Stories abound about women who braved the battlefields during the Civil War years. One such story belongs to Canadian Sarah Emma Edmonds. Her strength and initiative in serving the United States from 1861 to 1865 gave her a life of adventure she had never dreamed possible.
According to her autobiography, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Sarah traveled from the western U.S. by train. While waiting for a connecting train to New England in a railway station, she heard an announcement that President Lincoln was calling for 75,000 men after the fall of Fort Sumter. Although Sarah originally hailed from Canada, the President’s call excited her. After she traveled on to Washington, D.C., she entered a recruiting center, and emerged a field nurse. But wrapping wounds, comforting soldiers, and writing letters were not exciting enough for Sarah.
Her interests led her to become a spy. After the Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, Sarah disguised herself as a free Black boy answering to the name “Ned.” She used silver nitrate to darken her skin and wore a black wig. She risked her life when she crossed into territory held by the Confederate Army in Virginia, and worked with free Black men to build a parapet. In her “free” time, Sarah wandered around the camp, discovered a number of guns and ammunition, and eavesdropped on officers’ conversations about troop movements. She had a frightening moment when her coloring began to fade and quickly made the excuse her mother was white and that’s why she looked lighter than most Black people. After following along on the march to Yorktown, she risked her life again to escape back across the lines into Union-held territory, and delivered news of her discoveries which aided the Union army with their movement farther into Virginia.
Another disguise she successfully used was that of an old Irish woman peddler. She had to be conscious of maintaining an Irish brogue, but in one instance, she got so caught up in her activity, her brogue slipped briefly into her natural speech. She caught herself and corrected the situation with little trouble.
Sarah often dressed as a man named “Frank Thompson.” Disguised as a soldier, she fought in the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. In 1863 she transferred to Vicksburg, MS, where she contracted malaria. Fearing her male disguise would be exposed, she traveled to Pittsburgh, PA, dressed as herself, and admitted herself to a local hospital for treatment.
Sarah spent her life moving about as a spy for the Union army, putting herself in danger countless times. After the war, she penned her autobiography that was published later in the 1800s. Sarah died in La Porte, TX, in 1898, and is now buried in Houston, TX.