Previously Published

sarah emma edmonds: lessons from a mistress of disguise

In 1842 Sarah Emma Edmonds entered this world as a baby girl. It was an era that dictated girls stay strapped in frilly petticoats and master the art of cooking. And Sarah’s determination to prove that she was as good as a boy provoked her father’s temper so much that he became abusive and she had to leave home as a teen.

Answered the call. Civil war was breaking out and when the first call for Union enlistments went out, Sarah responded. Still raging against gender discrimination, she enlisted as a man–She cut her hair, wore a suit and called herself Frank Thompson. Thus on April 25, 1861, Emma Edmonds aka Frank Thompson became a male nurse in the United States Army.

Crossed boundaries. For the average woman, being disguised as a man would be a sufficient dose of drama and point-proving to last a life-time; but not for Sarah. When the Union began looking for a spy to plant in the Confederate camp, she learned everything there was to know about weapons, tactics, local geography and military personalities. She applied for the job and got it.

As a spy her disguise as Frank Thompson led to other disguises. She was “Cuff” a black man working on Confederate ramparts. Using silver nitrate, she darkened her skin to the point where even the people she knew well could not recognize her. “Cuff” studied the enemy’s size, morale and weapons; She was Bridget O’Shea, a fat Irish peddler woman. Bridget returned wounded but loaded with confidential information and a horse she named Rebel; She was Charles Mayberry, a young white man with Southern sympathies. Charles went to Louisville and identified the Southern spy network in the town; She was even a typical 1800’s black mammy, complete with a black face and a bandanna. As a mammy she laundered clothes in the enemy camp and found official papers in the pocket of an officer’s pants!

Took risks. When Private Frank Thompson was not needed as a spy, “he” worked long hours in the military hospital. All was going well until Thompson got malaria. Realizing that her true identity would be known if she was admitted in the military hospital, Sarah decided to leave camp, be a woman until she recovered, and then return to camp as Frank Thompson. But things did not go according to plan. While recovering in a private hospital, she came across a list of deserters from the Union army—it included Private Frank Thompson.

That was the end of Private Frank Thompson but not the end of Sarah Emma Edmonds. She worked as a female nurse, wrote her memoirs titled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, fell in love, married, and had three sons—one of whom joined the army.


While Sarah’s past secret life had brought her excitement, fulfillment and satisfaction, she sometimes brooded over the fact that her career ended as a disloyal deserter of the army—and that Frank Thompson had gotten credit for Sarah Emma Edmonds. So, in her later years, she petitioned the War Department for a full review of her case. The case was debated and on July 5, 1884, a special act of Congress granted Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson an honorable discharge from the army, plus a bonus and a veteran’s pension of twelve dollars a month. And in honor of her duty and devotion to her country she is the only female member of the organization formed after the Civil War by Union veterans-The Grand Army of the Republic.

While Sarah Emma Edmonds got her recognition, there are those who don’t. Many daring women answer the call to do the unthinkable, cross boundaries set by society and take risks for the sake of conviction. Yet not all fight for recognition because a fight for recognition takes on the appearance of arrogance and conceit. More than a hundred years after Sarah, society continues to be biased.

So, if your accomplishments have not been acknowledged, speak up for justice. Then if your society is still not ready to validate you, go to the High Court of God and pray for courage and forgiveness and the endurance to continue to answer your call, cross boundaries, and take risks. Rewards and recognition are for the righteous saints on earths. That’s everyone living under God’s grace—be it a man or a woman. Take heart, there’s a crown of jewels to validate a life of glory of earth.

Think of ways women in your community can support one another in the pursuit of answering their call in spite of the lack of adequate validation. Avoid group meetings where sympathy and sad experiences take over. Instead, encourage encounters that promote self-worth in God.

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