Historians speculate that over 400 women served in the American Civil War under male disguises. One of those women soldiers and an important “aspect of queer existence in Nineteenth Century America,” Sarah E. Edmonds, passed away on this
day in 1898.
An undated photograph shows Sarah’s appearance as her alter ego, “Franklin Thompson” (x).
Sarah Emma Edmonds
was born in December of 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada. At the time of her birth, New Brunswick was still an English colony. Despite growing up in a relatively happy home where she
worked on the family farm along with her sisters, Sarah ran away at
the age of 15 to avoid an unwanted marriage. Her mother was also a victim
of an early marriage forced by her parents, and so Mrs. Edmonds helped her
daughter adopt the disguise of a man and flee New Brunswick. Having adopted the
name Franklin Thompson, Sarah crossed the U.S. border and found herself working
as a bookseller in Hartford, Connecticut.
breakout of the Civil War, Sarah enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan
Infantry – also known as the Flint Union Greys – under the guise of Franklin
Flint Thompson. Scholars have theorized that
the middle name Flint was chosen based on the fact that she had previously
been volunteering for the Union Army in Flint, Michigan. Sarah eventually
worked her way up from male field nurse to Union spy after her close friend,
the spy James Vesey, was assassinated and Sarah volunteered to fill his spot. Her
masterful skills of disguise came in handy during her spy career, claiming in
her memoir that she frequently went undercover as both men and women.
contracting a deadly case of malaria, Sarah was forced to give up her life as
Franklin Thompson. Fearful that her true identity would be discovered if she went to a
military hospital, she fled from her military duty and checked herself into a civilian
hospital. Although she intended to return to her Company once she was cured,
she was forced to leave the army for good once she noticed posters declaring
Franklin Thompson as a deserter and a wanted man. Instead, Sarah decided to
serve as a female nurse in Washington D.C. for the remainder of the war.
This illustration depicts a story Sarah tells in her memoir about comforting a fellow Union soldier on the battlefield, only to have the soldier confess that he was truly a woman in disguise! Sarah never reveals the deceased soldier’s name, but writes that she personally made sure they were buried near their brother under a mulberry tree and that she ensured their secret was never discovered (x).
married a Canadian mechanic and old childhood friend by the name of Linnus H.
Seelye. The two lived happily and ended up adopting two sons after their own three children
died young. However, in her bestselling memoir, Sarah recounts having had a
relationship with a woman during her pre-war years as Franklin Thompson.
Sarah writes that she “came near marrying a pretty little girl” while living as a “famous” bookseller in Connecticut and then later Nova Scotia.
It would be impossible to attempt to
label Sarah E. Edmonds under contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality. Still, she stands as a landmark figure in the long and rich history of female
cross-dressers, many of whom enjoyed relationships with other women. The historian Lillian Faderman recounts these women’s place in lesbian history in
her book Odd Girls & Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life.