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Sarah Emma Edmonds (Seelye):
Before the war - traveling Bible salesperson;
Wartime - soldier, nurse, and postal carrier with
2nd Michigan Infantry, Co. F; later nurse with the United States
Sanitary Commission and author of Nurse and Spy;
• After the war – supporter of Union veterans (especially the
wounded) and mother
Born: December 1841, New Brunswick, Canada
Died: September 5, 1898, La Porte, TX
Most Famous For:
Disguising herself as a man in order to serve with the 2nd
Michigan Infantry, Co. F
Writing Civil War memoir: Nurse and Spy in the Union Army
The Union and Union veterans (especially the wounded)
The 2nd Michigan Infantry
Interesting Pre-War Information:
“Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson” was her birth name but she
changed her last name to Edmonds. When she decided to
begin dressing as a man, she changed her name to Franklin
(Frank) Thompson.
Edmonds was born in Canada. She came to the United States
in 1859 as a traveling Bible salesperson named Franklin
Thompson (Leonard 1, xiv).
She left home in order to escape an arranged marriage.
Edmonds in male dress as “Franklin Thompson”
(top), and in female dress (bottom). Images:
Archives of Michigan
Interesting Wartime Information:
Edmonds served as a nurse, spy and postal carrier with the 2nd Michigan Vol. Infantry, Co. F.
With the 2nd Michigan, Edmonds participated in the Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign,
Antietam, Fredericksburg and part of the Kentucky Campaign.
Edmonds left the army in April 1863 near Lebanon, KY. The army charged her with desertion.
She had malaria and knew that if she went to the hospital people would learn that she was a
woman. Discovery would have meant immediate dismissal and public humiliation.
After recovering from malaria, Edmonds began to wear women’s dress once again. She went to
Oberlin, OH where she cared for the wounded (Leonard 1, xvii).
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 1
Interesting Post-War Information:
Edmonds married Linus Seelye, a carpenter also from
New Brunswick, Canada.
Edmonds wrote her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union
Army, under the name “S. Emma E. Edmonds”. This is
the only verifiable memoir written by a female Civil War
soldier (Leonard 1, xiii).
After the war Edmonds worked hard to remove the
charge of desertion from her service record. She enlisted
the help of several 2nd Michigan veterans and succeeded
in 1882.
Edmonds received a pension for her Civil War service.
Two years after she died, Civil War comrades and other
veterans from the G.A.R. [Grand Army of the Republic]
re-buried Edmonds in at Washington Cemetery in
Houston, TX – with military honors.
She was self confident, adaptable and resourceful;
Edmond’s book is interesting and skillfully written;
Edmonds donated the profits from her book to benefit
wounded Union soldiers;
In her book and after the war, Edmonds was skilled at
portraying herself as patriotic and feminine despite having
“broken the rules” by going undercover as a male. She
could say that she had good intentions and wanted to
serve others - a “self-sacrificing” and “feminine” quality
(Leonard 1, xxi);
Edmonds was quick to see opportunities; if one door
closed, she looked for another one to open.
Engraving from Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.
How much of Edmonds’ account is romanticized or
inflated? It is difficult to tell.
Sheet music illustration: “The American Flag: A
New National Lyric”. Library of Congress.
Edmonds did not prepare her closest friend for her April
1863 desertion. He knew her secret identity and had
become close friends with her, and was angry that she left without warning him (Leonard 2, 176).
She was perhaps unnecessarily cruel when dealing with the “Secesh Woman” who shot at her on
the Virginia Peninsula – shooting her through the hand.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 2
Famous or Notable Words:
(Unless noted otherwise, quotes are taken from Nurse and Spy in the Union Army.)
Her decision to fight for the Union, page 3:
“…the great question to be decided, was, what can I do?
What part am I to act in this great drama? I was not able to
decide for myself – so I carried this question to the Throne
of Grace, and found a satisfactory answer there.”
Her gratitude to her adopted country, page 4:
“I thank God that I am permitted in this hour of my adopted
country’s need to express a tithe of the gratitude which I
feel toward the people of the Northern States.”
Her thoughts upon departing for Washington, DC,
page 5:
“I could only thank God that I was free and could go
forward and work, and was not obliged to stay at home and
Woman sewing caps. Illustration by Thomas Nast.
Library of Congress.
• Her thoughts on the hospital department, page 5:
“There are many things in connection with this war
that we are disposed to find fault with, and we think the
blame rests upon such and such individuals – but after
investigating the matter, we find that they are all owing to a
combination of circumstances entirely beyond the control
of those individuals – and it requires time to bring about the
desired results. This has been my experience with regard
to the hospital department.”
Remembering First Bull Run,
pp. 16-17:
“Oh, what a scene for the bright sun of a
holy Sabbath morning to shine upon!
…there was confusion, destruction and
death. There was no place of safety for
miles around; the safest place was the
post of duty. Many that day who turned
their backs upon the enemy and sought
refuge in the woods some two miles
distant, were found torn to pieces by
shell, mangled by cannon ball – a
proper reward for those who, insensible
to shame, duty or patriotism, desert their
cause and comrades in the trying hour
of battle, and skulk away cringing under
the fear of death”.
Battle of Bull Run. Print by Kurz and Alison. Library of Congress.
Thoughts on encouraging the wounded, page 60:
“I was not in the habit of going among the patients with a long, doleful face, nor intimating by word
or look that their case was a hopeless one, unless a man was actually dying, and I felt it to be my
duty to tell him so. Cheerfulness was my motto, and a wonderful effect it had sometimes on the
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 3
despondent, gloomy feelings of discouraged and homesick sufferers. I noticed that whenever I
failed to arouse a man from such a state of feeling, it generally proved a hopeless case. They
were very likely not to recover if they made up their minds that they must die, and persisted in
believing that there was no alternative.”
Remembering becoming ill during the Peninsula Campaign, summer 1862, page 75:
“A cold, drizzling rain continued to descend for several days, and our camp became a fair
specimen of “Virginia mud.” I began to feel the effects of the miasma which came floating on
every breeze from the adjacent swamps and marshes, and fever and ague became my daily
companions for a time.”
Edmonds’ thoughts upon nursing a Confederate soldier back to health, page 154:
“It is strange how sickness and disease disarm our antipathy and remove our prejudices. There
lay before me an enemy to the Government for which I was daily and willingly exposing my life
and suffering unspeakable privation; he may have been the very man who took deadly aim at my
friend and sent the cruel bullet through his temple; and yet, as I looked upon him in his helpless
condition, I did not feel the least resentment, or entertain an unkind thought toward him personally,
but looked upon him only as an unfortunate, suffering man, whose sad condition called forth the
best feelings of my nature, and I longed to restore him to health and strength; not considering that
the very health and strength which I wished to secure for him would be employed against the
cause which I had espoused.”
Remembering the Battle of Malvern Hill, pages 228-229:
“All the battles I had seen before, and those which I have seen since, were nothing to be
compared to it. The elevated position which the army occupied, the concentration of such an
immense force in so small compass, such a quantity of artillery on those hills all in operation at the
same time, the reflection of the flashes of fire from hundreds of guns upon the dense cloud of
smoke which hung suspended in the heavens, turning it into a pillar of fire which reminded one of
the camp of the Israelites and of God’s dealings with His people of old, the vivid flashes of
lightning, the terrific peals of thunder mingled with the continuous blaze of musketry, sudden
explosions of shell and the deafening roar of cannon, combined to make a scene which was
awfully grand. My soul was filled with the sublimity and grandeur of the scene, notwithstanding
the ghastly wounds and piteous groans of the mangled, helpless ones around me.”
Battle of Malvern Hill. Print in Harpers Weekly. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 4
Edmonds’ thoughts on the service of AfricanAmerican soldiers, page 383:
“And now that the time has come when the
colored men are permitted, by the laws of the
land, to … go forth as American soldiers to meet
their cruel oppressors on the bloody field, there
is evidently as great, if not greater, enthusiasm
and true patriotism manifested by them, as by
any troops in the United States army. And still
further—it has been proved satisfactorily within
the last twelve months that the colored troops
endure fatigue as cheerfully and fight as well
(and get less pay) as any of the white troops.
