The Story of Sarah Emma Edmonds

Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sarah Emma Edmonds had always been very adventurous, and her interest in adventure was sparked by a book she had read in her youth (called Fanny Campbell, the female sailor), telling the story of Fanny Campbell and her adventures on a pirate ship while dressed as a man. Fanny remained dressed as a man in order to pursue other adventures, which Edmonds attributes to her desire tocross dress. During the Civil War, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on her second try, disguising herself as a man named "Franklin Flint Thompson," the middle name possibly after the city she volunteered in, Flint, Michigan. She felt that it was her duty to serve her country and it was truly patriotic. Extensive physical examinations were not required for enlistment at the time, and she was not discovered. She at first served as a male field nurse, participating in several campaigns under General McClellan, including the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign, Vicksburg,and others. However, some historians today say she could not have been at all these different places at the same time.

Frank Thompson's career took a turn before the war when a Union spy in Richmond, Virginia was discovered and went before a firing squad, and a friend, James Vesey, was killed in an ambush. She took advantage of the open spot and the opportunity to avenge her friend's death. When she went before the committee for an interview as Franklin Thompson, Edmonds impressed the committee and the position was given to her. Although there is no proof in her military records that she actually served as a spy, she wrote extensively about her experiences disguised as a spy during the war.

Traveling into enemy territory in order to gather information required Frank Thompson to come up with many disguises. One disguise required Edmonds to use silver nitrate to dye her skin black, wear a black wig, and walk into the Confederacy disguised as a black man by the name of Cuff. Another time she entered as an Irish peddler woman by the name of Bridget O'Shea, claiming that she was selling apples and soap to the soldiers. Yet another time she was "working for the Confederates" as a black laundress when a packet of official papers fell out of an officer's jacket. When Thompson returned to the Union with the papers, the generals were quite pleased. Another time, she worked as a detective in Maryland as Charles Mayberry, finding an agent for the confederacy.

Edmonds' career as Frank Thompson came to an end when she contracted malaria. She left and abandoned her duty in the military for fear that if she went to a military hospital she would be discovered. She left the army and checked herself in to a private hospital, intending to return to military life once she had recuperated. Once she recovered, however, she saw posters listing Frank Thompson as a deserter. Rather than return to the army under another alias or as Frank Thompson, risking execution for desertion, she decided to serve as a female nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital for wounded soldiers run by the United States Christian Commission. There are also speculations that Edmonds may have deserted because of John Reid having been discharged months earlier. There is proof in his diary that she had mentioned leaving before she had contracted malaria.