Sarah Emma Edmonds

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150 Years Ago: Sunday, April 26, 1863

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson April 26, 1863 Source: Library of Congress

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
April 26, 1863
Source: Library of Congress

At a cozy farmhouse in Spotsylvania, Virginia, a photographer from Minnis and Crowell out of Richmond waits for his subject. At first, the subject – C.S.A. Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – declines the request. But after a convincing talk from his wife Anna, Jackson obliges.

He puts on his best Confederate uniform, which was given to him as a present by C.S.A. Major General and cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart, and arranges his own hair, which is unusual for him. He does not wear the old, worn VMI forage cap that he often wears in the field. With his hair curled in ringlets, Jackson sits down on a wooden chair in the downstairs hallway that has been set up for him. He sits very still, but just as the photographer takes the photo a strong wind from an open window blows in Jackson’s face, causing him to frown. The end result is a sternness, which his wife Anna dislikes because it’s not the spirited husband she knows and loves. But Jackson’s troops and others in the Confederate army who will later view the photo love it because they feel it represents who he is as a soldier and commander. Strong, determined, serious in battle. It represents the man who was “standing like a stone wall” against the enemy on the Manassas battlefield (known as Bull Run in the North) in July 1861.

In Bardstown, Kentucky, there is a lot of talk in the 2nd Michigan Infantry about the desertion of their brigade postmaster, Frank Thompson. Word has spread that Frank was not “Frank” at all; the gossip is that Frank is actually a young woman and ran off when her alleged lover, Assistant Adjunct General James Reid, was relieved of duty to take his very sick wife back home to Scotland where doctors believe she will be more prone to recover in her native land. Reid is a young, attractive man who had only recently married his wife Anna. He had originally been a Lieutenant in the 79th New York Highlanders, a primarily Scottish group, but was captured in the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) in July 1861 and spent six months in a Confederate prison near Richmond. In November 1862, after Major General Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, the 79th was combined with the 2nd Michigan. It was there that Reid and Frank Thompson met.

The rumors are somewhat correct. “Frank” is indeed a female, (Sarah) Emma Edmonds. She is not the only female who has successfully enlisted in the army as a male. A few months ago a baby had been born to a corporal in a New Jersey regiment, who went into labor while on duty to the complete shock of her comrades. But Emma’s situation – whose real name only a few in the 2nd Michigan know – hits closer to home for them. While there is evidence that Emma and Reid were close, the nature of their relationship is unknown and Reid always remained devoted to his wife Anna. But the two had spent a lot of time together in his tent, alone; and given that Emma had deserted right when Reid left, it fueled speculation of a romantic relationship.

Though it is possible Reid’s departure played some part in Emma’s decision to leave, she is physically sick and emotionally drained. Her physical health has relapsed from the malaria she had contracted earlier in the year, and she felt that if she stayed in Bardstown that medical personnel would discover her secret. She had requested a medical furlough but was denied; she had no choice but to leave. So the week of April 12 she left Bardstown, by foot, and decided to go west to Cairo, Illinois, one of the bigger cities “nearby” – 230 miles away. On April 19 she saw her alias “Frank Thompson” listed on a desertion list, a crime punishable by death if caught. As she continues to Cairo, sick and in fear of being captured, she makes the decision that she will obtain women’s clothes once in town and return to living the life of “Emma.” She will seek out care and be faced with a decision on how to live her life as a female, something she has not done since she enlisted back in June 1861, almost two years ago.

150 Years Ago: Saturday, December 13, 1862

Today is U.S. First Lady Mary Lincoln’s 44th birthday. But 52 miles south of the city there is no celebration; instead, the day brings the most senseless slaughter that the country has seen to date.

Marye's Heights Today (this would have been open land between the city and this point at the top of the hill)Source: TCWP

Marye’s Heights Today (this would have been open land between the city and this point at the top of the hill)
Source: TCWP

With most of U.S. General Ambrose Burnside’s troops now across the Rappahannock River, the Confederates expect an attack. C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee knows his position is a strong one; most of his men are located on Marye’s Heights, which overlooks the city. The Confederates have a stone wall for protection and the high ground. All they have to do is wait for the Union troops to come to them, which will be no easy task. They have to advance through 200 yards of cannon fire without cover, cross a narrow canal over three small bridges, and then advance against Confederate infantry lined up firing down on them from behind a stone wall. Lee and one of his most trusted Generals, James Longstreet, look to Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, who has been responsible for setting each piece of artillery now aimed at the enemy. Lee believes that artillery will be key in winning this battle. When asked by his superiors for an assessment of their preparedness, Alexander states that “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.