Thank God, this is one great point gained for the
poor down-trodden descendants of Africa.”
In her petition to receive a soldier’s pension,
reported to Congress (National Archives):
“I make no statement of any secret services. In
my mind there is almost as much odium attached
to the word “spy” as there is to the word
“deserter”. There is so much mean deception
necessarily practiced by a spy that I much prefer
every one should believe that I never was
beyond the enemy’s lines rather than fasten
upon me by oath a thing that I despise so much.
It may do in war time, but it is not pleasant to
think upon in time of peace.”
Detail: Teaching Negro Recruits the Use of the Minié, from
Harpers Weekly. Library of Congress.
Edmonds’ decision to become a nurse
(National Archives):
“I had inherited from my mother a rare gift of
nursing, and when not too wary or exhausted,
there was a magnetic power in my hands to
soothe the delirium”.
How Described By Others:
“Scouts” and guides with the Army of the Potomac.
Diary of Jerome Robbins, April 20, 1863,
Library of Congress.
upon learning of “Thompson’s” desertion
(Leonard 2, 176):
“… [H]e prepared me for his departure in part yet I did not think it would be so premature. [Y]et he
did not prepare me for his ingratitude and utter disregard for the finer sensibilities of others. [O]f
all others whom I termed friends he was the last I deemed capable of the petty business which
was betrayed by his friend at the last moment.”
Orlando Poe, at the 1884 reunion of the 2nd Michigan:
“…there was no difficulty about her identification with ‘Frank Thompson’. I think I would have
recognized her anywhere …. [A] single glance at her in her proper character caused me to wonder
how I ever could have mistaken her for a man, and I readily recall many things which ought to
have betrayed her, except that no one thought of finding a woman in a soldier’s dress” (Leonard 1, xix).
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 5
Detail of “Hospital Tent at Falmouth [Va.]”. National Archives.
Notice the woman left of center.
Detail of “The Influence of Woman” – a print in Harpers Weekly. This woman is writing a
letter for a wounded soldier. Library of Congress.
“Publisher’s Notice” in Nurse and Spy:
“Should any of her readers object to some of her disguises, it may be sufficient to remind them it
was from the purest motives and most praiseworthy patriotism, that she laid aside, for a time, her
own costume, and assumed that of the opposite sex, enduring hardships, suffering untold
privations, and hazarding her life for her adopted country, in its trying hour of need …. Whether
duty leads her to the couch of luxury, the abode of poverty, the crowded hospital or the terrible
battlefield – it makes but little difference what costume she assumes while in the discharge of her
duties. – Perhaps she should have the privilege of choosing for herself whatever may be the
surest protection from insult and inconvenience in her blessed, self-sacrificing work….”
Gen. Orlando Poe, in a report to the 49th Congress about her pension request (National
“Frank Thompson was effeminate looking, and for that reason was detailed as mail carrier, to
avoid taking an efficient soldier from the ranks”.
Committee on Invalid Pensions, in House Report No. 849, Forty-Eighth Congress, first session,
July 1, 1884 (National Archives):
“…by the rules of war a deserter, yet her course and conduct after shows the same zeal in the
service of her country in her proper character as actuated her when she first dedicated herself to
the cause which she felt to be the highest and noblest that can actuate man or woman.”
Capt. William R. Morse, Kansas City Times, March 1884 (National Archives):
“Having conceived the idea that the world shed its favors unequally, favoring the male more than
the female, she adopted the costume of the former and proceeded to Boston.”
Reaction after “Thompson’s” desertion, Kansas City Times, March 1884 (National Archives):
“The beardless boy was a universal favorite, and much anxiety was expressed for her safety.”
Notice that Edmonds’ grave had been moved from LaPorte to Houston, TX ("She Rests in
Houston", Houston Daily Post, June 2, 1901. Accessed at
“It has been a cherished purpose of the George B. McClellan post G. A. R., of Houston to remove
the remains of their comrade, Mrs. Seelye, who was buried at a lonely spot by the seaside near
LaPorte about three years ago, to their burial lot in the German Cemetery, (now known as
Washington Cemetery), where it could be cared for and decorated on Memorial days.”
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 6
Timeline of Events:
Dec. 1841
Sarah Emma
Edmondson was born
in New Brunswick,
Canada. She lived on
a farm and probably
wore male clothing
while doing farm
chores such as
chopping wood,
planting and harvesting
(Leonard 2, 170).
ca. 1857
Edmonds left
home in order to
escape an arranged
marriage. She
changed her name
from “Edmondson” to
Edmonds came to
America as “Frank
Thompson”. She wore
male clothing and
adopted the
mannerisms of a man.
She soon found work
as a traveling Bible
salesman from a
company in Hartford,
CT (Leonard 2, 170).
Edmonds nursed wounded soldiers at a stone church at Centerville, VA, after
Bull Run – much like this stone church. Library of Congress.
“Camp Scenes: The Hospital Steward”. Print from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated
Newspaper. Library of Congress.
Early 1861
Edmonds moved to
Flint, Michigan.
April 15, 1861
Edmonds enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry, Co. F, at Flint, MI.
May 25, 1861
Mustered in as a 3-year recruit with the 2nd Michigan at Detroit (Leonard 2, 170).
June 10, 1861
Edmonds arrived in Washington, DC with the 2nd Michigan; they encamped at
Washington Heights.
July 18, 1861
The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia.
July 21, 1861
The 2nd Michigan covered the Union retreat at Manassas (Bull Run). Edmonds
helped nurse soldiers at the Stone Church at Centerville.
Nov. 16, 1861
Edmonds revealed her true identity to Jerome John Robbins (medical steward,
2nd Michigan). Robbins wrote about the conversation in his diary but sealed the
pages and wrote “Please allow these leaves to be closed until the author’s
permission is given for their opening” (Leonard 1, xiii).
March 1862
Witnessed the Monitor vs. the Virginia (Merrimac) at Hampton Roads, VA.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 7
April 5 – May 4 Battle of Yorktown, VA. Edmonds
was involved in procuring supplies
for the hospitals.
In the spring of 1862 Edmonds
made her first excursion as a spy –
disguising herself as a male
“contraband”. While working on
the earthworks at Yorktown she
learned the identity of a
Confederate spy.
Also in the spring/ summer of 1862,
Edmonds went on a second spying
mission – this time as an Irish
peddler named “Bridget”.
While on spying missions,
Edmonds contracted “chills” – the
first of many such incidents.
April 30-July
12, 1862
Edmonds became regimental
May 5, 1862
Edmonds and the 2nd Michigan
participated in the Battle of
Williamsburg, VA.
Connections: Winfield Scott
“Disguised as Contraband”. Nurse and Spy, p. 113.
May 27, 1862
Edmonds was an orderly for “General K.” at the Battle of Hanover Courthouse.
May 31-June 1 Battle of Fair Oaks. Edmonds witnesses Prof. Thaddeus Lowe’s use of the
Intrepid, a balloon which was successful in reporting Confederate troop
July 12 – Aug.
31, 1862
Served as regimental mail carrier (Leonard 2, 171). This was a dangerous job as
she covered a distance of about 100 miles (round trip), sometimes sleeping on
the side of the road where she risked run-ins with robbers (Leonard 2, 171).
Summer 1862
Peninsula campaign. In Nurse and Spy, Edmonds wrote about Mechanicsville,
Gaines Mill and Malvern Hill, specifically. Some time during this campaign she
witnessed a military execution as well.
She became ill with “fever and ague” again, this time probably malaria. Her
illness recurred from time to time and eventually led to her hospitalization.
Sept. 17, 1862 Served at the Battle of Antietam.
Connections: Clara Barton (Centerville, Antietam and Fredericksburg)
Edmonds wrote that she came to the aid of a dying female soldier after the battle.
It is uncertain whether this incident actually happened, or if Edmonds chose this
moment to clarify her motives for serving in the Army as a male.
Fall 1862
While on a mission, Edmonds was almost shot by guerillas; her horse was killed
however. Injured, she escaped by “playing possum”.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 8
Dec. 1862
Edmonds served as an orderly to Col. Orlando
M. Poe at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She wrote
about this battle (as well as the “Mud March”)
extensively in Nurse and Spy.
