When you think of a Civil War soldier, what image comes to mind? Perhaps a young man, thin and haggard, wearing tattered butternut. Maybe a middle aged African American soldier wearing blue for the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Maybe you think about a little boy, wearing a drum across his small body or a bugle over his shoulder. No matter what image pops into your mind, chances are the soldier you are picturing is male.
According to the Civil War Trust, over 3 million soldiers fought during the Civil War and the vast majority of those soldiers were men as neither the Union nor Confederate army had a policy allowing the enlistment of female soldiers. But as many as 400 women fought regardless, serving in Union and Confederate uniforms during the war. One of those dressed in Union blue, Sarah Emma Edmonds, left behind a memoir detailing her history, and though historians are skeptical of some of her claims, what is verified fact about her life shows a woman not content to sit on the sidelines while her adopted country fought its defining war.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was an American by choice. She was born in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada in December in 1841. Her father was disappointed she was not a boy, and she spent much of her young life trying to prove to him her worth. Eventually, seeing the futility of her efforts, she fled from her father’s oppression and an arranged marriage, first to New Brunswick, and later, to put more distance between herself and her father, she immigrated to the United States. She did so in disguise, adopting the persona of a young man named Franklin Thompson.
She had established herself as a traveling Bible and bookseller, first in Connecticut, and later outside of Flint, Michigan where she was living when the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln issued his call for 75,000 troops to suppress the rebellion. Edmonds decided it was time to fight for her new country.
She disguised herself as black male “contraband” named “Cuff” performing manual labor for the Confederate army.
She drew on her experience as a traveling book seller to pose as an Irish peddler woman named “Bridget O’Shea” selling goods to Confederate soldiers behind enemy lines.
She donned black face and a red bandanna and while working as a washer woman, came across a packet of official papers that had been in a Confederate officers’ uniform jacket.
Her unit was transferred several times, and it eventually ended up in the western theater, where Edmonds continued her work as a spy, and then as a nurse. It was here, while she was tending wounded and ill soldiers, that she contracted malaria in 1863. Afraid her secret would be discovered if she were treated by the army surgeons, she requested a furlough. When it was denied, she left her unit for treatment. Franklin Thompson was declared a deserter and Edmonds’ military career was at an end.
Even while the war still raged, she wrote her memoirs titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, the first edition of which was published in 1864. She donated the money she earned from book sales to various soldiers’ causes. When the 2nd Michigan held a reunion in 1876, her former comrades in arms welcomed her warmly and took up the cause of removing the blight of “desertion” from Franklin Thompson’s military record, which led to Edmonds being able to receive a military pension in 1884. In 1897, she joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the fraternal organization of Union Civil War veterans. She was the only woman ever to do so.
After the war, Edmonds married and had three children. She moved to Texas with her family and died in 1898. She was buried with military honors in Washington Cemetery in Houston.
References and Further Reading
Sarah Emma Edmonds, Private
Sarah Emma Edmonds Biography
Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: A Woman’s Adventure in the Union Army by Sarah Emma Edmonds
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.