Across the Rappahannock River at his headquarters at Chatham House, Burnside issues his attack orders early in the morning. He calls for an assault against Jackson’s Corp by Major General William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division, after which will follow an advance against Marye’s Heights by Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Right Grand Division. Burnside uses ambiguous and hesitant language in his orders, which may reflect a lack of confidence in his plan or his uncertainty of Lee’s troop positions.

Battle of Fredericksburg MapSource: Library of Congress(Click to Enlarge)

Battle of Fredericksburg Map
Source: Library of Congress
(Click to Enlarge)

Burnside believes that he is only facing part of Lee’s army on the heights behind the city. He plans to use artillery on Stafford Heights to control the battlefield on either side of the river. While Sumner moves towards the heights as a diversion, Burnside will take Franklin’s stronger left wing and have him storm the ridgeline south of the city, taking Lee by surprise. Once the ridgeline is taken, Franklin is to sweep north into the city while Sumner’s wing continues the attack on the heights. The final goal is the same for both Franklin and Sumner: seize Marye’s Heights.

Franklin and his key Major Generals, John F. Reynolds and William “Baldy” Smith, agree that the best way to defeat Lee is to roll up Jackson’s front. They had waited until 3am that morning for instructions, thinking they would move early, but instead they don’t receive a go-ahead until 7:30 a.m. As they read Burnside’s instructions, they find that it is not an approval for an all-out attack. One division “at least” is to seize the heights near Hamilton’s Crossing “if possible”, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. The rest of the command is to be in position for a rapid move up the old Richmond Road towards Maryes Heights, which will only work if Jackson falls back towards the city.

Reynold’s 1st Corps is picked for the drive up the heights with approximately 5,000 men. The privilege of leading the assault goes to the Pennsylvania Reserves, led by Major General George Meade. Reynolds chooses them because he trusts the men and their commander more than anyone else. At 8:30 a.m. Meade leads his three brigades towards Jackson’s position. Jackson’s men put up a difficult fight. At one point Jackson feels his men are losing their position; he orders the “Rebel yell” and his men slam into the exhausted and outnumbered Pennsylvanians. One Union private will later say that “The action was close-handed and men fell like leaves in autumn. It seems miraculous that any of us escaped at all.

Part of the Stone Wall Today (Replica)Source: TCWP

Part of the Stone Wall Today (Replica)
Source: TCWP

Sumner receives similar orders from Burnside, using the same language to send one division “at least” to attack Marye’s Heights. Sumner waits until the fog finally lifts at 10 a.m. and then begins to line up his troops in the city streets. Around noon, the first brigade under Brigadier General Nathan Kimball marches out of the city and towards the heights. As they reach the canal ditch they encounter a bottleneck, which is spanned by partially destroyed bridges established at only three locations. Once they cross, they try as best as they can to reform their lines and march up the muddy slope towards the stone wall. The Confederate artillery and massed musket fire opens up a storm around them once they are within 125 feet of the wall; Kimball is severely wounded and his men suffer 25% casualties. None of them reach the wall. Some start to run away from the fire, but most get on the ground with some attempting to fire at the stone wall but with no impact.

An hour later at 1 p.m., Major General William H. French sends out two additional brigades, and the same thing occurs: the men march out of the city, they bottleneck at the canal, they reform lines and make their way up the muddy slope, only to be fired upon by Confederate shells in every direction. These two brigades suffer 50% casualties.

Thomas Francis MeagherSource: Library of Congress

Thomas Francis Meagher
Source: Library of Congress

Sumner now looks to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and his men. Hancock first sends in Brigadier General Samuel K. Zook, followed by the famed Irish Brigade led by Brigadier General Thomas F. Meagher. Thirty-nine year old Meagher, originally from Ireland, had been the leader of the Young Irelanders in Ireland’s Rebellion of 1848. He had been convicted of sedition and sentenced to death, but instead was transported out of Ireland to Australia. In 1852 Meagher had made his way to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he studied law, worked as a journalist and held traveling lectures on the Irish cause. He had joined the army immediately at the start of the Civil War and encouraged Irish immigrants to support the Union by joining what was eventually his “Irish Brigade,” which has an outstanding reputation. By complete coincidence, Meagher and his men are aimed at attacking an area at the stone wall defended by fellow Irishmen of C.S.A. Colonel Robert McMillan’s 24th Georgia Infantry. One of the Confederates spot the Irish Brigade’s green regimental flags approaching them and cries out “Oh God, what a pity! Here comes Meagher’s fellows.” But McMillan orders his troops to “Give it to them now, boys! Now’s the time! Give it to them!” Meagher’s men come very close to reaching the stone wall but are repulsed; 545 are killed, wounded or missing out of 1,200. One of the men, U.S. Private Josiah Marshall Favill, will later write that:

“Immediately the hill in front was hid from view by a continuous sheet of flame…The rebel infantry poured in a murderous fire while their guns from every available point fired shot and shell and canister. The losses were so tremendous, that before we knew it our momentum was gone, and the charge a failure. I wondered while I lay there how it all came about that these thousands of men in broad daylight were trying their best to kill each other. Just then there was no romance, no glorious pomp, nothing but disgust for the genius who planned so frightful a slaughter.

