Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye is one of two most fully documented of all the women combatants. A Canadian by birth, she left home after her abusive father attempted to force her into marrying a man she did not want. She worked for a time in New Brunswick selling bibles. Afraid of being found by her father, she fled to the U.S. in 1856 and settled in Flint, Michigan.
Offended by the idea of slavery, when the first call for volunteers came from President Lincoln, Sarah enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as Franklin Edmonds on May 25, 1861, and was given the rank of Private. She was assigned as a male nurse at the field hospital of the 2nd Michigan Volunteers. In her own words, she "went to war with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded."
Her regiment participated in the Pennsylvania campaign and the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Antietam. Sarah wrote about her experiences at the First Battle of Bull Run:
“Our surgeons began to prepare for the coming battle, by appropriating several buildings and fitting them up for the wounded - among others the stone church at Centreville - a church which many a soldier will remember, as long as memory lasts.
The first man I saw killed was a gunner. A shell had burst in the midst of the battery, killing one and wounding three men and two horses. Now the battle began to rage with terrible fury. Nothing could be heard save the thunder of artillery, the clash of steel, and the continuous roar of musketry.
I was sent off to Centreville, a distance of seven miles, for a fresh supply of brandy, lint, etc. When I returned, the field was literally strewn with wounded, dead, and dying. Men tossing their arms wildly calling for help; there they lie bleeding, torn and mangled; legs, arms and bodies are crushed and broken as if smitten by thunderbolts; the ground is crimson with blood. From Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields, by S. Emma E. Edmonds.”
Due to the execution of a Union agent in Richmond, word was put out that General McClellan was looking for a spy to infiltrate the Confederacy. Private Thompson promptly volunteered and learned all she could on weapons, tactics, local geography and military personnel. She easily impressed the staff and was given the position.
Her first disguise for entering the Confederacy was as a black man. With the assistance of the wife of the local chaplain, the only person who knew her true identity, she used silver nitrate to darken her skin to the point that the doctor she worked for in the hospital didn't recognize her. She wore men's clothing and a black minstrel wig and departed on her first mission as Cuff. She easily infiltrated the local Negro population as a slave and was assigned to work on the ramparts being built to counter McClellan. After her first day, her hands were so blistered she changed jobs with a fellow slave and worked in the kitchen. She collected information on the morale of the troops, the size of the army and gun placements. She returned to the Union army, where her information was well received by McClellan, and she returned to duty as a male nurse.
After two months, she was once again asked to go behind enemy lines. This time she went as a fat Irish peddler woman with the name of Bridget O'Shea. She easily entered the Confederate camps by selling her wares. She was shot in the arm, but managed to stay on her horse and return with valuable information. Rather than return to the army as a man, she decided to serve as a female nurse at a Washington, DC hospital for wounded soldiers run by the U.S. Christian Commission.
She went again at the end of 1862, this time as a young man with Southern sympathies by the name of Charles Mayberry, her mission was to identify the Southern spy network in Louisville, Kentucky. She succeeded again, this time just in time for the battle of Vicksburg.
Sarah went back to caring for the sick as a male nurse and contracted malaria on April 19, 1863. Afraid she'd be revealed as a woman at a military hospital, she left the army and checked herself into a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois as a woman. Once recovered, she rejoined her unit and discovered she had been listed as a deserter.
After the war, using the pen name S.E. Edmonds, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It was widely popular, selling in excess of 175,000 copies. Sarah gave all profits from the book to the U.S. War Relief Fund and wrote, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay home and weep."
Sarah returned to Canada where she married Linus H. Seelye in 1867 and raised three children, all of whom died young. They returned to the U.S., adopted two boys and moved around frequently over the years; going to Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana and Kansas.
In 1882, Sarah was living in Fort Scott, Kansas when she attempted to get affidavits from her old army comrades in order to receive a veteran's pension from the government. She also worked very hard to have her records cleared of the desertion charges. Her former captain wrote on her behalf: "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."
On July 5, 1884, a special act of Congress granted Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Frank Thompson, an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus and a veteran's pension of $12.00 a month. A letter from the Secretary of War, dated in June of that year, recognized her as "a female solider who… served as a private… rendering faithful service in the ranks."
That year, she attended an army reunion in 1884, and shocked her fellow veterans when they realized that Frank Thompson was indeed a woman. Many were amazed at the courage and strength this woman had displayed during the war.
In 1897, Sarah joined the McClellan Post and became a member of the Grand Army of the Republic - the only woman ever admitted. She lived the rest of her life in La Porte, Texas where she died at the age of 56 of malaria on September 5, 1898. She was buried with full military honors in the Grand Army of the Republic section of Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas, the only woman buried there. Her tombstone reads: "Emma E. Seelye - Army Nurse."
In her own words, Sarah said of her adventures, "I am naturally fond of adventure, a little ambitious, and a good deal romantic - but patriotism was the true secret of my success."