The inspiration for my Civil War holiday romance novella, The Christmas Ball, came from stories I’d read of women who disguised themselves as men during the American Civil War. Most wanted to serve their respective side in the conflict, even though women weren’t allowed to serve in the army in any capacity at the start of the war.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was one of these women. Born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841, she grew up on a farm. Along with her sisters, she participated alongside her one brother to perform the hard physical work of farming. She tended to the animals, chopped wood, milked cows, planted and harvested. She also learned to ride horses, hunted and fished.
In 1861 the Civil War began. She enlisted in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry Volunteers, signing up for three years.
As Franklin Thompson, Sarah spent her first months of military service at the regimental hospital, serving as a “male” nurse. She then became postmaster and then a mail carrier.
One of her superior officers, General O. M. Poe, recalled that “Frank Thompson was effeminate looking, and for that reason was detailed as a mail carrier, to avoid taking an efficient soldier from the ranks.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies
As a mail carrier, Edmonds carried two or three bushels of mail over a distance of 50 or 60 miles.
In her own words: “I was often compelled to spend the nights alone by the roadside. It was reported that the bushwackers had murdered a mail carrier on that road and robbed the mail, and there seemed to be evidence of the fact, for, in the most lonely of spots of all the road the ground was still strewn with fragments of letters and papers, over which I often passed when it was so dark that I only knew it by the rustle of the letters under my horse’s feet.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies
She was also engaged in combat starting with the battle of First Bull Run in July 1861.
According to a Congressional report: “Franklin Thompson, gave his heart and soul to the regiment, sharing in all its toil and privations, marching and fighting in the various engagements in which it participated… (He was) never absent from duty, obeying all orders with intelligence and alacrity, his whole aim and desire to render zealous and efficient aid to the Union cause.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies
While serving, Sarah became good friends with a young medical steward and assistant surgeon for the 2nd Michigan. She fell in love with the man, confessing that she was female. She felt rebuffed when he told her he was betrothed.
Besides soldiering, Sarah also served the Union as a spy. She disguised herself as a male fugitive slave wearing a wig and coloring her skin with silver nitrate. At other times she portrayed a female Irish peddler by the name of Bridget O’Shea.
In Kentucky in the spring of 1863, Sarah fell ill with chills and fever. She feared a hospital stay would expose her sex, so, after a request for a leave of absence was denied, she deserted the army. She checked herself into a civilian hospital, planning to return to the army once she’d recovered.
After the war ended, she published her autobiography, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army under the pen name of S. E. Edmonds. “In 1887, she married L. H. Seelye, a Canadian carpenter with whom she had three children.” All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies
For more on Sarah Edmonds and other women soldiers of the American Civil War…
Sources: All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies by Elizabeth D. Leonard