Spring 1863
The 2nd Michigan was reassigned to the
Western theater of operations.
Edmonds wrote that she was sent on an intelligence
mission in Kentucky.
Mid-Apr. 1863
Edmonds left her regiment near Lebanon, KY
after the military denied her furlough request. She
was ill (malaria) and feared that she could not
maintain her secret identity in the hospital. Dismissal
and disgrace would have followed if caught.
June 1863
Edmonds worked with the United States
Christian Commission as a female
nurse; she also began to write her memoir. She
abandoned her identity as “Franklin Thompson” and
returned to wearing female dress.
Edmonds published her memoirs under the
title Unsexed; or, The Female Soldier.
Edmonds re-published her memoirs under
the new title of Nurse and Spy in the
Union Army. The publisher sold about 175,000
copies by subscription. Edmonds donated the profits
to soldiers’ aid organizations such as the United
States Sanitary Commission and United States
Christian Commission (Leonard 1, xviii).
April 27, 1867
In Cleveland, OH, Edmonds married Linus
Seelye, a carpenter also from New
Brunswick, Canada. They had three children [Linus B.,
Homer, and Alice Louise] who died while young; two
adopted sons survived into adulthood (Ancestry
Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2).
Loreta Janeta Velazquez published her own
wartime memoir, The Woman in
Battle. Velazquez served in the Confederate army as
“Harry T. Buford”. However, many of the details of her
memoir are disputed (Leonard 1, xviii).
Orlando Poe. Library of Congress
Detail of photograph of women and
in the U.S. Sanitary
Commission. Library of Congress.
Edmonds attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan – this
time, in female dress. The men were surprised but very Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in
frontispiece of The Woman in
supportive. At her request, they wrote letters to help
her as she tried to have the charge of desertion
removed from her service record. The Seelye family was having financial
difficulties and Edmonds was physically unwell. The family hoped that Edmonds
would receive a military pension (Leonard 1, xviii).
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 9
Mar. 18, 1884
The charge of desertion was
removed from Edmonds’
(Thompson’s) service
Also in March, a woman
named Emma Porch
received a Federal pension
for her services as a spy
during the Civil War
(Leonard 2, 184).
July 5, 1884
Edmonds was awarded a
pension of $12 per month
for her military service.
Edmonds was mustered into
the George B. McClellan
Post of the Grand Army of
the Republic in Houston, TX.
She is the only woman
known to have been a GAR
member (Handbook of
Sep. 5, 1898
Edmonds died at La Porte,
ca. 1901
Edmonds’ body was moved
to the Washington Cemetery
(Houston, TX), where she
was buried with military
honors (Handbook of
Texas). Her headstone lists
her as “Army Nurse”.
Women played an important role in Civil War intelligence gathering.
In this illustration, printed in Harpers Weekly, the caption read as
follows: “The rebel cavalry leader, [J.E.B.] Stuart, has appointed to a
position on his staff, with the rank of Major, a young lady residing in
Fairfax Court House, who has been of great service to him in giving
information.” Ford had, indeed, been appointed an honorary aide-decamp. Other notable spies included Rose Greenhow, Elizabeth
“Crazy Bette” Van Lew, Belle Boyd, Emmeline Piggot and Nancy
Hart. Image: Library of Congress. More information about Ford:
Female Naval employees lined up for review. Gradually women have
taken a more active, official role in the armed forces – largely due to
the perseverance, skill and bravery of predecessors such as Sarah
Emma Edmonds. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 10
Information Sources
Edmonds, S. Emma E. Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: a Woman’s Adventures in the Union
Army. Ed. Elizabeth D. Leonard. Northern Illinois UP: 1999. Originally published as Unsexed; or,
The Female Soldier. 1864. Republished as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, 1865. Cited as
“Leonard 1”.
Leonard, Elizabeth. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. Penguin Books,
NY: 1999. Cited as “Leonard 2”.
Livermore, Mary. My Story of the War. A.D. Worthington, Hartford, CT: 1889.
Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War.
Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. S.S. Scranton, Hartford, CT:
National Archives and Records Administration. Civil War Pension Application File of Sarah Emma
Edmonds Seelye, a.k.a. Franklin Thompson.
Robertson, John. Michigan in the War. W.S. George State Printers, Lansing, MI: 1882.
Blanton, DeAnn. “Women Soldiers of the Civil War.” Prologue. Spring 1993, Vol. 25, No. 1.
National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed
December 9, 2009.
Cecil, Paul. “Seelye, Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmundson.” Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed December 9, 2009.
Central Michigan University. “Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye.” Michigan in Letters. July
17, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2009.
Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. “Last Resting Place of Sarah Emma Edmonds.” Accessed
December 30, 2009.
Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. . Accessed
December 9, 2009.
Edmonds, S. Emma E. Unsexed: or, The Female soldier. The thrilling adventures, experiences and
escapes of a woman, as nurse, spy and scout, in hospitals, camps and battle-fields. Accessed December 30, 2009.
HarpWeek. “General Stuart’s New Aid.” Image of the Day: April 4, 2009.
Accessed January 7, 2010.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 11
Kerstens, Elizabeth Kelley. “Disguised
Patriots: Women Who Served Incognito”. Ancestry. March/April 2000 Vol. 18 No. 2.
Livermore, Mary. My Story of the War. A.D. Worthington, Hartford, CT: 1889. . Accessed December 9, 2009.
Michigan Women’s Historical Center. “Sarah Emma Edmonds.” Michigan Women’s Historical Center
Hall of Fame.
Accessed December 9, 2009.
State of Michigan. “59-14 Box 095 Folder 06, Second Michigan Infantry: History.” Correspondence
regarding pension request of Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye. Accessed January 8, 2010.
Texas Historical Commission. “Washington Cemetery” (Historical Marker). Accessed December 30, 2009.
Wikipedia. “Sarah Emma Edmonds”.
Accessed December 9, 2009.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 12
Connections to the NCSS Curriculum Strands (with points for exploration)
Culture –
What were some of the cultural expectations
for women living during the Civil War era?
How did that role vary depending on region,
social status and/or race? How have
expectations for women changed from
Edmonds’ lifetime to today?
How were women in Edmonds’ time limited by
American cultural beliefs (for example, working
outside the home, being “self-sacrificing”,
Godey’s fashions for December, 1861. Library of Congress.
Even though Edmonds had gone against
gender roles by disguising herself as a male –
for years – the men who had served in the 2nd Michigan rallied to support Edmonds as she tried to
obtain a Federal pension. Why?
Edmonds went undercover as an Irish woman and as contraband, what mannerisms, language and
characteristics did she attempt to portray? Were these based upon accurate observations or were
they based upon stereotypes of the time? Was she successful in her costumes? Why or why not?
Time, Continuity and Change—
What careers were open to women in the mid-1800s? Why?
Edmonds supposedly left home to escape an arranged
marriage. What other benefits might a woman enjoy if she
were able to disguise herself as a male (career, finances,
education, social, etc.)?
How and why did nursing evolve from a man’s career to a
woman’s career?
Sarah Emma Edmonds was not the first woman to serve in
the military during wartime. For example, Deborah Samson
fought during the American Revolutionary War. Who are
some other women who fought in their nation’s military
during wartime? Besides fighting as soldiers (disguised or
not), what other roles have women had – both at home and
in the military?
Detail of sheet music: “Rising of the People: The
Drum Tap Rattles through the Land.” A family sends
its soldier off to battle. Other departing soldiers can
be seen in the background, as well as the Capitol.
Library of Congress. Many women, however, were
not content to stay at home and weep.
How did women eventually enter the American armed forces
as soldiers? When? What restrictions have been placed on
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 13
In Edmonds’ memoirs she describes her work as a spy. How has spying changed from the Civil War
period to current day?
Stereoview of “contrabands” near Yorktown, VA. Library of Congress.
In which battles did the 2nd Michigan participate during the Civil War? Which battles were won?
Were lost? What was their significance within the larger war?
How did Edmonds’ time as “contraband” working at a Confederate fortification allow her to gather
valuable intelligence?
People, Places and Environments –
Edmonds grew up on a farm and did a great amount of
farm work as a young woman. How might this farm work
affect Edmonds’ ability to disguise herself as a man?
