Sarah Seelye lived a seemingly ordinary life in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1882. She and her husband were well-respected members of the community where they raised their family. But as her health started to falter at age 43, she realized past adventures were catching up to her. Her body ached with rheumatism, and she suffered from the side effects of heart, liver, and kidney disease. With only her husband’s limited income to pay her medical bills and support her family, she needed help. Getting it meant revealing a decades-old secret to Congress: she illegally served in the Union army disguised as a man.
When she was 15 years old, Sarah Edmonds ran away from her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada, to escape an undesirable arranged marriage. Knowing that she would have difficulty traveling alone as a young woman, she dressed in male attire and adopted the name Franklin Thompson. She found work as a traveling Bible salesman in Connecticut and reveled in the freedom granted by her new identity.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, her travels took her to Flint, Michigan, where she heard a call for volunteers to enlist in the Union army. The army prohibited women from joining its ranks, but Sarah’s patriotism for her adopted country propelled her into service. She later recalled, “I felt called to go, and do what I could in defence [sic] of the right.” Quite comfortable in her disguise, she passed the army’s hasty physical examination and embarked on her next adventure as Franklin Thompson, a private in Company F, Second Regiment, Michigan Infantry Volunteers.
Serving alongside men who were unaware of her true identity, Sarah tended to the wounded as a field nurse at the First Battle of Bull Run. Then, during the Peninsular Campaign, she delivered messages on horseback through the swamps of eastern Virginia as regimental postmaster. She joined in the fighting during the Battle of Williamsburg, Seven Days’ Battles, and Second Battle of Bull Run. Later, serving as General Orlando M. Poe’s orderly, she delivered messages during the Battle of Fredericksburg. She used her rifle when the situation demanded it, and she helped injured soldiers as often as she could.
Her duties while in the Union army included regimental nurse and mail and “despatch” carrier.
Sarah even nursed her own broken bones, a lung hemorrhage, and a bite wound, all of which resulted from bad experiences with horses and mules. She suffered silently, refusing to seek medical attention for fear her identity would be discovered. But when she came down with malaria two years into her three-year enlistment, she could not adequately take care of herself. Denied a furlough and out of options, she deserted her post on April 19, 1863, to seek treatment elsewhere.
Back in female attire, Sarah wrote her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, as she recovered. The book, which included some exaggerated and fictionalized stories about her service during the war, was a success. She donated a large portion of its profits to relief organizations aiding the army. Still devoted to the Union, she continued to care for soldiers until the end of the war as a nurse with the United States Christian Commission, a group dedicated to aiding and proselytizing to soldiers.
In 1867, Sarah married Linus H. Seelye, a Canadian mechanic, and settled in Kansas. They raised three children. Although Congress made pensions, or government financial assistance, for Civil War soldiers and widows available on July 14, 1862, she had not applied for one. She explained that it was, “not because I thought it impossible to obtain one, but simply because I love independence too well to willingly become a pensioner on the bounty of anyone—even dear old Uncle Sam.” Two decades later, her health issues created financial hardship, and a pension seemed the best option for relief. Sarah knew that her story was “so very peculiar” and that a standard pension application filed with the Bureau of Pensions would not do it justice. Supported by her old comrades, she went directly to Congress to explain why she deserved a pension.
Byron M. Cutcheon, a former colonel in the Michigan Infantry, now represented Michigan in the House. Having known Franklin Thompson during the war as “the postmaster of the brigade in which I had the honor to serve,” Cutcheon continuously advocated in the House for Sarah’s pension. On February 25, 1884, Cutcheon introduced two bills: one to remove the desertion charge from Sarah’s record and one to add her to the pension roll.
Appealing directly to Cutcheon, one of Sarah’s fellow soldiers said in a letter, “I pray that Congress will receive my testimony on behalf of my comrade Franklin Thompson[.] I did not know till now that he was a woman.” He went on, “I hope in the name of justice that Congress will pass these bills.” In a letter to Sarah, another friend offered to help in any way he could, adding, “I shall always know you as ‘Frank’ my soldier friend whom I learned to respect for his true worth.”
W. M. Rice, the editor of the Kansas newspaper the Fort Scott Monitor, campaigned on Sarah’s behalf by sending letters and newspaper articles detailing her service record to Members of Congress. “I can assure you,” Representative Bishop Perkins of Kansas replied to Rice, “I will be very glad to do anything that I can to aid the heroine of whom you speak.” Senator Preston Plumb, also of Kansas, replied with similar assurances.
Grateful for Sarah’s dedication to the Union as a soldier and a nurse, the House voted to grant Sarah a pension of 12 dollars per month on March 28, 1884. By the first week of July, the Senate and the President followed suit. The House did not take up the bill regarding the desertion charge until the following Congress. When it passed during the summer of 1886, Sarah was able to collect her backpay and a bounty of 100 dollars.
For years after she received her pension, Sarah’s story received much attention from newspapers around the country. Readers learned of her admission to the Grand Army of the Republic—a fraternal organization of Union veterans—in 1897. The following year, on September 5, they read the sad news of her death at age 58.
Sarah and hundreds of other female Civil War soldiers defied social norms and gender roles, exemplifying the strength and courage of women and adding to the growing history of women in the military.
The legacy of female soldiers lived on as suffragists pointed to the bravery and patriotic sacrifices of women like Sarah to demonstrate that women deserved equal voting rights.
Editor’s Note: Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men, and hid the fact they were female. Because they passed as men, it is impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. Estimates place as many as 250 women in the ranks of the Confederate army and up to 400 serving in the Union Army.
Images of women during the Civil War center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining the homefront in the absence of their men. Men lived in germ-ridden camps, engaged in heinous battle, languished in appalling prison camps, and died horribly, yet heroically. Yet, men were not the only ones to fight that war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Like men, there were women who lived in camp, suffered in prisons, and died for their respective causes. Interestingly, a lot of the documentation about these women came from their obituaries, according to the National Archives and Records Administration.