By 2:15 p.m. one of Burnside’s staff officers wires his boss regarding Franklin’s Left Division, stating that “Meade and Gibbon badly used up…enemy in force and threatening on left…engaged now heavily in front…too late to advance either to left or front.” There are men waiting to be used, but they are never called in to assist. The Pennsylvania Reserves had gone in outnumbered six to one and against a very strong position held by Jackson; they suffer 40% casualties.

Around 2:30 p.m. Burnside orders continued waves of assaults on the Confederates, convinced he can break through. Brigadier Samuel Sturgis’s brigade attacks and are all thrown back with terrible losses. Not a single soldier gets to the stone wall. As Lee watches the slaughter, he turns to Longstreet and says “It is well that war is so horrible, or else we should grow too fond of it.

After more than two hours of fighting, four Union divisions have failed to take the heights; there are already 5,125 casualties. No progress has been made. Rather than reconsider his approach, Burnside continues to order the same path. He sends orders to Franklin to renew his assault on Jackson’s troops and now orders his Center Grand Division led by Major General Joseph Hooker to cross the Rappahannock into the city and take the same path to the heights as the others who have gone before him.

First Hooker personally performs reconnaissance  – something Burnside nor Sumner had done – so he can assess the situation. He returns to Burnside’s headquarters and advises him against the attack. While Burnside and Hooker argue, the Confederates take the time to strengthen their position even more by adding Major General George Pickett’s division and one of Major General John Bell Hood’s brigades to reinforce Marye’s Heights. The Union men still on the field continued to fight or to take cover as best they can, using their dead comrades as shields. Though he had not received orders from Hooker, Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield sends his division over to relieve Sturgis’s men, but they are hit hard by sharpshooter and artillery fire and provide no effective relief to Sturgis.

Section of the original Stone Wall; it was 4 feet high at the time of battleSource: TCWP

Section of the original Stone Wall; it was 4 feet high at the time of battle
Source: TCWP

A soldier in Hancock’s division reports movement in the Confederate lines that lead some to believe that the Confederates might be retreating. Though this seems unlikely, a division of Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys is ordered to attack and capitalize on the situation. Humphreys leads his first brigade on horseback, with his men moving over and around fallen troops with fixed bayonets and unloaded rifles; some of the fallen men clutched at the passing pant legs, urging their comrades not to go forward, causing the brigade to become disorganized in their advance. The charge reaches within 50 yards of the wall before being cut down by concentrated rifle fire.

By 4 p.m., Hooker returns from his meeting with Burnside, unable to convince him to stop the attacks. While Humphreys is still attacking, Hooker reluctantly sends in Brigadier General George W. Getty, but this time focuses on the leftmost portion of Marye’s Heights. They move along an unfinished railroad line and are able to get very close to the Confederate line without detection in the gathering twilight, but eventually they are detected, fired upon and repulsed.

Humphrey's Division Charge "The Last Major Assault"Source: Library of Congress

Humphrey’s Division Charge “The Last Major Assault”
Source: Library of Congress

At 6:30 p.m. it is dark. Franklin never did follow Burnside’s orders for a second attack towards Jackson’s position. Despite strong protests from his generals, especially Winfield Scott Hancock, Burnside orders his reserves to march over the river and attack the stone wall. Humphreys’ men are told the previous attacks have failed because the men stopped to fire their weapons. They advance with unloaded weapons, planning to use only bayonets. As Hooker watches the last assault, he says “I think I’ve lost as many men as my orders required.

Seven Union divisions had been sent in, generally one brigade at a time. There was a total of fourteen individual charges that resulted in 6,000 to 8,000 casualties. Confederates losses at Marye’s Heights total around 1,200. C.S.A. James Longstreet later would write that “The charges had been desperate and bloody, but utterly hopeless.

