Sarah Emma Edmonds: Civil War Soldier

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Hello! Did you miss me? Sorry for not updating recently, I’ve been extremely busy. But, here I am now!

Part of my busy-ness is working on another project dealing with Reconstruction, so I’ve been doing quite a lot of research on that. I haven’t found many Extraordinary Ladies, unfortunately – Reconstruction was kind of a bust all around, and no one really had a chance to shine.

The Civil War, though…

An estimated 250-400 women (possibly more), both Union and Confederate, assumed a male identity, enlisted, fought, and sometimes even died on the battlefield.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the more famous of these women, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who fought as Frank Thompson. Sarah was kind enough to write down her experiences in a memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, so finding information about her has been quite easy!

Sarah was born in 1842 (possibly late 1841), in Nova Scotia. Reportedly, she grew up in a religious, strict household. As a child, she read Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, which inspired in young Sarah a thirst for adventure that would follow her for the rest of her life (of further inspiration, no doubt, was that Captain Campbell also cross-dressed on many of her own adventures).

The bookplate portrait of Sarah.

The bookplate portrait of Sarah.

Not much is known of Sarah’s mother (Sarah doesn’t speak much of her childhood, even in her memoir). But there is some indication that she fled Nova Scotia as a teenager in the 1850s to escape her domineering father and possibly a coerced marriage.

She spent some time in both New England and the Far West in the late 1850s, possibly engaged in missionary work or possibly also a traveling salesman. Supposedly, this is when Sarah first adopted her male identity, selling Bibles as ‘Frank Thompson.’ She came to love America, and think of it as her adopted home.

And so, when war broke out in 1861, Sarah felt compelled to be of service to her new country. President Lincoln had just put out a call for volunteers, encouraging young men of the Union to enlist. Perhaps inspired by her childhood stories, or perhaps by her desire to do more than “stay at home and weep,” Sarah decided to assume the life of a soldier. She reported to the recruitment office in Flint, Michigan, and enlisted as Frank Flint Thompson. As the army was desperately in need of soldiers, Sarah’s medical examination was quite perfunctory. Her doctor cared only that her eyes and hands worked well enough for her to shoot, and she had at least three teeth with which to tear paper cartridges. And Sarah was enlisting when hordes of sixteen- and seventeen- year old boys were lying about their age to enlist. What was Sarah but one more fresh-faced recruit with delicate features?

And so Sarah Emma Edmonds joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry under General George McClellan in 1861.

Either Sarah Edmonds or Jennie Hodgers, another female soldier in disguise.

Either Sarah Edmonds or Jennie Hodgers, another female soldier in disguise.

Her duties at first were, ironically, not that different from what she would have been doing had she volunteered as female – ‘Frank’ was quickly put to work as a nurse, tending the wounded on the front lines.

Things took a turn in Sarah’s life, though, when she befriended fellow soldier James Vesey, a courier. Sarah thought quite well of her friend… and so, when James was killed in the line of duty, she was devastated. She wanted to find some way to honor her friend’s sacrifice; and eventually realized she could do so by applying to fill his now-vacated spot as army courier. Her application was accepted, and ‘Frank Thompson’ became part of the army communications network.

Now, to deliver the mail in wartime is no mean feat!

Sarah would sometimes have to travel up to 100 miles to deliver important messages so the various armies could co-ordinate with each other and their various suppliers. Needless to say, many of these messages would have spelled calamity had they fallen into rebel hands; so Sarah had to work hard to stay hidden. She also had to travel through wilderness, such as when she had to swim herself and her horse across the Chickahominy River – then a pestilential area, where Sarah likely contracted the malaria which would play a prominent role in her life later on (not to mention, a shot in the arm and a broken leg; both of which never quite healed properly).

At some point, Sarah began working as a spy. There’s no official record of her work, but as we learned from Mary Bowser, the Union sometimes destroyed records to protect spies after the war. Sarah herself, though, wrote extensively about her escapades in sneaking past enemy lines. Some of her disguises were quite simple, such as ‘Bridget O’Shea,’ there to sell soap and apples to Confederate soldiers.

