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This week I'd like to start a series on Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman who served as a man in Company F, 2ndMichigan Volunteer Regiment. If you remember from last week this is the same regiment that Annie Etheridge served with. However, Sarah was different from Annie, in that she disguised herself as a man and served in several capacities. One, she was a soldier, two she was a spy and three she was a nurse. But before we get into the different roles she played I'd like to tell you a little about Sarah's childhood and what brought her to enlist in the Michigan unit as a man.


Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in December, 1841. She was the youngest of the six children, only one of which was a boy, of Isaac and Elizabeth Edmonson. The family name changed several times and finally became Edmonds.

Isaac was a farmer struggling to make ends meet. The girls were forced to work as farm hands since their brother was sickly. They dressed as boys and worked as hard as any boy would. Their father, regretted not having more sons and because of this drove the girls probably harder than he would have boys. Sarah, wanting to please him, did everything she could to "outwork, outshoot, and outride any boy he had every known." She learned to hunt and by doing so became an expert marksman. She also learned to swim, row a boat and even build a fire in the rain. Little did she know these skills would serve her well in the future.

Sarah was devoted to her mother and through this devotion she learned the gentler skills of nursing. Her recollections in later years are interesting. During an interview reported in the Lansing State Republican, June 19-26, 1900, she said:

I think I was born into this world with some dormant antagonism toward man. I hope I have outgrown it measurably, but my infant soul was impressed with a sense of my mother's wrongs before I ever saw the light".In our family the women were not sheltered but enslaved; hence I naturally grew up to think of man as the implacable foe of my sex.

Additional photographs of Sara Edmonds.

Understandably, Sarah wanted to be free but it didn't look promising to the then child. At 13, Sarah was given a copy of a book called, Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, A Tale of the Revolution. Not wanting her father to know about it, she read the book while she was in the fields supposedly planting and as she read she resolved she would never be a slave. She was so ecstatic when she read that Fanny cut her hair and dressed as a man she let out a joyous shout. From that time on Emma never stopped planning her escape even though it didn't come to fruition until years later.

Sometime during the mid-1850's Emma's father promised her hand in marriage to an old farmer in the same neighborhood. She obeyed her father and became engaged but "while the preparations were going on for the wedding, one starless night I most unceremoniously left for parts unknown." Supposedly, her mother made the plans for her escape by arranging for Sarah to serve as an apprentice to the owner of a millinery shop in Salisbury.

By 1858, Sarah and a friend ran their own millinery business in Monkton. That same year her mother sent word that Sarah's father knew of her whereabouts and Sarah, fearing being caught and losing her independence, made a monumental decision. She had to get away! She cut her hair, put on male clothing and became Franklin Thompson. She moved to St. John, New Brunswick and began her life as a man.

Now that she had made this decision she needed to find a way to support herself. Like most people she checked the want ads so to speak and found a job selling Bibles in New Brunswick, avoiding Monkton. She found out that she was readily accepted as a male and became a well known bookseller, never to be outsold. The success enabled her to buy good clothes and to drive a fine horse and buggy.

After about a year she became homesick and decided to pay her mother a visit. She presented herself as Franklin Thompson and was kindly received and invited to stay for dinner. During the course of the visit her mother told her about the loss of her dear daughter. "I sat there and listened and talked for an hour to the mother that bore me, and she never knew that I was her child. Was that not a complete disguise?"

Her father wasn't home and none of the other members of the family recognized her. Sarah found this dinner the hardest ever to eat. She couldn't swallow the food and finally just sat with her crossed arms watching her family. But the final straw was when her mother asked her sister, "don't you think this young man looks like your poor sister?" With that Sarah knelt beside her mother and said, "Mother, dear, don't you know me?" Her mother found it very hard to believe it was really Sarah but when Sarah showed the scar where a mole once was her mother finally allowed herself to believe that it was indeed her daughter. After a while longer she left to return to her new life.

Soon after the visit, Sarah lost everything she had except for a Bible. "I sold the Bible for $5, and with that in my pocket I started for the United States, in mid-winter snow, three feet deep in New Brunswick." Sarah hiked almost the entire distance to Hartford, Connecticut, a distance of about 450 miles.

Oh! I could tell you a tale of suffering and hardships and weariness endured on that journey that no experience of mine in the army ever equaled. I reached Hartford in a most forlorn condition. A stranger in a strange country--a fit subject for a hospital--without money and without friends.

Sarah scrounged the best she could and made herself presentable in order ask for employment at Hurlburt and Company publishers. She explained they would have to take her on faith and they were more than willing to do this. By the next day she was gainfully employed, with an expense account, selling books in Nova Scotia. She spent ten months there, February through November, earning $900. After enjoying success once again, she decided to "go west and grow up with the country" as Horace Greeley advised.

"But," she said, "before I had time to grow up much the war broke out and I became a soldier."

Sarah went as far as Michigan and lived with several families. In Flint she became friends with a member of the Flint Union Greys, a volunteer militia company that had been organized in 1857. On March 16, 1861, the governor approved an act "to accept and muster into the military service of the state" two regiments of militia, ten companies each. The thought was that these regiments could be transferred over to Federal service in case of war. Unfortunately funds weren't provided to support these regiments.

In April, 1861, with the start of the Civil War and President Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers to serve in the Defenses of Washington, patriotism flourished. Since the state government couldn't fund a regiment, the citizens raised the money through private contributions.

For whatever reason, Sarah Emma Edmonds enlisted in the Flint Union Greys on April 17, 1861 as Franklin Thompson. During an interview after the war, Sarah described her feelings at the time of enlistment as thus:

[I] was present when the first troops bade farewell to home and friends and marched to their place of rendezvous at Detroit, Michigan. It was while witnessing the anguish of that first parting that I became convinced that I, too, had a duty to perform in the sacred cause of Truth and Freedom.

I spent days and nights of anxious thought in deciding in what capacity I should try to serve the Union cause; and during all my deliberations this fact was borne in upon me, viz: That I could best serve the interests of the Union cause in male attire--could better perform the necessary duties for sick and wounded men, and with less embarrassment to them and to myself as a man than as a woman.

I had no other motive in enlisting than love to God, and love for suffering humanity. 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".I went with no other ambition than to nurse the sick and care for the wounded. I had inherited from my mother a rare gift of nursing, and when not too weary or exhausted, there was a magnetic power in my hands to soothe the delirium.

On April 18th, the members of the Flint Union Greys voted to become a volunteer company for Federal service. The first volunteer infantry regiment organized in Michigan became official on April 24thinitially as a three months regiment. But that was changed to a three year regiment on June 28th.

On April 25th, the second volunteer regiment was formed and it was to this regiment the Flint Greys were assigned. The 2ndMichigan Volunteer Regiment was officially mustered in on May 25, 1861 at Fort Wayne, Detroit with Colonel Israel B. Richardson commanding. The Greys were designated as Company F and after a short training period left for Washington, D.C. on June 6thto serve in the Defenses of Washington.

After last week's story I have to wonder if Emma ever met Annie Etheridge. They were in the same regiment and would have left at the same time for Washington and would have been in the same battles. What an interesting thing that would be.

In the coming weeks we'll see how Sarah Edmonds/Franklin Thompson served the Union.

Hall, Richard. "Patriots in Disguise Women Warriors of the Civil War" New York, Paragon House, 1993.

(Part II)

© 2006 Winifred Ledoux