As the mounted courier/orderly for Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe, Frank Thompson (aka Sarah Emma Edmonds, a female disguised as a male so she could enlist in the Union Army), had been in constant motion and often close to the hottest action during the battle as she spent the day riding up and down the lines carrying messages and relaying orders. The only time in 12 hours that she got off the saddle was to assist an officer of the 79th New York, who lay writhing in agony on the field, having been seized with cramps and spasms and was in extreme pain. Emma provided him with some powerful medicine that got him back on his horse, at his General’s side, within the hour. While many noticed “Frank’s” bravery that day, not everyone was as heroic. Thompson would write that “I never saw, til then, a man deliberately shoot himself, with his own pistol, in order to save the rebels the satisfaction of doing so, as it would seem. As one brigade was ordered into the line of battle, I saw an officer take out his pistol and shoot himself through the side – not mortally, I am sorry to say, but just sufficient enough to unfit him for duty. He was carried to the rear, protesting that it was done by accident.

From behind the Union lines, London Times reporter Francis Charles Lawley witnesses the wholesale bloodletting:

There, in every attitude of death, lying so close to each other that you might step from body to body, lay acres of the Federal dead. Within the town layers of corpses stretched in the balconies of houses as though taking a siesta. More appalling to look at were piles of arms and legs, amputated as soon as their owners had been carried off the field.”

U.S. Corporal Elisha Hunt Rhodes with the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers would later write about what he experienced today:

We slept upon our arms last night and daylight this morning found us in line. The battle began at an early hour and the shot and shell screeched and screamed over our heads. To our right we could see the fight going on for the heights beyond and back of Fredericksburg. General Sumner tried to take the hills but failed. The city was on fire in several places, and the noise was deafening. We could see the long lines of Union troops move up the hill and melt away before the Rebel fire. But we were not idle, although at times there would be a lull in our front and we could watch the fight on the right. At 3pm our Regiment was sent down to the left of the line and ordered to support a Battery. This was no fun for us, for we had to stand the Rebel shells fired at the Battery. Just at dark the firing ceased, but what a scene was before us. The dead and wounded covered the ground in all directions. Ambulances were sent out to pick up the wounded, but the enemy opened fire upon them, and wounded were left to suffer. During the evening if a match was lighted it would bring a shell from the Rebel forts on the hills. At 8pm we were ordered to the rear and our Division rested for the night.

That night “Frank” Thompson rides three miles south from her camp to Franklin’s headquarters to obtain instructions for the morning. Franklin’s house, once owned by Mr. Barnard, has been destroyed from the fighting. Along they way she is haunted by the constant moans from the wounded. The night is bitterly cold, which is causing extreme suffering. Major General Darius Couch would write “as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintery air and on the front line were rolled forward for protection to the living. Frozen men were placed like dumb sentries.” For Emma, this was the darkest night she has witnessed in her military career.

150 Years Ago: Friday, May 31, 1861

Ellen Sherman is packing up her St. Louis home; she and the children are moving back to her father’s home in Lancaster, Ohio. Today is her husband William Tecumseh (Cump) Sherman’s last day as President of the Fifth Street Railroad; he has served just two out the twelve months he had originally agreed to. Though it took some persuasion on the part of Sherman’s brother John and Ellen’s own political-involved Ewing family, Cump had accepted the command of Colonel of the Thirteenth Regular Infantry which he was appointed to on May 14. Though Cump had requested to raise this new Regiment at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, General Winfield Scott had denied the request; he wants Sherman in Washington City. Knowing that Washington is not a safe place for his wife and five children – with a sixth child on the way – Cump had made arrangements with Thomas Ewing, Ellen’s father. Ellen prefers to be as close to her parents as possible, so she is very agreeable to the arrangement.

Also in St. Louis, two Union officers are reacting to two very different letters received from Washington that are dated May 16. U.S. Brigadier General William S. Harney is in shock to learn that he has been relieved of command after only a few weeks. He writes to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, acknowledging that he received the instructions and officially relinquishes command, but at the same time is convinced that President Lincoln could not have approved this action. He believes this is all a mistake and informs Thomas that news from Missouri over the past few weeks was more animated and blown out of proportion than what politicians in Washington may think. Harney believes that things are best left in his capable command, but leaves his fate at the hands of the President.

But one man’s loss is another man’s gain. With Harney’s removal, this now puts Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon in charge. Lyon immediately assumes command of Union troops in Missouri. It’s the position he has been aiming for over the last several months as he recruited volunteers, secured the St. Louis Arsenal and weapons, and captured rebel Camp Jackson, all on his own initiative.

In Washington, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair suspends all mail to the states that have seceded from the Union and closes accounts of secessionist postmasters. All remaining postmasters must take an oath of allegiance to the Union if they wish to retain their positions.

