As the lone Canadian in Wonder Women, Sarah Emma Edmonds has a special place in my heart – and hopefully in yours, once you hear about her amazing exploits. You can read her story in full in my book Wonder Women, but I thought I would share with you my quick Coles Notes* on one of the most bad-ass nerdy babes in history, supplemented by original ephemera from Michigan in Letters, Collections Canada, and her own book.
*That’s Cliffs Notes, but for Canadians. We also call colored pencils “pencil crayons.” We’re wacky!
Emma was born in 1841 in Eastern Canada, and was basically expected to marry her much older farmer neighbor at seventeen, and be chill with that being pretty much her entire life situation. But, like many of us, Emma had grown up reading stories of girls who cut off their hair and pretended to be boys to escape the expectations of their lives. For me, that book was Alanna: The First Adventure; for Emma, it was Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of the Revolution.
And so Emma did just that, running away from home, chopping off her hair, and removing a telltale mole to assume the disguise of one “Franklin Thompson.”
Crossing the border into Michigan, Emma found herself caught up in the midst of the Civil War, and on May 25, 1861, she joined up with the Union Army. Using skills she had developed back on her homestead, Emma made for an exceptionally competent battlefield nurse – and no one ever guessed that the “Franklin” persona was nothing more than a ruse.
We know all this because, after the war ended, Emma wrote and published her exploits in a book called Unsexed; or, the Female Soldier, later retitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which sold nearly 200,000 copies, the profits from which she mostly donated to war aid efforts.
Wait, nurse and spy?
Oh, you read that right. Among Emma’s many other accomplishments in the field, her fellow soldiers also noticed that “Franklin” was exceptionally good at disguise (the irony!). Emma infiltrated the Confederate ranks undercover on countless occasions. Today, we would call these assumed identities… problematic, at best; but her efforts provided the North with crucial information throughout the war.
Unfortunately, Emma eventually required medical care for PTSD (after a shell exploded in front of her tent) and malaria, and had to leave the army to receive it, lest her Mulan-esque secret be discovered. Being labeled a deserter and, you know, not being a real person, meant that Franklin Thompson could never get his veteran’s pension - something that never sat well with Emma.
So she did probably the most kick-ass thing possible, and, years later, marched – full skirts – into a reunion of her former regiment. They were shocked but surprisingly chill about the whole thing, and with their help, Emma successfully petitioned Congress. In 1884, the House passed a bill allowing Emma to receive a $12 monthly pension, $100 in back pay, and an honorable discharge. To this day, she is the only woman buried in a cemetery plot reserved for veterans of the Civil War – which would make even Fanny Campbell proud.