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Sarah Emma Edmonds: Civil War Hero

A House Divided Against Itself

In December of 1941, an immigrant-farmer in New Brunswick, Canada was waiting for his wife to deliver another baby.  The area where they lived was sparsely-populated, and Isaac Edmonson did not have the financial resources to bring in a lot of help to the farm.  After his wife Elizabeth gave birth to four girls, and a boy who was epileptic (a condition that was not defined at the time), Isaac was desperate to have a healthy boy who could grow up to put in the physically demanding labor that was needed to keep the farm operational (Bennett, 2020).

When Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonson was born, she was a great disappointment to her father.  Isaac was angry, bitter, and abusive towards all of the women in the family.  With a temper that was known to escalate at a moment’s notice, he left his youngest daughter constantly nervous; trying to please the patriarch in an effort to diffuse situations.  This is included often pretending that she was a boy around her abusive father (Bennett, 2020).  

She learned a number of skills that have traditionally been thought of as being “manly.”  Riding horses, shooting riffles, and swimming were just a few of the physical activities at which she excelled.  Sarah also admired the fictional heroine, Fanny Campbell.  In the book that bears her name, Fanny was a teenage girl.  Much like Sarah would often pretend she was a member of the opposite sex, Fanny disguised herself as a man in this story to rescue her lover from pirates (Bennett, 2020).

Everything came to a head for Sarah, when Isaac decided to arrange a marriage for his youngest child.  For her betrothed, Isaac selected a much older man, who also had a track-record of abusive behavior.  This was too much for Sarah, and for her mother.  Elizabeth assisted in helping her own child escape (Bennett, 2020).

In an effort to hide from her abuser, she started calling herself Emma Edmonds, and began working in a shop that made women’s hats.  Emma succeeded in this endeavor, and was co-owner of the establishment quickly.  Her story then took a turn that is familiar to so many survivors of abuse.  She escaped; found personal success; and then her abuser caught up with her.  Isaac Edmonson found his daughter living in another town, and under another name.  It was at that point that Emma tried to make her own emancipation from abuse, and escaped to a country having its own battle around emancipation (Bennett, 2020).

Franklin Thompson

Franklin Flint Thompson was born at the age of twenty-one.  After a brief stint as a Bible salesman, Franklin was inspired by newly-elected U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (Bennett, 2020).

Emma later said, “I felt called to go and do what I could for the defense of the right; if I could not fight, I could take the place of someone who could, and thus add one more soldier to the ranks (Bennett, 2020)”.

Frank joined the Union Army on May 25th of 1961, and served until 1863.  Under her alter-ego, she served as a male nurse in the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, the First Battle of Bullrun, the Siege of Yorktown, and Antietam.  It was during her time, with General McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign, that it is believed she first was approached about conducting espionage missions (Bennett, 2020).

Malaria was what ended her masquerade.  She knew that her cover would be blown if she were to be examined by military physicians, so she requested a furlough.  When she never returned, she was charged with desertion (Bennett, 2020).

This, however, did not stop her service to the cause.  She was an ardent Unionist.  As a member of the Christian Commission, she took back her name of Emma Edmonds, and served as a female nurse through the end of the war.

Freedom

Over fifty-thousand Canadians moved south to fight in the U.S. Civil War.  Most of them, like Franklin Flint Thompson, joined up with the Union to end the “peculiar institution” of slavery.  In many ways, Emma Edmonds’ used her own emancipation to aid in the emancipation of millions of African-Americans in bondage (Derreck, 2017).

According to her own words, “I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward men – my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother’s endured wrongs – and I probably drew from her breast with my daily food my love of independence and my hatred of male tyranny (Derreck, 2017).”

Seemingly, life got a lot better for Emma after the war.  She released the book Nurse and Spy in the Union Army in 1865.  Many of her comrades in the Army came to her defense, and fought to have Frank Thompson’s desertion charges revoked, and have the pension earned be awarded to Edmonds.  She is also the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic.  After marrying Linus Seelye in 1867, she had three children (Derreck, 2017).  

Survivor Stories


Emma Edmonds lived in a time in which she felt the persona of a man was the only way to escape the abuse she was suffering at the hands of her father.  Undoubtably, had she stayed, more abuse would have been her life’s destiny in her arranged marriage.  The combination of her own fortitude and a loving mother, willing to risk her own safety, helped Emma find a life that was better than any she could have imagined in her late-teens and early-twenties.

Escaping abuse is never easy.  Modern victims face so many obstacles that would have been foreign to a woman in the 19th Century.  Emma didn’t have to worry about internet-stalking, revenge porn, or GPS tracking on cell phones.  She never got trapped in the arranged marriage, so she never had to deal with divorce or custody hearings.  Still, she was tracked down by her abuser, after starting a new life.  Emma Edmonds felt the only way she could be free was to disguise herself as a man, and fight in the bloodiest war in United States history.  It shows the lengths that it sometimes takes to make a clean break.  It also shows that it can absolutely be worth it.

During her story, there are several instances where she had to think she had lost.  It must have seemed hopeless when her father found her.  She must have been petrified when she got malaria, and had to worry about her secret being discovered.  Even when her fellow soldiers discovered her deception, in the mid-1800s, they accepted her and fought for her to get a pension.  Emma Edmonds shows all survivors that giving up is never the best idea.  Keep moving forward. 

Legacy of a Survivor

This story covers such a small portion of Sarah Emma Edmonds legacy.  The links below are a good start in learning more about this unique, and heroic figure in American history.  Her legacy ranges from writing to war to nursing.  This is a woman who deserves more recognition.  In addition to her book, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, there is a children’s book about her.  Carrie Jones wrote the book, Sarah Emma Edmonds Was a Great Pretender

Links for more information on Sarah Emma Edmonds:

https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/sarah-emma-edmonds
https://www.nps.gov/people/sarah-emma-edmonds.htm
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sarah-Edmonds

References

Bennett, S. (2020), Nursing Across the Ages: Sarah Emma Edmonds, Freebooks.uvu.edu, http://freebooks.uvu.edu/nursing_history/08_Sarah_Emma_Edmonds.php

Derreck, T. (2017), Soldier Girl: The Emma Edmonds Story, Canadian History, https://www.canadashistory.ca/explore/women/soldier-girl-the-emma-edmonds-story

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