The Confederate government continues to make military appointments now that the government has been moved to Richmond. Today General P.G.T. Beauregard is given command of the “Alexandria Line” which includes all of northern Virginia.

From her home in New Brunswick, Canada, Betsy Edmonds writes a letter to her daughter Sarah Emma Edmonds. Sarah is better known as Private Frank Thompson to her comrades in the Second Michigan Infantry and she is now at Fort Wayne in Detroit after being mustered into service six days ago. Betsy is confused over her daughter’s behavior to pose as a young man and join a war in another country. She’s hoping that her words will reach Sarah and get her to change her course of action:

My dear child:

I take time to write you to let you know that your family is well. I received a letter from you today and I was much displeased. I implore you to give up this ruse and come home at once. This war is not yours, my child. Leave it to the Americans who fight each other, most foolishly, in my opinion.

If you will not leave the war, at least then leave that which causes you the most danger, and which must surely be your most constant trouble–that of seeming to be what you are not. Cast off the Yankee uniform and take back your skirts, Emma. Or if you must stay in this war, at least stay as the woman you are.

I pray daily for your safety. And I pray for the swift resolution to this foolish war which is ripping your adopted country apart.

Your loving mother,

Betsy Edmonds

Betsy closes with a final afterthought, telling her daughter not to bother writing her again until she can sign her “own rightful name” to the letter.

150 Years Ago: Friday, May 17, 1861

Sarah Emma Edmonds – going under the alias of Frank Thompson – had already enlisted for 90 days of military service. Today she makes another commitment, this time to join the Flint Union Greys of the Second Michigan, which is the first three year regiment to assemble in Michigan. Though she is beardless and thin, she manages to pass a glance-over physical examination.

The First Michigan arrives in Washington City and is taken to the White House for review of President Lincoln, led by Lewis Cass. They are the first Western troops to arrive in the capital city.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis signs a bill to bring North Carolina into the Confederacy if its citizens vote to secede and support the Confederate Constitution. A convention is scheduled to be held in North Carolina in three days.

A Proclamation for Neutrality by Principal Chief John Ross is given to the Cherokee people, who currently reside in Oklahoma Territory. For today they are neutral; it will not stay this way for long.

Mary Lincoln continues sight seeing in New York City with her cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley and her new (and questionable) friend from Washington, William S. Wood. At 5pm Mary boards a ship for Boston; she is going to visit her oldest son, Robert, who is attending school at Harvard.

Newly appointed U.S. Major General Benjamin Butler leaves for Fort Monroe off the coast of Virginia. He is now the head of the Department of Virginia, North and South Carolina. John G. Nicolay, one of President Lincoln’s private secretaries, goes along on the trip.

In St. Louis, William T. Sherman still has not received any official word on his offer to serve in a leadership position in the U.S. military. He writes to his father-in-law, Thomas Ewing Sr. that “I have made up my mind that if the Government wants me they will ask me. This does not seem to me a time to seek for place.” Sherman expresses that he still does not think the Lincoln administration is up to the task of the current situation, especially since gaining control over a country so extensive in size seems almost impossible to him given what has been occurring around him in Missouri. He notes that if he’s offered a “proper post in the army”, he wants his family to be in the best place possible. He wants them to be safe, which could mean he would send his wife Ellen and their children to Lancaster, Ohio to stay with Ewing. Ellen, who was very close to her family, would no doubt be in favor of this.

As the preparations for war continue, several military officer appointments to Brigadier General are made today by U.S. President Lincoln:

  • Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, of the Second Infantry
  • Capt. John Pope, of the Corps of Topographical Engineers
  • George A. McCall, of Pennsylvania
  • Samuel R. Curtis, of Iowa
  • Philip Kearney, of New-Jersey
  • Joseph J. Reynolds, of Indiana
  • Rufus King, of Wisconsin
  • J.D. Cox, of Ohio
  • Stephen A. Hurlbut, of Illinois
  • Franz Siegel, of Missouri
  • Robert C. Schenck, of Ohio
  • B.M. Prentiss, of Illinois

President Lincoln’s long-time friend Edward Baker is also offered a commission as a Brigadier General of Volunteers, but he declines. For now he is content in recruiting volunteers and forming regiments.

Over 2,000 miles from Washington City, the legislature in California votes to support the Union. Currently there are several U.S. military personnel who are from the North and South. Some have already requested transfers back East so they can support the war effort, and others have put in resignation requests so they can go back to their homes in the South and support the Confederate effort there. And then there are others that have no clue what they are going to do, or what side they will take. They are torn between a country they have vowed to serve and protect and their home state where their families, friends and memories are.

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