What skills did she gain which would have helped her as
a soldier?
What was it like to live in New Brunswick, Canada during
Edmonds’ lifetime? How would this location have
differed from places where the 2nd Michigan served
during the Civil War? (Compare resources, geography,
environment, and so on.)
Why should we save Civil War battlefields?
Individual Development and Identity –
What events may have shaped Edmonds in regard to
both her ability and her desire to “go undercover” as a
male? Why did she eventually give up her male disguise
and return to what she called her “proper” role?
Why was Edmonds embarrassed about her time as a
spy? Has spying become more respectable since the
mid 1800s, or less so?
Detail of sheet music cover – “The New Costume Polka” –
showing a woman in bloomers. While the women’s dress
reform movement grew, especially from the 1850s onward,
bloomers weren’t ordinarily acceptable. Finding an uncorseted woman in men’s trousers would have been
scandalous. Image: Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 14
Why did Edmonds identify so strongly with the Union cause, despite the fact that, as a Canadian, she
did not have to participate?
Individuals, Groups and Institutions –
In the 1800s, what was the woman’s role within the institution of the family? What was the man’s
role? How have the roles changed and how have they remained the same since then?
Edmonds was a traveling Bible salesperson before her time in the Federal army. What was the role
of religion in America in the mid-1800s? Has that role changed or remained the same since then?
Edmonds traveled to Oberlin, OH after her time in the army. What was Oberlin’s role in terms of
education and women’s rights? How much education was open to most women in the 1800s? How
much to men? How did one’s geographic location, social status and career affect one’s access to
education? How has the role of education changed in the United States from the mid-1800s to now?
How did one apply to receive a Federal pension after the war?
Power, Authority and Governance –
What were the rules regarding desertion from the Federal army? What were the rules regarding
female participation in the army? How might the army have dealt with Edmonds had her gender been
discovered? How might the army have dealt with Edmonds if she had been apprehended after her
desertion? Why was Edmonds’ desertion charge overturned?
How did one apply to receive a Federal pension after the war?
If Edmonds’ gender had been discovered while she was a traveling salesperson, what might the
consequences have been? How have laws and social regulations regarding proper dress changed
from the 1850s to now?
What were the laws regarding
immigration in the mid 1800s?
The American Patriot, 1852: a nativist newspaper railing against the “threat” posed by
immigrants in the United States. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 15
Production, Consumption and
Distribution –
What was the role of the United States Christian
Commission and the United States Sanitary
Commission during the Civil War?
How might Edmonds’ decision to become Franklin
Thompson have been an economic decision as
much as a social and cultural decision?
Detail: group of U.S. Christian Commission workers in front of a
commission storehouse in Washington, D.C. Library of Congress.
Science, Technology and Society –
In House Report No. 849, Forty-Eighth Congress,
the Committee on Invalid Pensions reported that Dr.
Tho. Barrett examined Edmonds and found her
“suffering from symptoms of disease of the heart,
which may be the sequel of inflammatory
rheumatism; also has disease of the liver. The
viscus is enlarged; the skin and cornea have a
yellow tinge. There is enlargement of spleen and
symptoms of disease of kidney” (National Archives).
How might these symptoms reflect diseases and
physical hardships contracted during Edmonds’ Civil
War service? How many other soldiers were
afflicted with these physical problems? How do we
treat these problems today?
There are many instances in the Civil War when
weather played a part in deciding the outcome of
battles – or even campaigns. At the very least, bad
weather could make life miserable for the common
soldier. For example, in the spring and summer of
1862, the Peninsula saw an overabundance of rain
which caused transportation to become bogged
down due to muddy roads. Rainy periods led to
excessive dampness and chills, and increased the
areas covered by swampland. The technology to
cope with these weather events did not exist. How
might the weather have played a role during the
campaigns in which Edmonds (and the 2nd
Michigan) participated? (For example: Kentucky
1863, the summer 1862 Peninsula Campaign,
Fredericksburg and its aftermath, etc.)
A baggage train on its way to Falmouth, VA – bogged down in the
mud. Library of Congress.
Diseases such as malaria, typhoid and dysentery
are largely unknown in the United States today.
How did scientists help to eradicate these diseases
in the US? Are the diseases widespread in other
parts of the world today? Where? Why?
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 16
Stereoview of a group of officers on the deck of the Monitor. Library of Congress.
Edmonds wrote that she used silver nitrate to turn her skin black so she could go undercover as
“contraband”. Given what we know about this chemical, do you think she really used silver nitrate?
Why or why not?
How did Edmonds describe the Monitor when she saw it? What made the Monitor successful? What
were its weaknesses? How did the arrival of ironclads and monitors change naval warfare forever?
Global Connections –
How do the economic, social and educational opportunities available to Western women compare to
the opportunities available to women in other parts of the world today?
It was relatively easy for Edmonds to cross into the United States in the mid-1850s. Why? Why and
how have border crossings become more complicated since then?
Why might a citizen of one country choose to fight for another country?
Civic Ideals and Practices –
What did Edmonds mean when she asked herself, “What part am I to play in this great drama?” Has
anything happened in your life time which has caused you to ask the same question? Explain.
Even though Edmonds was Canadian, she chose to support the Union cause. Why? Why did
Edmonds identify so strongly with the Union cause, despite being Canadian?
When did Edmonds become an American citizen? Then and now, how does one become a United
States citizen? What is the meaning of “citizenship”?
Edmonds broke many rules – written and otherwise – in order to do what she felt was right: to join the
Federal army. Did the ends justify the means? Why or why not? Is it ever appropriate to break the
law or bend rules? Why or why not?
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 17
The Six Pillars of Character from CHARACTER COUNTS!sm
In joining the Union army, Edmonds had the courage to do what she felt was the right thing.
Edmonds worked to build a good reputation among her fellow soldiers and fellow nurses.
She was loyal to her adopted country and her friends, for the most part.
Edmonds was reliable, doing her best to fulfill all of her assigned missions.
Disguising herself as a man involved deception. However, it was necessary in order to escape
the arranged marriage, to enlist as a soldier, to make a living as a salesperson, etc.
For the most part, Edmonds was respectful to soldiers and civilians alike.
Edmonds was well-mannered and considerate.
Shooting a female civilian through the hand might have been seen as unnecessarily cruel.
If her fellow soldiers had known that she was a woman posing as a man - in the midst of
thousands of male soldiers – their sense of propriety would have been wounded.
Edmonds spent a lifetime overcoming hardships and obstacles – showing great perseverance.
Her decisions to go undercover as a man, to serve as a Union soldier and then to desert the
Union Army were not taken lightly – she considered the consequences of her actions.
In each of her missions, Edmonds gave her all.
Maintaining a secret identity for so long involved tremendous self-discipline and self-control.
Edmonds was not cruel to wounded Confederate soldiers.
She was open to different points of view (difficulties in the medical department; why a female
civilian (who shot her) acted as she did). She did not, however, have much patience or
understanding towards the “rebel vixens” who lived on the Virginia Peninsula.
Edmonds’ friend, Robbins, felt betrayed because she did not say ‘goodbye’ before she left.
Edmonds was extremely compassionate towards wounded soldiers – Union and Confederate.
Edmonds felt gratitude towards her adopted nation.
She was forgiving towards people who had hurt her.
Edmonds wrote Nurse and Spy in the Union Army to raise money for wounded Union veterans.
She joined the Union Army to support and protect the United States.
CHARACTER COUNTS! and The Six Pillars of Character are service marks of Josephson Institute.
© 2008 Josephson Institute. The definitions of the Six Pillars of Character are reprinted with permission.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 18
Nine Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders
by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership
Edmonds listened to the people around her: this gave her the knowledge and compassion
necessary to deal with crises effectively.
Serving her country by disguising herself as a male soldier took incredible imagination –
dreaming a great dream. Writing a book about her experiences also took imagination.
Edmonds knew that desertion, no matter how ugly it sounded, was the only option available to
her after her furlough request was turned down.
Acceptance and Empathy
Edmonds wanted to understand other people and accept other people. Even though she
denounced the Confederate cause, she did not denounce wounded Confederate soldiers.
