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Emma Edmonds, Nurse and Spy for the Union Army

by Lois June Wickstrom


The Confederate Army Captain handed Emma a rifle. "What’s your name, boy?" he asked.

"Mah name’s Cuff," replied Emma.

"Well now, Cuff," said the Captain. "You guard this post and shoot anything that moves. If you fall asleep, I’ll shoot you." Emma took the gun. "Yes, suh," she said.

Emma breathed a sigh of relief. She’d been hoping to sneak or bribe her way past one of the guards. Now she was a guard. She had disguised herself as a black slave man to sneak behind Confederate Army lines without raising suspicion. Southern soldiers were used to black slaves and never paid any attention to them.

As soon as night fell, Emma took her new rifle and sneaked back to the Union camp. "Good work, Frank," said General McClellan when she gave him a map showing the locations of Confederate cannons and look-out posts. "Soon, we’ll capture Yorktown."

As an Army nurse, Emma had her own sleeping quarters. The regular soldiers had to sleep in the barracks, all together. Once she was in her private room, Emma took off her minstrel-show wig that gave her curly black hair. She took off the chest binding that made her look like a man. And she scrubbed herself with a brush to clean off the dirt from her hard work hauling rocks in the Confederate camp. But the silver nitrate she had used to dye her skin dark brown would just have to wear off. Nobody in the Union Army knew Emma was a woman. They thought she was a slim quiet man named Franklin Thompson.

Emma ran away to America from Canada when her father wanted to marry her to a man she didn’t like. She had grown up on a farm and knew how to work like a man, but in America, in 1865, nobody hired women to do men’s work. She had a slim boyish figure. She dressed as a man and sold books for a while. When the war between the states broke out, she supported the North. She cut her hair, and went to the enlistment office where she signed her name Franklin Thompson. The Army needed men.

After General McClellan’s army captured Yorktown, he needed Emma to spy again, so he could capture Richmond. This time she tied a pillow around her waist, shook flour in her hair, and borrowed a dress from the chaplain’s wife to become the elderly Irish peddler woman, Bridget O’Shea. She packed up a basket of soap, tea, and cornbread to sell and took the boat downstream into Confederate territory.

She found shelter in an abandoned house, started a fire in the fireplace, set some tea to boiling and was about to relax when she heard groaning from the next room. A Confederate soldier lay burning up with typhoid fever. Emma didn’t care which side somebody was on, if he was sick. She gave the boy some of her tea and cornbread. The boy knew he was dying. He gave Bridget his gold watch and asked her to deliver it to Major McKee of the Confederate Army, stationed in Richmond. Emma stayed with him until he died.

When she showed the boy’s watch, at the Confederate camp, the guards quickly let her in.

While she waited to talk with the Major, Bridget listened to conversations and learned Confederate plans. When Major McKee finally met with her, he gave her a horse to ride. Bridget led him and several of his men to give the dead soldier a proper burial.

While the soldiers went into the farm house, they asked Bridget to stand guard at the road.

Bridget waited until they were all in the house. Then she rode her new horse north as fast as she could. When she neared the Union camp, she removed her bonnet and waved it to attract the attention of the guards. A short while later, she gave General McClellan the information he needed to successfully attack Richmond.

In all, Emma spent two years as a man in the Union Army. She made 11 trips behind enemy lines in various disguises. After the war, she married a childhood friend, settled in Kansas, and had three sons. One of them joined the Army, "just like Mama did."



Gansler, Laura Leedy, The Mysterious Private Thompson, The Double Life of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Soldier, Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2005.

Reit, Seymour, Behind Rebel Lines, The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy, Gulliver Books, a division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Edmonds, Sarah Emma, Soldier Nurse and Spy, A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army, Northern Illinois University Press, 1999.


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