Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Emma Edmonds (Alias: Franklin Thompson)
Military Private, Nurse & Spy (enlisted as male), April 1861 to April 1863

“Franklin Thompson” (Sarah’s alias)
Between 1861-1863
Source: Michigan Archives

Canadian-born Sarah Emma Edmonds (who preferred to go by Emma) was 20 years old at the start of the Civil War. She was raised in a household that was strict and religious, with a father who resented that she was not a boy. She made attempts to become more masculine in an effort to please her father, but his constant abuse and a threat of an arranged marriage eventually led her to leave her Nova Scotia home in 1859. She cut off her curly hair into a boyish cut, purchased men’s clothing and crossed into the United States as Franklin (Frank) Thompson. She became a traveling salesman, selling religious books in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern states.

Emma learned of President Lincoln’s April 14, 1861 proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteer militia and wanted to offer her services. Currently in Flint, Michigan and personally against the practice of slavery, she attempted to enlist on four occasions before being accepted as a Private with the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry on April 25, 1861, under her alias of Frank Thompson. Given that individuals were only asked to serve for 90 days, only verbal questions needed to be answered; there was no physical examination required, though she was initially turned down for being “too small.” Emma was now one of approximately 400 women that would serve in the Civil War under a male alias. What she didn’t know at the time was the journey that was ahead of her; her ambition to serve her country as a military nurse would quickly lead to her becoming a spy for the Union, and eventually illness would put Frank Thompson’s name on the “deserter” list in 1863.


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