Edmonds saw the consequences of being “discovered” and knew when it was time to leave. If
she had been caught – a woman in the Union army – all of her good work would have been
Awareness and Perception
Edmonds was very aware of new opportunities and quick to take these opportunities.
When one door closed (serving in the military) another door opened – writing a book.
When Edmonds wrote her memoirs, she was aware of how the public would perceive her
actions. She was also aware of what made good fiction. She was able to portray herself as
self-sacrificing, generous and kind. Some of the spying activities mentioned in her book,
however, may have been embellished.
She was able to convince fellow members of the 2nd Michigan to support her in her quests to 1)
remove the charge of desertion from her record, and 2) obtain a Federal pension.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 19
Edmonds loved the United States and had a clear vision of what she needed to do to support
it. She was completely dedicated to her achieving her goal.
She had faith in the Union and the men and women who supported it.
Even though her book was highly unorthodox, it had a healing effect upon its readers.
Based on “The Servant as Leader” by Robert K. Greenleaf,
© Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership 1991, 2008.
Reprinted with permission.
Further information about servant leadership can be found at
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 20
Primary Sources
Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences
of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields. Pages 41-54.
By S. Emma E. Edmonds. W.S. Williams & Co., Hartford, Conn: 1865.
The following passage describes the battle of Bull Run / Manassas and its aftermath.
I was hurried off to Centerville, 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. Mrs. B. was nowhere to
be found. Had she been killed or wounded? A few moments of torturing suspense, and then I saw
her coming toward me, running her horse with all possible speed, with about 50 canteens hanging
from the pommel of her saddle. To all my inquiries there was but one answer: "Don't stay to care for
the wounded now; the troops are famishing with thirst and are beginning to fall back." Mr. B. then
rode up with the same order, and we three started for a spring a mile distant, having gathered up the
empty canteens which lay strewn on the field. This was the nearest spring; the enemy knew it, and
consequently had posted sharpshooters within rifle range to prevent the troops being supplied with
water. Notwithstanding this, we filled our canteens, while the minié balls fell thick and fast around us,
and returned in safety to distribute the fruits of our labor among the exhausted men.
We spent three hours in this manner, while the tide of battle rolled on more fiercely than
before, until the enemy made a desperate charge on our troops, driving them back and taking full
possession of the spring. Chaplain B'.s horse was shot through the neck and bled to death in a few
moments. Then Mrs. B. and I dismounted and went to work again among the wounded.
Not long afterward Col. Cameron, brother of the Secretary of War, came dashing along the
line, shouting; “Come on, boys; the rebels are in full retreat!" The words had scarcely been uttered
when he fell, pierced to the heart by a bullet. Surgeon P. was on the ground in an instant, but nothing
could be done for him; his wound was mortal, and he soon ceased to breathe. There was no time to
carry off the dead. We folded his arms across his breast, closed his eyes, and left him in the cold
embrace of death.
Still the battle continues without
cessation. The grape and canister fill the
air as they go screaming on their fearful
errand. The sight of that field was
perfectly appalling; 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 was
crimson with blood. It was terrible to
witness. Burnside’s Brigade is being
mown down like grass by the rebel
batteries. The men are not able to stand
that terrible storm of shot and shell. They
begin to waver and fall back slowly, but
just at the right moment Capt. Sykes
“The Battle of Bull Run”, by Kurz and Alison. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 21
comes up to their relief with his 'command of regulars. They
sweep up the hill where Burnside's exhausted, shattered
brigade still lingers, and are greeted with a shout of joy such
as none but soldiers who are almost overpowered by a fierce
enemy and are reinforced by their brave comrades, can give. ''
Ambrose Burnside. Library of Congress.
Onward they go, close up to the cloud of flame and
smoke rolling from the hill upon which the rebel batteries are
placed - their muskets are leveled - there is a click, click - a
sheet of flame - a deep roll like that of thunder, and the rebel
gunners are seen to stagger and fall. The guns become silent,
and in a few moments are abandoned. This seems to
occasion great confusion in the rebel ranks. Regiments were
scattered, and officers were seen riding furiously and shouting
their orders, which were heard above the roar and din of
Captain Griffin's and Rickett’s batteries are ordered
forward to an eminence from which the rebels have been driven. They come into position and open a
most destructive fire, which completely routs the enemy. The battle seems almost won, and the
enemy is retreating in confusion. Hear what Gen. Johnson says of his prospects at that time, in his
official report: “The long contest against a powerful enemy and heavy losses, especially of field
officers, had greatly discouraged the troops of Gen. Bee and Col. Evans. The aspect of affairs was
critical." Another writes: “Fighting for hours under a burning sun, without a drop of water, the conduct
of our men could not be excelled; but human endurance has its bounds, and all seemed about to be
lost." This goes to prove that it was a desperately hard fought battle on both sides, and if no fresh
troops had been brought into the field the victory would assuredly have been ours.
But just as our army was confident of success, and is following up the advantage which it had
gained, rebel reinforcements arrive and turn the tide of battle. Two rebel regiments of fresh troops
are sent to make a flank movement in order to capture Griffin's and Rickett’s batteries. They march
through the woods, readied the top of the hill, and form a line so completely in our rear as to fire
almost upon the backs of the gunners. Griffin sees them approach, but supposes them to be his
supports sent by Maj. Barry. However, looking more intently at them, he thinks they are rebels, and
turns his guns upon them. Just as he is about to give the order to fire, Maj. B. rides up, shouting:
“'They are your supports, don’t fire.” “No, sir; they are rebels," replied Capt. Griffin. “I tell you, sir,
they are your supports," said Maj. B. In obedience to orders the guns were turned again, and while in
the act of doing so the supposed supports fired a volley upon the gunners. Men and horses went
down in an instant. A moment more and those famous batteries were in the hands of the enemy.
The news of this disaster spread along our lines like wildfire. Officers and men were alike
confounded. Regiment after regiment broke and ran, and almost immediately the panic commenced.
Companies of cavalry were drawn up in line across the road, with drawn sabers, but all was not
sufficient to stop the refluent tide of fugitives. Then came the artillery thundering along, drivers lashing
their horses furiously, which greatly added to the terror of the panic stricken thousands crowded
together en masse. In this manner we reached Centerville, where order was in some measure
Mrs. B. and I made our way to the stone church, around which we saw stacks of dead bodies
piled up, and arms and legs were thrown together in heaps. But how shall I describe the scene within
the church at that hour? Oh, there was suffering there which no pen can ever describe. One case I
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 22
can never forget. It was that of a poor fellow whoso legs were both broken above the knees, and from
the knees to the thighs they were literally smashed to fragments. He was dying; but oh, what a death
was that. He was insane, perfectly wild, and required two persons to hold him. Inflammation had set
in, and was rapidly doing its work. Death soon released him, and it was a relief to all present, as well
as to the poor sufferer.
…Our hearts and hands being fully occupied with such scenes as these, we thought of nothing
else. We knew nothing of the true state of affairs outside, nor could we believe it possible when we
learned that the whole army had retreated toward Washington, leaving the wounded in the hands of
the enemy, and us, too, in rather an unpleasant situation. I could not believe the stern truth, and was
determined to find out for myself. Consequently I went back to the heights, where I had seen the
troops stack their guns and throw themselves upon the ground at nightfall, but no troops were there. I
thought then that they had merely changed their position, and that by going over the field I should
certainly find them. I had not gone far before I saw a campfire in the distance. Supposing that I had
found a clue to the secret, I made all haste toward the fire; but as I drew near I saw but one solitary
figure sitting by it, and that was the form of a female.
Upon going up to her I recognized her as one of the washerwomen of our army. I asked her
what she was doing there and where the army had gone. Said she: “I don't know anything about the
army; I am cooking my husband's supper, and am expecting him home every minute. See what a lot
of things I have got for him," pointing to a huge pile of blankets, haversacks and canteens which she
had gathered up and over which she had constituted herself sentinel. I soon found out that the poor
creature had become insane. The excitement of battle had proved too much for her, and all my
endeavors to induce her to come with me were unavailing. I had no time to spare, for I was convinced
that the army had really decamped.
