Disguised as man, Flint woman fought for Union in Civil War

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Emma Edmonds dressed as a man and called herself Frank Thompson during the Civil War. (Detroit News archive)

Francis X. Donnelly, Detroit News staff writer

Of the 90,000 Michiganians who fought in the Civil War, the most curious may have been Frank Thompson.

The Flint resident was a maze of contradictions: a deserter who was later honored by comrades, a religious person who frequently lied, a 19th-century feminist who apparently had an affair with a married officer.

Upon leaving the Union army, Thompson wrote a book claiming to have been a spy during the war. The dubious assertion heightened interest in "Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy," which became a best-seller.

But the truth about Thompson's life is more interesting than the fiction, 150 years after the war's launch at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

Thompson really was Emma Edmonds, a Canadian farm girl who posed as a man during her military service.

What's more, she had been living that way for several years before the war so she could pursue a life closed to women of the 1850s.

During a time when women couldn't vote, own property or work most jobs, the disguised Edmonds freely roamed the country as a successful salesman.

"She was an unusually independent young woman," said Elizabeth Leonard, a history professor at Colby College in Maine who is a leading authority on women who fought in the war. "(She) sought to shape her life very much as she saw fit."

Edmonds was one of 400 female soldiers who hid their gender during the war, but was one of the few to receive a full pension and be allowed into the Civil War Veterans' Association.

And her book, whose description of her military service has been corroborated by historians, is the most definitive account of what it was like to be a woman fighting in the Civil War.

Account is 'best documeted'

"Of women I researched, she really is one of the most fascinating, partly because she undoubtedly is the best documented," said DeAnne Blanton, an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, who wrote a book about women who fought in the war.

Raised in the remote wilderness of the Canadian province of New Brunswick, Edmonds chafed under the rule of a petty father who visited the frustrations of his life upon his wife, five daughters and an epileptic son.

She grew up believing it was a man's world and women didn't have a chance in it, she said in an 1881 interview with the Detroit Post and Tribune.

"In our family the women were not sheltered but enslaved," she said.

Salvation arrived in the shape of a book.

When Edmonds was 13, she received a copy of "Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain." The novel describes a girl who disguises herself as a man so she can rescue her lover, a sea captain held prisoner in the Caribbean.

She identified with Campbell, who, like her, could ride horses and shoot guns. Edmonds was a tomboy who liked to fish and hunt.

"I went home that night with the problems of my life solved," she told another reporter about her discovery of the book. "And I could never again be a slave."

When she was 17, she ran away from home.

Looking for work, she read a newspaper ad for a job selling pulp fiction. But traveling salesmen were just that: men.

Edmonds cut her hair, bought men's clothes and adopted male mannerisms.

She said she loved the freedom that posing as a man gave her. She was a good "salesman" and eventually moved to Flint, whose fledgling growth made a ripe market for book peddlers.

But it was 1861. New commerce wasn't the only thing in the air. So was war.

When many of Edmonds' newfound friends and customers heeded President Abraham Lincoln's call for troops, so did she.

They saw the looming war as a lark, a chance for adventure. They thought the North would quickly roll over the South, and they wanted to be part of the rout before it was over.

Enlistments didn't involve medical exams, so Edmonds, at 19, became a soldier.

She had gift for mimicry

During the war, Edmonds' attempts to hide her gender faced several obstacles.

She didn't swear, drink, smoke or play cards, and her face was as clean-shaven as a baby's, said a biographer. The 2nd Michigan Regiment made fun of her small feet and dubbed her "our woman."

She helped her charade with a quick mind and gift for mimicry, said Laura Leedy Gansler, who wrote a 2005 biography about Edmonds, "The Mysterious Private Thompson."

"She was observant about the way people behave, like a good actor has to be to capture a character," said Gansler, a Bethesda, Md., attorney.

The regiment commander thought Edmonds was too effeminate to serve in the infantry, so he had her work as a nurse and mail carrier. All nurses along the front were men.

As a nurse, she clambered through the swamps and muddy battlefields of Virginia to retrieve the injured and dying, said Gansler.

The so-called hospitals were collections of tents filled with wounded men, mounting bodies and rampant illnesses like measles, dysentery and typhoid.

"Most men would rather split logs, or dig sinks, or perform just about any other kind of fatigue duty before working in the hospitals," wrote Gansler.

As a mail carrier, Edmonds carried messages and orders from camp to camp or back to Washington. She sometimes rode 60 miles and through the night.

After two years with the army, Edmonds deserted. She later said she did so because she was suffering from malaria. If an army doctor treated her, he would likely discover her true identity.

But historians raise another possibility.

Other soldiers had begun gossiping that Edmonds was having a romantic relationship with a married officer, Lt. James Reid.

"My strongest hunch is that it was related to Reid," Gansler said about Edmonds' hasty departure. "Whether Reid was gossiping or bragging about her, or others were getting suspicious or someone caught them together, I don't know."

After leaving the army, Edmonds wrote "Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy." Written under her real name, the book never mentions her double identity or regiment she belonged to. Readers were left to assume she was openly female during her service.

The book also claimed she had been a spy, posing as a slave, Confederate soldier and Irish peddler with a lilt.

But military documents contain no records of her spying.

"It's so far-fetched," said Greg Marquis, a history professor at the University of New Brunswick, who wrote a book about Canadians who fought in the Civil War. "It's like Nancy Drew meets I don't know what."

Nonetheless, "Memoirs" sold 175,000 copies. After the war, Edmonds never returned to her male guise.

At 25, she married a carpenter, Linus Seelye, according to "The Mysterious Private Thompson." The couple moved around the country as Seelye chased construction work.

Truth revealed

It wouldn't be until 1883, 20 years after she left the army, that she would divulge the truth.

She wanted her military pension, said the biography. To get it, she had to convince the federal government that Emma Edmonds and Frank Thompson were the same person.

To do so, she returned to Flint to enlist the support of her former regiment members. But she had to tell them the truth.The former soldiers were shocked but glad to help, said the book.

The same couldn't be said about their wives, who didn't like the idea that a woman had spent so much time with their spouses.

She once told a reporter the pride of her life were the two years she spent with the 2nd Michigan Regiment.

Buried in a veterans' cemetery in Texas, where the couple had eventually moved, an inscription on her small limestone grave marker omits all the twists and turns of her colorful life.

"Emma E. Seelye," it reads in fading letters, "Army Nurse."