"I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic-but patriotism was the true secret of my success."
Sarah Emma Edmonds, one of only about 400 women known to have served in the military during the U.S. Civil War, was not even an American—though she risked life and limb in the name of "patriotism" to serve the Union cause for nearly two years as a soldier, nurse and spy.
Edmonds was born in Nova Scotia in 1841. Her father was extremely disappointed that she was not a boy and she suffered physical and verbal abuse at his hands for most of her young life. Eventually, unwilling to tolerate the poor treatment, she left home as a teenager and crossed the border into the United States, supporting herself by selling Bibles and other religious tomes.
Edmonds was living in a Flint, Michigan, in 1861 when President Lincoln put forth the first call for enlistments to fight for the North in the Civil War. Desiring to serve her newly adopted country, and disgusted with the concept of slavery, Edmonds cut her hair short, acquired some men's clothing and showed up at a recruiting center. Because new recruits at this time were required to pass a verbal exam, but not a physical exam, Edmonds was eventually able to enlist in the 2nd Michigan Infantry under the name Frank Thompson.
Initially, Edmonds served as a male nurse and was very content with her work. In her memoir published after the war, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Edmonds wrote that she "went to war with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded." However, accounts seem to generally agree that a friend of Edmond's was executed for suspected espionage in Richmond, Virginia, by Confederate forces, prompting her to volunteer for a more dangerous job than nursing to avenge his death.
Edmonds learned all she could as regarded weapons, military tactics, local geography and the personalities of the Confederate leaders. She impressed her superiors and was given her first assignment as a spy for the Union army. Using silver nitrate to color her skin and a minstrel wig to cover her hair, Edmonds slipped behind enemy lines on her first mission, disguised as a young black man named "Cuff."
Successfully infiltrating the Confederate camp, Edmonds worked as Cuff for several days. She was put to work building ramparts with slaves and soldiers and in the kitchen with domestic servants as well. She managed to learn a great deal about the conditions of the Rebel unit she was embedded in and her work was met with high praise when she brought her information home.
Over the coming year, Edmonds would make numerous forays into enemy territory. Besides Cuff, a persona she would use several more times, Edmonds disguised herself as an Irish peddler—Bridget O'Shea, an older black woman, and a young man with Southern sympathies—Charles Mayberry.
Interacting face-to-face with Confederate officers as she would peddle her wares and services, she was privy to male banter, domestic gossip and news passed among the slaves. She once famously "found" crucial notes and plans in the pants pocket of a Confederate officer's wash she had taken in. Needless to say, the pants were returned empty.
Working for most of 1862 as a spy, Edmonds returned to nursing after the battle of Vicksburg. She was stricken with a serious case of malaria though and, greatly fearing exposure if she were to be treated in the camp hospital, she left to check herself into a facility in Illinois for treatment. After recovering, she attempted to rejoin her unit, only to discover that she had been listed as a deserter. Unsure how to go about restoring her/Frank's honor, she spent the rest of the war as a female, working as a nurse in Washington DC.
Shortly after the War's end, in 1865, Edmond's published her memoirs, which were substantially embellished. The tale was wildly popular for the time though, selling some 175,000 copies. Marrying a carpenter, Lyle Seelye, in 1867 Edmonds and her husband moved around frequently, eventually settling in Texas.
In 1882, needing money, Edmonds petitioned the government for her veteran's pension, which she felt she was owed. In 1884 she was granted the $12 per month that was allotted veterans and her status as a deserter was officially expunged.
Sarah Emma Edmonds died of malaria in 1898 and is buried in Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas in a plot of land once owned by George C. McClellan.