Avoiding rebel forces while delivering the mail.

Avoiding rebel forces while delivering the mail.

Other roles were far riskier.

At one point, Sarah blackened her face and hands with silver nitrate, darkened her hair and assumed the role of Cuff, a free black man looking for work in Richmond. However, no sooner had ‘Cuff’ entered the city than he was seized (despite his protestations of being a free man), given a pickaxe and put to work building Confederate fortifications and delivering water. Sarah turned this situation to her advantage – keeping her eyes and ears open and speaking with her fellow workers, Sarah gained a solid idea of Confederate capabilities in Richmond; intelligence her superior officers were only too happy to receive. On another expedition behind enemy lines, Sarah used the same silver nitrate trick to assume the role of a black washerwoman, who collected intelligence in the form of letters, maps and other important documents which rebel officers left in their coat pockets.

Sarah was present at Antietam, and though writes little of her experiences, she almost certainly took up arms and fought in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

Sarah, comforting another female soldier as she succumbs to her wounds.

Sarah, comforting another female soldier as she succumbs to her wounds.

Sarah writes movingly of finding a soldier after the worst of the fighting had abated, slowly bleeding to death. She gave the young soldier brandy and water, and the two of them prayed together. Near the end, Sarah’s companion confessed a great secret- the young private was a woman!

She requested that Sarah be the one to bury her, for the soldier had no wish for her secret to be discovered post-mortem. Sarah, of course, agreed, and personally saw to it that the soldier was wrapped in a sheet and laid to rest near a mulberry tree, a little ways apart from the other soldiers’ graves. Sarah does not give the soldier’s enlisted name, but says the woman joined with her brother; and that both were killed in the fighting at Antietam.

Sarah was not to see the end of the war as Frank Thompson. Her excursions into the swampy lands of the South had caused her to contract malaria – not an uncommon disease for the time and place. She could easily have reported to the infirmary for treatment, but dared not for fear that her true gender would be discovered. Instead, Sarah went to a private hospital, as Sarah Edmonds, and stayed there until she recovered.

A lone grave at Antietam.

A lone grave at Antietam.

Unfortunately, when she was released from the hospital, she found that Frank Thompson was on a list of deserters! Returning to the army would almost assuredly mean execution. And so Sarah, returning to her, female, identity, served out the rest of the war as a hospital nurse. There’s no evidence she ever returned to living as Frank Thompson.

In 1867, she married a Canadian mechanic named Linus Seelye, and is sometimes known by the name Sarah Seelye or Emma Seelye. However, most accounts use her name at the time of her adventures. She and Mr. Seelye moved to Texas, where they would eventually have three children together.

In 1886, in part due to her poorly-healed war wounds, Sarah petitioned Congress for a pension. After hearing about her remarkable story, Congress eventually dropped the charge of desertion and granted ‘Frank Thompson’ an honorable discharge; as well as a pension of $12 a month (Sarah is the only known female veteran of the Civil War to have received a pension). She is also the only known woman to have been admitted into the Union veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic.

A memorial to Sarah in Michigan.

A memorial to Sarah in Michigan.

In 1884, she attended a veteran’s reunion, where many of her old comrades were shocked to discover the true identity of Frank Thompson! However, many quickly got over it; as, in the words of a fellow soldier, “she followed that regiment through hard-fought battles, never flinched from duty, and was never suspected of being else than what she seemed. The beardless boy was a universal favorite.”

She died in 1898, in La Porte, Texas; and was buried in the portion of the cemetery reserved for Union veterans.

The Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame inducted her as a member in 1992; and her memoir was republished in 1999 under the title Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy. You can also find copies of her book at Project Gutenberg.

