Sarah Emma Edmonds — A Soldier, A Spy & a Veteran of the Union Army

Posted by OHSAY USA on Feb 4th 2021

Sarah Emma Edmonds — A Soldier, A Spy & a Veteran of the Union Army

You’ve probably never heard of Sarah Emma Edmonds before today.

That’s cool because neither did I until a couple of weeks ago.

And that’s a huge shame.

Because the story of Sarah Emma Edmonds — and the stories of some 400+ women who served in the US Civil War while disguised as men — deserve to be told.

Sure, some of those women ended up on the wrong side of history. But… they all broke glass ceilings some 150 years before we even started talking about them. Their actions created a space for conversations. And they paved the way for US military heroes such as Navy General Michelle Howard, and other notable female veterans.

I can’t talk about all of these women here. What I can do is shine a spotlight on one of them, and hope that this encourages you to dig a bit deeper. To learn a bit more. To uncover those golden history nuggets that we should be teaching in our schools.

Who Was Sarah Emma Edmonds? Well, for one, she was a badass.

A Canadian-born woman who fled her own country to escape an abusive father and an arranged marriage.

A woman who posed as a man just so she could travel safely, cross the border without being turned back, and finally get a job (selling Bibles) that would allow her to feed herself.

A woman who, when the call came in 1861, didn’t hesitate to enlist in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry to give back to the country she thought of as her own.

That was Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Of course, she didn’t serve as Sarah. Even the freedom-loving Union Army wouldn’t have taken her in as Sarah.

So she went by Franklin Flint Thompson (he/him).

What’s interesting is that Edmonds was a forever private.

Not because she didn’t have the chops needed to secure a promotion. Rather, it was her ability to cleverly disguise herself (if only they knew) that landed her a perilous — but glamorous — job of a military spy.

… one time, she infiltrated the enemy command center by posing as a black slave Cuff…

… another, she was a soap-selling Irish peddler that answered to the name of Bridget O’Shea…

… and, once, she went undercover as detective Mayberry to smoke out a Confederate agent…

Back then (and today), you didn’t give medals to spies. You appreciated their work, sure… but you kept it under wraps.

Still, it goes without saying that the work that Edmonds did was important, even though it wasn’t publicly recognized.

A few years into the war, while delivering important documents to Union forces, Edmonds got hurt. Her injuries were extensive but she didn’t ask for medical help, fearing exposure.

So she slipped from the battlefield to go to a private hospital.

Eventually, she recovered… but Franklin Flint Thompson was branded a deserter. Unwilling to risk martial court, Edmonds became a nurse at a Washington D.C. hospital for wounded soldiers, staying there until the end of the war.

The War Ends & a Book Deal Drops

In most cases, the women who serve as men quietly fade into the background once the fighting dies down.

But, Edmonds was plucky… & smart.

In 1864, she published a book called “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” that sold more than 175,000 copies. She donated her proceeds to various veteran charities but became a lecturer because of her new-found fame. She also secured an honorable discharge (after getting the charge of desertion dropped), landed a $12-per-month government pension, and married a childhood friend, Linus H. Seelye. They ended up adopting two sons.

Sarah Emma Edmonds died in 1898 as one of two women ever admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, and was buried in Houston with full military honors.

As is right.

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