Once more I started in the direction of Centerville. I had not gone more than a few rods before
I heard the clatter of horses' hoofs. I stopped, and looking in the direction of the fire I had just quitted,
I saw a squad of cavalry ride up to the woman, who still sat there. Fortunately I had no horse to make
a noise or attract attention, having left mine at the hospital with the intention of returning immediately.
It was evident to my mind that those were the enemy's cavalry and that it was necessary for me to
keep out of sight if possible until they were gone. Then the thought came to me that the woman at the
fire knew no better than to tell them that I had been there a few minutes before. Happily, however, I
was near a fence, against which there were
great piles of brush, and as the night was
becoming very dark and it was beginning to
rain I thought I could remain undetected, at
least until morning. My suspicions proved to
be correct. They were coming toward me and
compelling the woman to come and show
them the direction I had taken. I decided to
crawl under one of those brush heaps, which
I did, and- had scarcely done so when up
they came and stopped over against the
identical pile in which I was concealed.
Cavalry at Sudley Ford, Bull run. Library of Congress.
One of the men said: “See here, old
woman, are you sure that she can tell us if
we find her?" "Oh, yes, she can tell you, I
know she can," was the woman's reply. They
would go away a little distance and then
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 23
come back again. By and by they began to accuse the woman of playing a false game. Then they
swore, threatened to shoot her, and she began to cry. All this was an interesting performance, I
admit; but I did not enjoy it quite so much, in consequence of being rather uncomfortably near the
performers. At last they gave it up as a hopeless case and rode away, taking the woman with them,
and I was left in blissful ignorance of the mystery which they wished me to unravel, and for once in
my life I rejoiced at not having my "curiosity" gratified.
I remained there until the last echo of their retreating footsteps died away in the distance; then
I came forth very cautiously and made my way to Centerville, where the interesting intelligence
awaited me that Mr. and Mrs. B. had gone and had taken my horse, supposing that I had been taken
The village of Centerville was not yet occupied by the rebels, so that I could have made my
escape without any further trouble; but how could I go and leave those hospitals full of dying men,
without a soul to give them a drink of water? I must go into that Stone Church once more, even at the
risk of being taken prisoner. I did so, and the cry of “Water, water," was heard above the groans of the
dying. Chaplain B. had told them before leaving that they would soon be in the hands of the enemy that the army had retreated to Washington and that there was no possibility of removing the
wounded. There they lay, calmly awaiting the approach of their cruel captors, and apparently
prepared to accept with resignation any fate which their cruelty might suggest. Oh, how brave those
men were! Nothing but the grace of God and a right appreciation of the great cause in which they had
nobly fought, and bled, could reconcile them to such suffering and humiliation.
They all urged me to leave them, and not subject myself to the barbarous treatment which I
would be likely to receive if I should be taken prisoner, adding; “If you do stay the rebels will not let
you do anything for us." One of the men said: "Dr. E. has only been gone a little while—he extracted
three balls from my leg and arm, and that, too, with his pen-knife. I saw twenty-one balls which he
had taken from the limbs of men in this hospital. He was determined to remain with us, but we would
not consent, for we knew he would not be allowed to do any more for us after the rebels came; and
you must go, too, and go very soon, or they will be here."
Writing a letter for a wounded soldier. Library of Congress.
Edwin Forbes sketch of the Federal army retreating through Centerville after Bull Run... Second Bull Run. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 24
After placing water within reach of as many as
could use their arms, and giving some to those who
could not, I turned to leave them, with feelings that I
cannot describe; but ere I reached the door a feeble
voice called me back. It was that of a young officer from
Massachusetts; he held in his hand a gold locket, and
as he handed it to me he said “Will you please to open
it?" I did so, and then held it for him to take a last look
at the picture it contained. He grasped it eagerly and
pressed it to his lips again and again. The picture was
that of a lady of rare beauty, with an infant in her arms.
She seemed scarcely more than a child herself. On the
opposite side was printed her name and address. While
he still gazed upon it with quivering lip, and I stood
there waiting for some tender message for the loved
ones, the unmistakable tramp of cavalry was heard in
the street - a moment more and I had snatched the
locket from the hands of the dying man and was gone.
The streets were full of cavalry, but not near
enough to discover me, as the night was exceedingly
dark and the rain came down in torrents. One glance
was sufficient to convince me that I could not escape by
either street. The only way was to climb a fence and go across lots, which I immediately did, and
came out on the Fairfax road about a mile from the village, and then started for Washington on the
“double-quick." I did not reach Alexandria until noon the next day - almost exhausted, and my shoes
literally worn off my feet. Having walked all the way from Centerville in the rain, without food, together
with want of sleep and, the fatigue of the past week, caused me to present rather an interesting
appearance. I remained there two days before I could persuade my limbs to bear the weight of my
body. I then made my way to Washington, where I found my friends quite anxious lest I had fallen into
the hands of the enemy. A number of men from whom I had received packages, money, etc., before
going into battle, and who reached Washington two days before I did, had come to the conclusion
that they had taken a pretty sure way of sending those precious things to Richmond, and therefore
my arrival was rather an important event, and I was greeted with a hearty welcome.
Daguerreotype of an unidentified woman and child, ca.
1840-1860. Library of Congress.
My first duty was to attend to those dying soldiers' requests, which I did immediately by writing to
their friends and inclosing the articles which I had received from the hands of those loved ones who
were now cold in death. The answers to many of those letters lie before me while I write, and are full
of gratitude and kind wishes. One in particular I cannot read without weeping. It is from Willie's
“Oh, how I want to kiss those hands that closed my darling's eyes, and those lips which spoke
words of comfort to him in a dying hour. The love and prayers of a bereaved mother will follow you all
through the journey of life." Yes, he is gone to return to her no more on earth, but her loss is his
eternal gain….
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 25
Primary Sources
Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in
Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields. Pages 91-97.
By S. Emma E. Edmonds. W.S. Williams & Co., Hartford, Conn: 1865.
The following passage describes her attempt to procure supplies for the Union Army while on the Virginia Peninsula:
“…I will here relate a little incident
illustrative of the peculiarity of my
adventures while on this catering business:
One morning I started, all alone, for a five
mile ride to an isolated farm-house about
three miles back from the Hampton road,
and which report said was well supplied
with all the articles of which I was in search.
I cantered along briskly until I came to a
gate which opened into a lane leading
directly to the house. It was a large old
fashioned two-story house, which immense
chimneys built outside, Virginia style. The
farm appeared to be in good condition,
fences all up, a rare thing on the Peninsula,
and corn-fields flourishing as if there were
No such thing as war in the land.
I rode up to the house and
dismounted, hitched my horse to a post at
the door, and proceeded to ring the bell. A
tall, stately lady made her appearance, and invited me in with much apparent courtesy. She was
dressed in deep mourning, which was very becoming to her pale, sad face. She seemed to be about
thirty years of age, very prepossessing in appearance, and evidently belonged to one of the
*“F.F.V’s”. As soon as I was seated she inquired: “To what fortunate circumstance am I to attribute
the pleasure of this unexpected call?” I told her in a few words the nature of my business. The
intelligence seemed to cast a deep shadow over her pale features, which all her efforts could not
control. She seemed nervous and excited, and something in her appearance aroused my suspicion,
notwithstanding her blandness of manner and lady-like deportment.
Chimney from a ruined house at Hampton, VA. Library of Congress.
She invited me into another room, while she prepared the articles which she proposed to let
me have, but I declined, giving as an excuse that I preferred to sit where I could see whether my
horse remained quiet. I watched all her movements narrowly, not daring to turn my eyes aside for a
single moment. She walked round in her stately way for some time, without accomplishing much in
the way of facilitating my departure, and she was evidently trying to detain me for some purpose or
other. Could it be that she was meditating the best mode of attack, or was she expecting some one
to come, trying to detain me until their arrival? Thoughts like these passed through my mind in quick
At last I rose up abruptly, and asked her if the things were ready. She answered me with an
assumed smile of surprise, and said: “Oh, I did not know that you were in a hurry: I was waiting for
the boys to come and catch some chickens for you.” “And pray, madam, where are the boys?” I
asked; “Oh, not far from here,” was her reply. “Well, I have decided not to wait; you will please not
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 26
detain me longer,” said I, as I moved toward the door. She began to pack some butter and eggs both
together in a small basket which I had brought with me, while another stood beside her without
anything in it. I looked at her; she was trembling violently, and was as pale as death. In a moment
more she handed me the basket, and I held out a greenback for her acceptance; “Oh, it was no
consequence about the pay;” she did not wish anything for it. So I thanked her and went out.
