Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in Canada in December of 1841. As a child, she was abused by her father, due to the fact that he had wanted a son. At this time, she was reading Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain, which was about Fanny Campbell and her adventures as a pirate while disguised as a man. This novel is what gave her the idea to dress herself as a man, which she did, and run away. She escaped to the United States in 1857 under the name of Franklin Thompson and made a living in Connecticut. When the Civil War started Sarah wanted to help and enlisted under her fake name in May of 1861.
Due to the fact that physical examinations were not required to join the Union army, Sarah was not discovered and she became apart of the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a 3 year recruit. In the beginning of the war Sarah served mostly as a mail carrier and often nursed wounded soldiers back to health. Her regiment took part in the siege of Yorktown in April and May of 1862, which is thought to be the first time that Sarah conducted espionage. Although there is no real proof in her military records that she was a spy, Edmonds has wrote about her experiences as a spy during the war. Once Edmonds was required use silver nitrate to dye her skin black so she could sneak into the Confederacy as a black man under the name of Cuff. Other espionages include an Irish peddler and a male contraband, which were escaped slaves or those who in contact with the Union forces. Many times in the war when Sarah was harmed she refused to get medical attention because she didn’t want to risk getting caught. One example occurs in August of 1862, when she was thrown into a ditch, where she broke her leg and suffered several internal injuries. This injuries would haunt her for the rest of her life. Her life in the army came to an end, however, when she contracted malaria. Sarah asked for furlough, but was denied. Edmonds ended up leaving the military, not wanting to be sent to a military hospital. After she was treated she intended to return but her alias, Franklin Thompson, was charged with desertion, which would be cleared later in 1884. Because of this Sarah signed up as a female nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital until the end of the war.
In 1864, Sarah published her memoirs Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Even after her disguise was discovered she was still considered a good soldier and even received a pension of twelve dollars. And in 1897 she was the only women to be admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic.
In the Civil War Sarah’s role was as a secret soldier, a woman in disguise. She fought alongside the men in the army. During her time in the war, she was a mail carrier, a spy, and as a nurse. She broke the social restraints of the time because women of the time were not suppose to participate in war, except as a nurse in a hospital. It was unlady like for a women to see war, it was a man’s job not a women’s. She went against and challenged the ideas of the time and proved that she was just as good as any other man in that army.