Sarah doesn’t often appear in popular culture. Many non-fiction biographies have been written about her and women like her, but few of them have been fictionalized. However, the spirit of Sarah Emma Edmonds is alive and well, as with many spirits of the Civil War, in the hearts of Civil War re-enactors. Following in the footsteps of Sarah and her dying soldier at Antietam, many modern women participate in Civil War re-enactments; often in the persona of a woman who enlisted as a man. Several Civil War re-enactment groups even have provisions for women joining under these auspices (though may be quite strict in enforcement). A documentary about these women, Reenactress, is currently in production.


Civil War Women

Encyclopedia Britannica

National Park Service

Nurse and Spy in the Union Army

Smithsonian Magazine

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

Washington Post


Mary Bowser: Union Spy

Unverified photo of Mary Bowser

Not our Mary; but a photo often confused for her. I could not find any photos of Mary in specific.

So, I really wanted to do another LGBT woman to continue Pride Month, but the tragic attack in South Carolina, and the realization that today is Juneteenth, made me change my mind. Instead, I want to talk about a woman of color. And instead of talking about a fighter or a soldier, I want to talk about a spy.

I haven’t covered a female spy yet; I’ve mostly focused on women who took up arms or led armies. But spies participate in war just as much as any soldier or general, and though they may not be on the front lines, they risk their lives all the same. A captured soldier may sometimes rely on being taken as a prisoner of war and later returned home; but a captured spy is generally summarily executed. And the best spies are often those we don’t find out about until long after the war.

And so.

Meet Mary Bowser.

Mary was born a slave in or around 1839 in Richmond, Virginia. I tried to find out more about her parentage, but the only thing known is that she was born to a slave owned by the hardware merchant John Van Lew. John Van Lew was a ‘soft’ abolitionist, who freed Mary and eight other slaves in his will after his death in 1843. His daughter Elizabeth, who had been educated by Quakers and had strong abolitionist beliefs as a result, went even further. She used part of the Van Lew estate to buy the freedom of the freed slaves’ families (over the objections of her brother and mother).

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary's patron and mentor.

Elizabeth Van Lew, Mary’s patron and mentor.

Mary, still a child, was retained in the Van Lew household as a servant; or, more likely, her mother was retained as a servant and Mary grew up in service (former slaves staying on as paid servants was common practice). However, Elizabeth, for reasons of her own, quickly took a special interest in young Mary. While most black Christians in Richmond received baptism at the First African Baptist Church, Mary was baptized in 1846, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, a largely white church to which Elizabeth belonged. And when Mary’s natural intelligence and quick wit shone through, Elizabeth paid for Mary to be educated at Anthony Benezet‘s school for black children in Philadelphia.

Mary studied hard, and reportedly had a near-photographic memory. She could read a page and be able to recite what was written, nearly word-perfect. After graduating in 1855, Mary was sent as a missionary to Liberia (Liberia itself was a nation founded a few decades earlier with the intention of repatriating former slaves back to Africa). However, Mary’s letters to Elizabeth reveal a deep homesickness – Africa was not for Mary, and she returned to Virginia in 1860.

There is some indication that her travel papers were not entirely in order, and Mary was arrested in Richmond under suspicion of being an escaped slave. She may even have been flogged. However, Elizabeth came to her rescue! Supposedly, Elizabeth had to claim Mary was her slave, and was made to pay a fine levied against owners who let their slaves out without a pass. Later in life, Mary would allude to having spent four months in a Richmond jail; this may be the incident she speaks of.

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

The church where Mary was baptized (and possibly married).

At some point, she met and fell in love with a man named Wilson Bowser, a free black man who also worked in the Van Lew household, and married him on April 16, 1861 – four days after the start of the Civil War. Several months later, Jefferson Davis would move the rebel capital to Richmond, and the city became overrun with Confederate soldiers, officers and politicians.

This presented a golden opportunity for both Mary and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, using Christian charity as her shield, began to deliver food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. She also feigned several tics, such as muttering to herself and not making eye contact. As a result, many thought her insane and took less care to guard their words around ‘Crazy Bet.’

However, the greatest acts of espionage were performed by Mary.

