Sarah Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada, in December, 1841. Her father wanted a son and treated her very badly as a child. When she was a teenager she ran away from home and found work as an itinerant Bible seller. She eventually arrived in the United States and settled in Flint, Michigan.

On 25th May, 1861, Edmonds, using the alias of Franklin Thompson, enlisted as a private in the Second Michigan Infantry in Detroit. While in the Union Army she participated in the Peninsula campaign and the battles of Bull Run (August, 1862), Antietam (September, 1862) and Fredericksburg (December, 1862).

In December, 1862, Colonel Orlando Poe, an officer serving under General George McClellan, sent Edmonds on a spying mission behind Confederate lines. Edmonds disguised herself as a black man and worked building fortifications for the Confederate Army at Yorktown. After three days she returned to the Union Army and provided valuable information on the enemy.

Poe was so pleased with the success of the mission that he sent her out again in February, 1863. This time she disguised herself as an Irish peddler with the name Bridget O'Shea. She sold goods to the Confederate Army and as well as gaining valuable information also stole a beautiful horse that she called Rebel.

Soon afterwards her regiment was sent to join the troops under General Ulysses Grant, who was about to start the important Vicksburg Campaign. Edmonds worked in the military hospital looking after wounded and sick soldiers. While nursing in the hospital Edmonds developed malaria. Aware that her treatment would result in the discovery of her gender, she decided to desert from the army.

Edmonds went to Washington and found work as a nurse in a hospital for wounded soldiers run by the United States Christian Commission. After the war Edmonds published an account of her experiences, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865).

In 1867 Edmonds married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic, and the couple had three children. The family moved several times and lived in Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana and Kansas.

In 1886 she received a government pension based upon her military service. A letter from the secretary of war acknowledged her as "a female soldier who served as a private rendering faithful service in the ranks."

Sarah Edmonds Seelye died in La Porte, Texas, on 5th September, 1898.

Primary Sources

(1) Sarah E. Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865)

Typhoid fever began to make its appearance in camp, as the burning sun of June came pouring down on us, and the hospitals were soon crowded with its victims. Along each side of the tent the sick are laid, on blankets or cots, leaving room to pass between the beds. The hospital corps consists of a surgeon, an assistant surgeon, a hospital steward, a ward master, four nurses, two cooks, and a man of all work to carry water, cut wood, and make himself generally useful.

(2) Sarah E. Edmonds wrote about her experiences at the first Battle of Bull Run in her book Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865)

Our surgeons began to prepare for the coming battle, by appropriating several buildings and fitting them up for the wounded - among others the stone church at Centreville - a church which many a soldier will remember, as long as memory lasts.

The first man I saw killed was a gunner. A shell had burst in the midst of the battery, killing one and wounding three men and two horses. Now the battle began to rage with terrible fury. Nothing could be heard save the thunder of artillery, the clash of steel, and the continuous roar of musketry.

I was sent off to Centreville, a distance of seven miles, for a fresh supply of brandy, lint, etc. When I returned, the field was literally strewn with wounded, dead and dying. Men tossing their arms wildly calling for help; there they lie bleeding, torn and mangled; legs, arms and bodies are crushed and broken as if smitten by thunderbolts; the ground is crimson with blood.

(3) Sarah E. Edmonds was at Fair Oaks in May, 1862.

The "hospital tree" was an immense tree under whose shady, extended branches the wounded were carried and laid down to await the stimulant, the opiate, or the amputating knife, as the case might require. The ground around the tree was several acres in extent was literally drenched with human blood, and all the men were laid so close together that there was no such thing as passing between them; but each one was removed in their turn as the surgeons could attend to them. Those wounded, but not mortally - how nobly they bore the necessary probings and needed amputations.

(4) Sarah E. Edmonds was present at Fair Oaks (May, 1862), Bull Run (August, 1862), Antietam (September, 1862) and Fredericksburg (December, 1862).

How shall I describe the sights which I saw and the impressions which I had as I rode over those fields! There were men and horses thrown together in heaps above ground; others lay where they had fallen, their limbs bleaching in the sun without the appearance of burial. There was one in particular - a cavalryman; he and his horse both lay together, nothing but the bones and clothing remained; but one of his arms stood straight up, or rather the bones and the coatsleeve, his hand had dropped off at the wrist and lay on the ground; not a finger or joint was separated but the hand was perfect.

(5) In 1884, the House of Representatives discussed Sarah Edmonds request for an army pension. The House Bill (5335) was passed and included the following passage ( 28th March,1884)

Sarah E. Edmonds, now Sarah E. Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, is now asking this Congress to grant her relief by way of a pension on account of fading health, which she avers had its incurrence and is the sequence of the days and nights she spent in the swamps of the Chickahominy in the days she spent soldiering.

That Franklin Thompson and Mrs. Sarah E. E. Seelye are one and the same person is established by abundance of proof and beyond a doubt. She submits a statement and also the testimony of ten credible witnesses, men of intelligence, holding places of high honor and trust, who positively swear she is the identical Franklin Thompson.