Canadian Sarah Emma Edmonds: American Civil War Spy
Completing 11 missions as a black man, a black woman and a white man, Emma Edmonds of New Brunswick gathered information against the Confederates.
The Union Army put out the call. Soldiers were needed to battle the Confederates in the American Civil War in 1861. After his fourth attempt, Franklin Thompson was accepted as a volunteer in the Second Volunteers division of the Union Army. Medical examinations were not required at that time, and that was a good thing, because the body under the suit of Franklin Thompson was not a man. It was a woman, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds. And, by the way, she was born in Canada.
Canadian Woman a Union Army Spy
Before joining the American military, Emma Edmonds was a young woman escaping distress. Born in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick in 1841, her father was disgruntled that his daughter was not a son. Try as she may to please him with boyish attempts, he treated her with abuse, said Civil War Home. Emma fled to the United States, making her new home in Flint, Michigan. She was ready to answer the call of service to her new country, cutting her long hair and assuming the identity of a young man, Frank Thompson.
Working as a male nurse with a hospital unit after military training, the new Frank Thompson heard about an opening for a spy. The task was dangerous. The previous agent was put to death by firing squad after being caught collecting information against the Confederate Army. Emma “studied all she could find on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities,” said Civil War Home. She, or rather, Private Thompson, was readily accepted. Emma was about to be in the spy business.
Edmonds a Master of Disguise
Emma was a master of disguise. Not only successful as the Caucasian Private Thompson, she was able to pull off another transformation into a black man. With the help of the one person who knew of her true identity, the chaplain’s wife, Emma darkened her fair skin with silver nitrate. Wearing a black wig and with the new name of “Cuff”, she met up with the Confederate Army at an area where fortifications were being built against the Union Army. The work was blisteringly hard on her hands, so she traded places with a Negro on kitchen duty. Listening and observing, she gathered intelligence, escaping on the second day back to the Union Army post. McClellan, head of the army, was pleased. Emma/Thompson returned to duties as a male army nurse.
Mere months later, another opportunity arose for “Thompson” to put her spy skills to use. Costumed as Bridget O’Shea, a chubby Irish woman, Emma once again infiltrated the Confederate side. Selling goods as a peddler, she was able to pick up much useful information – and a horse for herself. Her arm was wounded by a bullet while on her horse, but she made it back to the Union camp. On further missions, she used her “Cuff” persona to slide into the Confederate background, and later once again stretched her skills in disguise – as a black “Mammy” woman, complete with bandanna on her head.
More Spy Missions for Edmonds
In the heat of August 1862, Emma had infiltrated the Confederate camp in Virginia as a black laundress. Papers fell out of an officer’s coat. It was a good find. She scooped up the documents and fled back to share the important information. Her superiors were thrilled with “Frank Thompson’s” work.
Frank Thompson was asked to take on another spy challenge by General Ambrose of the Ninth Corps of the Union Army at the end of 1862. The mission was to get to Louisville, Kentucky in a new character, Charles Mayberry, and identify a network of southern spies. Emma was once again victorious. The battle of Vicksburg was just ahead and Emma’s unit was being transferred to General Grant’s Union Army for the encounter.
Military Career Lost to Malaria
Disease put a halt to Emma’s work, both military and spy. Struck with malaria, she couldn’t risk treatment in the army hospital for fear of being found a woman concealed as Private Thompson. She entered a private hospital in Illinois in her own name. On recovery, she found that her Thompson name had been listed as a Union Army deserter. Emma could not return to her unit under that condition without penalty. Her military career as a man and a spy with eleven missions to her (rather his) credit was over. But Emma’s story didn’t end there.
Working as a nurse in Washington until the American Civil War was over, Emma also wrote a memoir about her escapades entitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. A massive number of over 175,000 books were sold and the profits were donated to the American War Relief Fund. Longing for Canada, Emma went home to New Brunswick. She married Linus Seelye, a carpenter, in 1867. The Seelyes had three sons, all of whom died at a young age. They then adopted and cared for two more children.
Honourable Discharge for Emma Edmonds
In 1884, Emma petitioned the US War Department to review her case as a deserter. The House of Representatives passed a bill acknowledging her service and illness due to working in swamps to complete her duties. On July 5, 1884, she was awarded an honourable discharge and a military pension of $12 a month. “She followed that regiment through hard-fought battles, never flinched,” said her Captain according to Sunshine for Women, “and was never suspected of being else from what she seemed. The beardless boy was a universal favourite. ”
Moving to LaPorte, Texas, Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye died of a recurrence of malaria on September 5, 1898. The only female member of The Grand Army of the Republic, she was buried in the services section of the Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas. It was a great honour for a daring, fearless and ingenious Canadian woman of the 19th century.
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in January 2010. (C) Susanna McLeod