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April 27th, 2011
Bartee Haile: Woman pulls off Civil War masquerade

This Week in Texas History: A column

Recruiters did not suspect a thing, when a 19 year old male impersonator from Canada enlisted in the Union Army on May 3, 1861.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmundson was born in New Brunswick just across the border from Maine. She grew up with the bitter understanding that her father had wanted a son. This knowledge and his constant abuse instilled in the girl “a hatred of male tyranny.”

Getting wind of her father’s plan to marry her off to a lecherous old man, 17 year old Emma ran away from home in 1858. She cut her curly hair short, put on male clothing and started a new life as “Frank Thompson.”

Emma’s height, athletic build, husky voice and flat chest helped her pass as a man. At five-foot-six she was taller than many men and towered over most women. A tomboy youth had given her a muscular frame more masculine than feminine in appearance. Her small breasts were easily concealed, and her raspy voice sounded nothing like a woman’s.

To survive Emma peddled Bibles in rural New Brunswick and gradually gained confidence in her salesmanship as well as the masquerade. She went to Connecticut to meet the publisher, who put her on the payroll with a territory in Nova Scotia.

Emma moved to Flint, Michigan in late 1860 in part to escape a romantic entanglement with “a pretty little girl” whose heart was set on marriage. Her alter ego’s popularity with the ladies would cause at least one biographer to question her sexual orientation.

Although her Canadian citizenship entitled Emma to watch the American Civil War from the safety of a neutral corner, she enthusiastically took the northern side in the conflict. Keeping up the “Frank Thompson” ruse, she enlisted in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry in May 1861as a male nurse with the rank of private.

How did Emma and 400 other male impersonators that served in the Union Army pass inspection? Since neither a physical examination nor proof of identity were required, it was easy to fool recruiters whose sole concern was putting warm bodies in uniform.

Nurse Thompson was present at Bull Run, which began as a picnic for naïve northerners and ended in their panic-stricken rout. Emma had no sympathy for those that turned and ran. No punishment was too severe, she felt, “for those who, insensible to shame, duty or patriotism, desert their cause and comrades in the trying hour of battle, and skulk away cringing under fear of death.”

The beardless private was a model soldier, whose courage and devotion to duty earned an appointment as regimental mail carrier in March 1862. Next to food nothing mattered more to the foot soldier than letters from home. Emma took her responsibility seriously and did such a first-rate job that she was promoted to brigade postmaster.

But Emma did not want to spend the war playing post office. Itching for more action, she jumped at the chance to join the Secret Service.

The three generals, who interviewed the applicant, were impressed by her attitude and answers and blown away by her skill with horses and firearms. She was quickly accepted into the clandestine ranks and given three days to prepare for her first mission.

Emma was a brave and resourceful spy, who kept a cool head no matter what the circumstances. Employing a variety of clever disguises and dialects, she roamed at will behind Confederate lines collecting valuable intelligence.

But by April 1863, Emma was a physical and emotional wreck exhausted by her complicated double life and recurring bouts with malaria. Her decision to disappear also may have been influenced by a newspaper article about a female soldier, who committed suicide after her true gender was discovered.

The sick spy simply walked away and rented a room in a small Ohio town. When she recovered, Emma left for awhile and returned to the same boardinghouse as herself.

Frank Thompson was gone for good.

She spent the next few weeks putting her incredible story down on paper. Nurse and Spy, Or, Unsexed, The Female Soldier sold a remarkable 175,000 copies. The author did not take a penny but instead instructed the publisher to donate her royalties to charity.

Emma Edmundson married Linus Seelye, a childhood friend, and gave birth to two boys and a girl. Two of the children died before the age of seven.
Emma resurfaced in the late 1870’s to clear her name. Congress granted her a soldier’s pension of $12 a month on Jul. 5, 1884, and two years later almost to the day dismissed desertion charges against “Frank Thompson.”

The Seelyes followed their son to Texas in 1893 and bought a small farm across the bay from the San Jacinto battlefield. Four years later, Emma became the first and only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization.

She passed away in 1898 at her home on the main street in La Porte. The old soldier’s remains were moved three years later to an honored plot in a Houston cemetery. The inscription on the tombstone reads, “Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse.”

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

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