In a few moments she came to the door, but did not offer to assist me, or to hold the basket, or
anything, but stood looking at me most maliciously, I thought. I placed the basket on the top of the
post to which my horse had been hitched, took my seat in the saddle, and then rode up and took my
basket. Turning to her I bade her good morning, and thanking her again for her kindness, I turned to
ride away.
I had scarcely gone a rod when she discharged a pistol at me; by some intuitive movement I
threw myself forward on my horse’s neck and the ball passed over my head. I turned my horse in a
twinkling, and grasped my revolver. She was in the act of firing the second time, but was so excited
that the bullet went wide of its mark. I held my seven-shooter in my hand, considering where to aim.
I did not wish to kill the wretch, but did intend to wound her. When she saw that two could play at this
game, she dropped her pistol and threw up her hands imploringly. I took deliberate aim at one of her
hands, and sent the ball through the palm of her left hand. She fell to the ground in an instant with a
loud shriek. I dismounted, and took the pistol which lay beside her, and placing it in my belt,
proceeded to take care of her ladyship after the following manner: I unfastened the end of my halterstrap and tied it painfully tight around her right wrist, and remounting my horse, I started, and brought
the lady to consciousness by dragging her by the wrist two or three rods along the ground. I stopped,
and she rose to her feet, and with wild entreaties she begged me to release her, but, instead of doing
so, I presented a pistol, and told her that if she uttered another word or scream she was a dead
woman. In that way I succeeded in keeping her from alarming any one who might be within calling
distance, and so made my way toward McClellan’s headquarters.
After we had gone in that way about a mile and a half, I told her that she might ride if she
wished to do so, for I saw she was becoming weak from loss of blood. She was glad to accept the
offer, and I bound up her hand with my handkerchief, gave her my scarf to throw over her head, and
assisted her to the saddle. I marched along beside her, holding tight to the bridle rein all the while.
When we were about a mile from McClellan’s headquarters she fainted, and I caught her as she was
falling from the horse. I laid her by the roadside while I went for some water, which I brought in my
Stereoview of McClellan’s Headquarters at Yorktown, Virginia. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 27
hat, and after bathing her face for some time she recovered.
For the first time since we started I entered into conversation with her, and found that within
the last three weeks she had lost her father, husband and two brothers in the rebel army. They had
all belonged to a company of sharpshooters, and were the first to fall. She had been almost insane
since the intelligence reached her. She said I was the first Yankee that she had seen since the death
of her relatives, the evil one seemed to urge her on to the step she had taken, and if I would not
deliver her up to the military powers, she would go with me and take care of the wounded. She even
proposed to take the oath of allegiance and seemed deeply penitent. “If thy brother (or sister) sin
against thee, and repent, forgive him,” are the words of the Saviour. I tried to follow their sacred
teachings there and then, and told her that I forgave her fully if she was only truly penitent. Her
answer was sobs and tears.
Soon after this conversation we started for camp, she weak and humbled, and I strong and
rejoicing. None ever knew from that day to this the secret of that secesh woman becoming a nurse.
Instead of being taken to General McClellan’s headquarters, she went direct to the hospital, where
Dr. P. dressed her hand, which was causing her extreme pain. The good old surgeon never could
solve the mystery connected with her hand, for we both refused to answer any questions relating to
the wound, except that she was shot by a “Yankee,” which placed the surgeon under obligations to
take care of the patient until she recovered – that is to say as long as it was convenient for him to do
The next day she returned to her house in an
ambulance, accompanied by a hospital steward, and
brought away everything which could be made use of in
the hospitals, and so took up her abode with us. Her
name was Alice M., but we called her Nellie J. She soon
proved the genuineness of her conversion to the Federal
faith by her zeal for the cause which she had so recently
espoused. As soon as she was well enough to act in the
capacity of nurse she commenced in good earnest, and
became one of the most faithful and efficient nurses in
the Army of the Potomac. But that was the first and only
instance of a female rebel changing her sentiments, or
abating one iota in her cruelty or hatred toward the
“Yankees;” and also the only real lady in personal
appearance, education and refinement, that I ever met
among the females of the Peninsula.
* F.F.V. stands for “First Families of Virginia” – a hereditary organization similar
to the Daughters of the American Revolution. FFV members can prove their
descent from one of the original Virginia colonists from the 1600s. These
colonists settled largely at Jamestown and along the James River. Source:
Nursing wounded soldiers wasn’t a typical occupation for
women before the Civil War. By the time World War One
erupted 50 years later, however, female nurses were vital to
the war effort. This poster urges Americans to support the
work of Red Cross nurses. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 28
Primary Sources
Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences
of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields. Pages 300-308.
By S. Emma E. Edmonds. W.S. Williams & Co., Hartford, Conn: 1865.
The following passage from Chapter Twenty-Three describes the battle at Fredericksburg, VA.
“It was now December and the weather was extremely cold, yet the constant rains kept the
roads in the most terrible state imaginable.
On riding along the brink of the river we could see distinctly the rebel batteries frowning on the
heights beyond the city of Fredericksburg, and the rebel sentinels walking their rounds within talking
distance of our own pickets.
On the eleventh the city was shelled by our troops. The pontoon bridges were laid amid
showers of bullets from the sharpshooters of the enemy, who were ensconced in the houses on the
opposite bank. However, the work went steadily on, notwithstanding that two out of every three who
were engaged in laying the bridges were either killed or wounded. But as fast as one fell another
took his place.
Soon it was deemed expedient to take care of those sharpshooters before the bridges could
be finished. Several companies filed into boats and rowed across in a few minutes, the men of the
Seventh Michigan leading the van, and drove the rebels from the houses, killing some and taking
many prisoners.
The bridges were soon completed, the troops marched over and took possession of the city.
Headquarters were established in the principal building, and a church and other large buildings were
appropriated for hospital purposes.
The following is an extract from
my journal, written on the battlefield
the second day after we crossed the
Battle-Field, Fredericksburg, Va.,
December 13, 1862.
The pontoon bridge at Fredericksburg. Clara Barton also wrote about the effort to dislodge
Confederate sharpshooters who were firing at the pontoniers. Library of Congress.
In consequence of one of General H’s
staff officers being ill I have
volunteered to take his place, and am
now aide-de-camp to General H. I
wish my friends could see me in my
present uniform! This division will
probably charge on the enemy’s works
this afternoon. God grant them
success! While I write the roar of
cannon and musketry is almost
deafening, and the shot and shell are
falling fast on all sides. This may be
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 29
my last entry in this journal. God’s will be done. I commit myself to Him, soul and body.
I must close. General H. has mounted his horse, and says Come --!
Of course it is not for me to say whose fault it was in sacrificing those thousands of noble lives
which fell upon that disastrous field, or in charging again and again upon those terrible stone walls
and fortifications, after being repulsed every time with more than half their number lying on the
ground. The brave men, nothing daunted by their thinned ranks, advanced more fiercely on the foe –
Plunged in the battery’s smoke,
Fiercely the line they broke;
Strong was the saber stroke,
Making an army reel.
But when it was proved to a demonstration that it was morally impossible to take and retain
those heights, in consequence of the natural advantage of position which the rebels occupied, and
still would occupy if they should fall back – whose fault was it that the attempt was made time after
time, until the field was literally piled with dead and ran with blood? We may truly say of the brave
soldiers thus sacrificed –
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs but to do and die.
….During the progress of that battle I saw many strange sights – although I had been in many
a fierce battle before. I never saw, till then, a man deliberately shoot himself, with his own pistol, in
order to save the rebels the satisfaction of doing so, as it would seem.
As one brigade was ordered into line of battle, I saw an officer take out his pistol and shoot
himself through the side – not mortally, I am sorry to say, but just sufficient to unfit him for duty; so he
was carried to the rear – he protesting that it was done by accident.
Another officer I saw there, a young and handsome lieutenant, disgrace his shoulder-straps by
showing the white feather at the very moment when he was most needed.
