma Edmonds: Female Spy of the Union Army. Retrieved from http://civilwarsaga.com/sarah-emma-edmonds-female-spy-of-the-union-army/
  3. Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. (2012, December 19). Sarah Emma Edmonds: Female Spy of the Union Army. Retrieved from http://civilwarsaga.com/sarah-emma-edmonds-female-spy-of-the-union-army/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • American Battlefield Trust. (Accessed June 3, 2018). Sarah Emma Edmonds. Retrieved from https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-emma-edmonds
  • Benjamin, Graeme. (2018, June 2). Several people bear maced at Moncton fair, suspect arrested: RCMP. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4249153/bear-mace-at-moncton-fair/
  • Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. (2012, December 19). Sarah Emma Edmonds: Female Spy of the Union Army. Retrieved from http://civilwarsaga.com/sarah-emma-edmonds-female-spy-of-the-union-army/
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 3, 2018). Sarah Edmonds: American Civil War Soldier. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sarah-Edmonds
  • National Park Service. (Accessed June 3, 2018). Sarah Emma Edmonds. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/people/sarah-emma-edmonds.htm

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