The Mulan of the Civil War: Sarah Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds was the Canadian version of Mulan or, perhaps more apt, the Canadian Deborah Sampson. To read the story of the woman who disguised herself as a man to help make Thomas Paine’s dream of America come true, read my first article about a woman masquerading as a man. Or you can stay here and read the equally amazing story of a Canadian abolitionist who did more than just disguise herself as a man to help the Union defeat the racists who populated the Confederacy. The story of Sarah Edmonds is one that cries out for a movie; let’s just hope they don’t cast Hilary Swank as a mannish-looking woman once again or she might win a third Oscar.

Sarah Edmonds was born in New Brunswick in 1841 or 1842. Her father wanted a boy and seems to not have been endowed with that peculiarly Canadian trait of politeness in the face of everything. To wit: Sarah’s dad treated his daughter crappily enough for the young girl to start acting and behaving like the son her father so desperately hoped she would be. As was often the case in the 1800s, Sarah found herself at unsatisfying end of an arranged marriage. Perhaps it was the thought of being held a slave in a marriage she did not want to a man she did not love that stimulated her abolitionist fever. At any rate, she was just barely a teenager when she fled Canada and wound up in that most iconoclastic of New England states: Rhode Island.

She took on the role of a young boy and was accepted into the small town as one Franklin Thompson. As Sarah Edmonds, she would never have been able to procure the job of traveling Bible tract salesman, but Frank had little trouble. A transfer to Flint, Michigan in 1860 set Sarah up for what would become perhaps one of the three most amazing and interesting personalities of the Civil War. Heck, Sarah’s story might well be the single most interesting.

Franklin Thompson joined that honest-to-good Michigan militia and become a nurse in the Second Michigan Infantry. Sarah appeared in Washington D.C. just in time for the Battle of Bull Run. The next two years were relatively uneventful except in the sense that she was a female masquerading as a male nurse in the biggest bloodbath in America’s history. So far.

It was when Sarah Edmonds joined up with the least of the Union’s generals, George B. McClellan, that the story changes significantly. From this point until the end of the war, the story of Sarah Edmonds transforms into one of those amazing sagas that people say other people would never believe if it were a movie. Still purporting to be the very male Private Thompson, she volunteered to become a spy. An undercover spy. One of her first assignments resulted in Sarah—as Franklin Thompson—using burned cork to paint her skin black so that she could go undercover as a black man. So amazing was the alteration that she became a slave. Following a literally blistering day as a field hand, the man named Cuff was brought into the house and placed in charge kitchen duties. While appearing to be a male slave, Sarah learned several things, but one was especially important. Sarah Edmonds learned about something called Quaker Guns.

The importance of this intelligence that Edmonds would bring back to General McClellan a few days later cannot possibly be underestimated. Quaker Guns, you see, was the name given to guns that were not really guns at all. The Confederacy had been hoodwinking McClellan and other generals by painting wooden logs black to make them look like real guns. Not long after receiving the information from Sarah Edmonds, Union forces won a major battle at Yorktown.

The extraordinary life of Sarah Edmonds would only get more cinematic. Among her undercover disguises was Bridget O’Shea who was an overweight peddler who moved easily through Confederate army camps, a black mammy and a man named Charles Mayberry who broke the Confederate spy ring in Louisville. There is no telling how many other disguises she might have slipped into had she not been stricken with a case of malaria.

Shedding her Private Thompson persona, she entered a hospital in Illinois to be treated for her illness. All the while she planned on heading back to life as Private Thompson and picking up where her career had left off. There was just one fly in the ointment.

Private Franklin Thompson was listed as a deserted from the Union army.

The gig was up for Priv. Thompson and Sarah Edmonds became the face she constantly showed to the world. Ever the abolitionist, she went back to work as a female nurse until the war ended. A year later found Sarah back in Canada where she met and fell in love with Linus Seelye. The couple moved to Ohio and raised three sons. The specter of Private Thompson living forever as a deserted continued to gnaw at her sense and sensibility, however. She could not let it go and so she petitioned the War Department for restitution of Thompson’s reputation.

The House of Representatives accepted her story and the move was on to get all of Congress to vote on retroactively giving Private Thompson an honorable discharge. More than that, the Congress then voted to provide Sarah with a bonus and a monthly pension. She also became the only female member accepted as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization where the only requirement for entry was being a Union veteran.