Mary developed the persona of ‘Ellen Bond,’ a slightly dim but hard-working woman. ‘Ellen’ was brought on to help with several social events hosted by Varina Davis, wife of wealthy rebel leader Jefferson Davis. Mary performed her duties so well that she was brought on as house staff, full-time.

Yes, that’s right.

A former slave and highly educated woman was given access to the top levels of the rebel army because neither Varina nor Jefferson assumed a black female servant could read or had the intelligence to make sense of complex political or strategic conversations. This was exceptionally brave of Mary. As I mentioned above, armies are not kind to spies caught in their midst – and I seriously doubt Jefferson would have been inclined to show mercy to a black woman caught spying in his own house. Mary certainly would have known this. Her race, which had held her back all her life, presented her with one unique opportunity to be of incredible aid to the Union. And Mary took it.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Rebel capital where Mary worked.

Mary cleaned the Davis house, helped serve dinner and tended to various domestic tasks. And she also eavesdropped on Jefferson’s conversations with his cabinet, read his mail and generally kept her finger on the pulse of the rebel army. She would pass this information on to a baker named Thomas McNiven, who was also part of the Union spy network in Richmond. Every few days, Thomas would deliver bread to the kitchens, and Mary would take the opportunity to tell him what she had learned; intelligence which Thomas then passed on (Thomas would later write that Mary was one of his best sources of intelligence; the only other spy who came close to her in providing useful information was a prostitute named Clara; another woman underestimated by the rebels).

Unfortunately, Union records were destroyed to protect Mary and Elizabeth after the war, and Mary’s personal journal was lost in the 1950s. So we don’t know precisely what she told McNiven. However, according to surviving reports, some of her intelligence made its way to General Grant, and influenced his decision-making. So she definitely had an impact! I also personally suspect that every now and then, an important letter or map would mysteriously go missing from Jefferson’s office.

Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse; based on a woodcut by Alfred R. Waud.

Jefferson eventually realized someone in his household was leaking information, but Mary played her role as the slow servant so well that she was not considered seriously as a suspect. However, her partner, Thomas McNiven, was found out sometime in late 1864 or early 1865, and Mary knew the jig was up – everyone in the household knew she frequently spoke with Thomas, and suspicion fell naturally on her. Mary got out of there as quickly as possible, but she didn’t go quietly – she attempted unsuccessfully to burn down the Davis mansion on her way out. And when the Union army re-took Richmond, Mary’s mentor Elizabeth was the first person to raise the Union colors.

From here on out, unfortunately, not much is known about Mary. Elizabeth became a near-pariah in Richmond during Reconstruction. Even though her spy activities were largely unknown to her neighbors, they nevertheless knew she had supported the Union during the war. However, Mary’s wasn’t the last life she would influence – Maggie Walker, born to black Van Lew servants in 1864, would grow up to become the first black woman to charter a bank in the United States (among a long list of other accomplishments).

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Maggie Walker, prominent black businesswoman.

Mary did go on the lecture circuit, often speaking circumspectly about her espionage during the war; and there’s some evidence she also started a school and worked to educate former slaves and their children for many years.

Unfortunately, Mary was also smart enough to know which way the wind blew in post-Reconstruction Virginia. One of her only surviving letters speaks of her fear of white anger and resentment. She picked up in many residents what she called a “quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil,” and doubted the black community could advance in the South without federal protection.

The date of her death and the place of her burial are sadly unknown (though rumors exist that her descendants know precisely where she’s buried, but are keeping her grave a secret to protect it).

Mary shows up every now and then in pop culture. Lois M. Leveen, a Portland-based writer, has written a non-fiction column for the New York Times, “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House,” which she later expanded into the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Ted Lange wrote a play, Lady Patriot, which focuses narrowly on the relationships between Mary, Elizbeth and Varina. The play was performed in Santa Monica in 2012, to fairly good reviews. And, in 1995, her hard work was recognized when she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, two years after Elizabeth.


American Civil War Story

Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his Activities in Richmond During the American Civil War

The Root