A Woman to Know: Sarah Edmonds

The women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men. — historian Bonnie Tsui

The women seemed honestly to want to fight in the war for the same reasons as men. — historian Bonnie Tsui

(image via the National Archives)

When she ran away from home at age 16, Sarah Edmondson first bought pants and shirts to disguise herself as a man. This was pre-Civil War America, and traveling alone as a woman was dangerous and, in some states, even illegal. In 1861, Sarah, then disguising herself as “Frank Thompson,” took a job as a traveling Bible salesman. She eventually settled down in Flint, Michigan, still hiding from her family back home.

That same year, Sarah enlisted with the Michigan infantry, eventually fighting in the Battle of Bull Run and even running spy missions in Confederate territory. She told her superiors she had no problem dressing as a woman to go undercover in Southern households; but at some point in 1863, her secret must have been compromised. She deserted the Union army and moved to Kentucky.

Then, in Kentucky, Sarah again chose a new name — this time, “Sarah Edmonds.” She couldn’t stay away from the front lines of the war, though, and signed up to work as a battlefield nurse. In 1865, just as the war ended, she anonymously published a hyper-scandalous memoir, “Soldier, Nurse and Spy.” The book hit the top of the best-seller’s list, eventually setting Sarah up for a later career traveling and speaking about her experiences.

In 1867, she again changed her name, this time after getting married and moving to Kansas. This time going by “S.E. Seelye,” she reached out to former Union Army colleagues, asking them to advocate on her behalf so she could receive a pension befitting her veteran status. In 1886, she succeeded, finally erasing her charge of desertion and receiving her $12 a month, as was her soldier’s due. When she died in 1898, she was buried in the veterans’ graveyard, complete with full army honors.

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