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Interesting People

Sarah Emma Edmonds (Edmondson) (1841-1898)

Photograph of Emma Edmonds in women's clothing

Emma Edmonds in women's clothing

Imagine being a spy whose mission was to go behind enemy lines disguised as a Black man or an Irish peddler woman to gather information during the American Civil War. There was such a spy, and it was not a man, or an American for that matter. The spy's name was Sarah Emma Edmonds, born in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick in 1841. What is even more unusual is that her fellow soldiers didn't know that she was a woman; they all thought her name was Frank Thompson. In 1861, Sarah had enlisted in the Union Army (in a Michigan volunteer infantry company), serving as a spy, field nurse, mail carrier and soldier. When she fell ill with a severe fever she knew that she could not admit herself to hospital without her deception being discovered, so she left camp, put on woman's clothes and checked herself into a private hospital. Once she had recuperated, Sarah went back to the battlefront, this time as a female nurse.

Photograph of Emma Edmonds as a man

Emma Edmonds as a man

After the war, Sarah wrote a fictionalized account of her life called Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Published in 1865, it was very popular and the profits of the sale went to a soldier's aid society. Sarah returned to New Brunswick in 1867 and married carpenter Linus Seelye. They had three children who died young and they adopted two boys. Sarah petitioned the War Department for a review of her case. On July 5, 1884 Congress granted Sarah an honourable discharge from the army as well as a veteran's pension of $12 a month. She died of malaria in 1898 and was buried with full military honours in Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas. She is the only female regular member of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization formed after the Civil War by Union veterans.


Stevens, Bryna. Frank Thompson: Her Civil War Story. New York; Toronto: Macmillan Publishing/Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1992.