I rode three miles with General H.
to General Franklin’s headquarters, the
second night we were at Fredericksburg,
and of all the nights that I can recall to
mind that was the darkest. On our way
we had numerous ditches to leap, various
ravines to cross, and mountains to climb,
which can be better imagined than
described. It was not only once or twice
that horse and rider went tumbling into
chasms head first, but frequently.
As we passed along, we stopped at
the headquarters of General Bayard
(General of Cavalry) a few minutes –
found him enjoying a cup of coffee under
a large tree, which constituted his
headquarters. We called again when we
Sketch from London Illustrated Times showing a soldier being drummed out of
camp. This punishment could be used with cowards. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 30
returned, but he was cold in death, having been struck by a stray shot, and died in short time. He
was killed just where we had left him, under the tree…
On going to the Church hospital in search of Doctor E., I saw an immense shell which had
been sent through the building and fell on the floor, in the centre of those wounded and dying men
who had just been carried off the field, and placed there for safety. But strange to say, it did not burst
or injure any one, and was carried out and laid beside the mangled limbs which had been amputated
in consequence of contact with just such instruments of death….
But among all the dead and wounded, I saw none who touched my heart so much as one
beautiful boy, severely wounded; he was scarcely more than a child, and certainly a very attractive
one. Some one writes the following, after he was sent to a hospital:
“Among the many brave, uncomplaining fellows who were brought up to the
hospital from the battle of Fredericksburg, was a bright-eyed and intelligent youth,
sixteen years old, who belonged to a northern regiment. He appeared more
affectionate and tender, more refined and thoughtful than many of his comrades and
attracted a good deal of attention from the attendants and visitors. Manifestly the pet of
some household which he had left, perhaps, in spite of entreaty and tears. He
expressed an anxious longing for the arrival of his mother, who was expected, having
been informed that he was mortally wounded, and failing fast. Ere she arrived,
however, he died. But before the end, almost his last act of consciousness was the
thought that she had really come; for, as a lady sat by his pillow and wiped the deathdews from his brow, just as his sight was failing, he rallied a little, like an expiring taper
in its socket, looked up longingly and joyfully, and in tones that drew tears from every
eye whispered audibly, ‘Is that mother?’ Then drawing her toward him with all his feeble
power, he nestled his head in her arms, like a sleeping child, and thus died, with the
sweet word, ‘Mother,’ on his lips”
A council of war was held by our generals, and the conclusion arrived at that the enterprise
should be abandoned, and that the army should recross the Rappahannock under cover of darkness.
Everything was conducted in the most quiet manner; so quiet, indeed, that the enemy never
suspected the movement, and
the retreat was accomplished,
and the bridges partially
removed, before the fact was
Gallant Charge of General Humphrey’s Division” by Alfred Waud. Library of Congress.
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 31
Primary Sources
Letter from S. Emma E. Seelye (Edmonds) to a “Mr. Meddenburn” requesting an increase in pension.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
La Porte, Texas.
Sept. 24, 1896
Mr. Meddenburn
Dear Sir:
Your favor of fifth inst. came duly to hand, and in replying I can but reiterate my former
statements; as it is simply impossible for me to obtain testimony from “eye witnesses” to the injuries
which I received when thrown from the mule, as formerly stated. I was entirely alone, there was not a
soul within miles of me, as far as I know, when the accident occurred.
I now make this statement under oath, that at the time of said accident to my left side and left
lower limb, I was occupying a position of trust and responsibility and that I was then the bearer of mail
and important documents to troops who were then in line of battle near Centerville, and was making
every effort in my power to reach them before they became engaged in action.
I tried to save time by taking short cuts across fields, etc., and after overcoming many
obstacles, leaping fences and ditches without much difficulty, I attempted to cross a very wide ditch,
but instead of leaping across it – the mule tumbled headlong into it: throwing me with such force as to
render me helpless – then falling on me almost crushed the life out of me. While in that condition,
unable to get out of his way, I was trampled upon by the mule in his frantic struggle to extricate
himself – which was difficult, the mud being deep in the bottom of the ditch.
How long I remained in that condition I do not know. The first I remember was the booming of
cannon – then the thought flashed across my brain “The Mail! The Mail!” With almost superhuman
effort I scrambled to my feet, but found I had no use of my left leg – I felt sure it was broken, and the
intense pain in my left side and breast, made one feel sick and faint. I looked around and saw the
mule standing a few rods distant, patiently waiting for me - with saddle and mailbags hanging
underneath him, covered with mud. Slowly and painfully I made my way to him, and at once set
about re-adjusting the saddle and mail bags – but how to get on the mule’s back was the question,
but after many exhausting and ineffectual efforts to remount, I bethought me of a long rope halter
round his neck, of which I made a ladder, and fastened it to the pummel of the saddle. On that ladder
I crawled up, little by little, until I reached the stirrup, and once more got into the saddle. I then
started for the battlefield with the utmost speed that I could endure, and after extreme suffering
reached Headquarters, and delivered the mail, etc. But I made not report of the injuries received,
except to state that the mule fell down with me, and hurt my leg: But when the battle was over and the
troops went into camp, I was obliged to ask Doctor Vickery for some soothing lotion for my wounds.
Thus, you see, being miles away from any Company and Regiment with surgeons no
comrades could give testimony as “eye witnesses” or to the extent of the injuries which I received –
especially as I took the utmost pains to conceal the facts in the case.
Had I been what I represented myself to be, I should have gone to the hospital and had the
surgeon make an examination of my injuries, and placed myself in his hands for medical treatment –
and saved years of suffering. But being a woman I felt compelled to suffer in silence and endure it
the best I could, in order to escape detection of my sex. I would rather have been shot dead, than to
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 32
have been known to be a woman
and sent away from the Army
under guard as a Criminal.
I had received severe
internal injuries in the accident
above referred to, which caused
frequent hemorrhage of the lungs
– had I reported that fact alone
and applied for medical
treatment, the very first step
would have been an examination
of my lungs, which to me simply
meant dismissal from the service.
Now, Mr. Meddenburn,
how can I have the cheek to ask
men to swear to that which they
know so little about? And after a lapse of thirty five years, no doubt, have forgotten what little they did
know about it – I can not do it! I know my comrades would gladly help me, if they could, but they
cannot do more than state that I was thrown from a mule and hurt while carrying mail.
Sarah Emma Edmonds. Images: Archives of Michigan
Doctor Vickery’s testimony is the very best that I could expect under such peculiar
circumstances. He was the only one who had reason to believe that I was seriously hurt apart from
my lameness – and it was through getting medicine from him, that he knew it, for I had to get liniment,
plasters, and divers powders from him to relieve the pain and make me sleep. And his knowledge of
a hemorrhage from my lungs was purely accidental. It was during a review of our troops, and the
Hospital Corps ran up a hill to get a better view of the performance, and, I, to make myself smart as
the rest, started to go up with them, but before I got halfway up, the hemorrhage commenced. I put
my handkerchief over my mouth and stepped aside while the boys passed on – but Dr. V. had not left
the hospital with the crowd and came up behind me, and found me in that condition.
In your first letter to me nearly four years ago, you stated that I was not receiving nearly as
high a rate of pension as the law allowed me. That I should, at least, receive thirty dollars per month.
Since then my disabilities have increased four fold. I am almost sixty years of age, am not able to
work, a part of m left side is becoming paralyzed, my left lower limb is most of the time so swollen and
painful that I have to keep it bandaged from the ankle to the knee – and I have not worn a shoe,
proper, on my left foot for over two years. I am never free from rheumatism, sometimes in bed for
weeks, not able to turn over.
The pension which I receive is not sufficient to pay my doctor bills, and a person to wait on me. I do
not own a foot of land on God’s earth - nor a hoof to shelter me.
I enclose a true copy of a letter from the Publisher of the “Nurse & Spy” to show you how freely I
spent my money for the government in its time of need – should I expect less liberality in my time of
Very Respectfully
S. Emma E. Seelye
You may read another of Edmonds’ letters regarding her accident at the Clarke Historical Society web site:
Civil War Preservation Trust Gifted Curriculum: Character and Leadership during the Civil War * * Edmonds 33