When the Civil War divided America and sent many of the country’s men to war, the need arose for women to fulfill the roles otherwise occupied by men. This need took women out of the home, breaking the traditional female role present at the time. They took work in factories, raised funds and supplies on the home front, became army nurses, worked in espionage, and even disguised themselves as men to join the army and fight.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was one such woman to break the mold of female convention during the Civil War. When Emma was 15, her father pledged her hand in marriage to a man more than twice her age whom she had no desire to marry. Her mother helped her escape the marriage and her abusive father, but for fear of being recognized and brought back to her father’s household, Emma cut her hair short and disguised herself as a man. She even took on the name Franklin Thompson to further cement the persona. Because her father was influential and had a far reach, Emma lived as Franklin for many years, donning the disguise whenever she was out in public.
When the Civil War broke out, Emma wanted to show her support for the Union, so she used her disguise to enlist in the army, which only allowed men to fight. She started as a nurse, but soon became a soldier seeing action for the first time at the Battle of Bull Run. After some time as a soldier, Emma got involved in espionage.
On her first mission as a spy, Emma’s task was to cross the lines at Yorktown and inform the Union of the layout and defenses of the camp. To stay under the radar, she donned the persona and dress of a black male slave. Joining a band of slaves, she slipped past the Confederate line, unnoticed, into the South. Soon after her border crossing, Emma was assigned hard labor because others had noticed her lack of work as a slave. Between her long, backbreaking hours, Emma sketched pictures of the Confederate’s defenses and recorded the number and types of weapons she saw around camp. After just one day, the work she was assigned proved too hard for her, so Emma found another slave gracious enough to trade work with her. Instead of building parapets, she was tasked with bringing water to the Confederate soldiers. On her rounds, Emma asked the soldiers about reinforcements and overheard a Confederate spy disclose information on Union camps and force. Emma took her findings straight to General George B. McClellan who congratulated her on the wealth of information she had attained.
Emma continued to spy for the Union, donning various other personas including an Irish peddler and grieving widow, until it became unsafe for her to do so. Still wanting to serve her country, Emma shed her disguise as Franklin Thompson and finished out the Civil War as herself in the role of an army nurse. Because of her bravery and contribution to the Union cause, in 1897 she was one of two women inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s organization for those who served in the Union army. Upon her death the following year, Emma was buried alongside other previous inductees to the Grand Army of the Republic section of Washington Cemetery located in Houston, Texas. In 1901 she was laid to rest again, this time with full military honors paying tribute to her service.
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–Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014.
–Caravantes, Peggy. Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Greensboro: Morgan Reynolds Publishers, 2002.
–Edmonds, Sarah Emma. Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1999.