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Emma S. Edmonds
Union Spy
Civil War

From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage
Canadian-born woman who successfully operated behind Confederate lines as a Union spy during the American Civil War. She was probably the only spy in history who was both transvestite and transracial.

Edmonds came to the United States from New Bruswick, Canada, in 1856. When the Civil War began in 1861 she adopted the name Frank Thompson and volunteered to serve as a male nurse for the Union Army. She was present at the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major combat between Union and Confederate troops. After serving as a male nurse for two years, Edmonds volunteered to serve as a spy behind Confederate lines. Disguising herself as a young black man by dyeing her skin, getting her hair cropped short, and wearing a wig, she managed to cross the front lines near Yorktown, VA.

Although claiming to be a free black when confronted by an overseer, Edmonds was put to work on Confederate fortifications. After a day of backbreaking work, she was able to make a sketch of the fortifications and an accounting of the ordinance being installed. The next day she carried water for the workers and then food to the troops. Impressed as a sentry at one point, she was able to defect back to Union lines during a rainy night -- carrying her Confederate rifle as a trophy.

After three days behind Confederate lines, Edmonds brought back useful military information. During the coming months she successfully accomplished 11 more missions behind Confederate lines without being detected. On one occasion she went as an Irish peddler woman, other times she posed as a dry goods clerk, and once she claimed to be the grieving friend of a dead soldier.

Eventually contracting malaria while on a spy mission, she deserted after returning to Union lines, fearing that medical treatment would reveal her sex.

After the war, Edmonds wrote about her exploits in Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In 1867, she married Linus Seelye. After their three children died in childhood, they adopted two more. Edmonds and her family moved around a great deal, finally ending up in La Porte, TX.

Twenty-three years after the war ended, Sarah Edmonds Seelye applied for a veteran's pension. She wrote to her former comrades and asked for their support. Although they were shocked to discover that she was a woman, they agreed and wrote to Congress. Congress voted to "place on the pension roll, the name of Sarah E.E. Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson." For the rest of her life she received a soldier's pension of $12 per month.

Before her death, Sarah E.E. Seelye became the only woman member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an all-male organization of Civil War veterans. When she died in 1898, Sarah Edmonds was buried in a GAR cemetary.

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