Sarah Emma Edmonds: Civil War nurse and spy
2020 has been named the Year of the Nurse and Midwife by the World Health Organization. To celebrate, every month we're highlighting a nurse who has helped change the world.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841. To escape an abusive father, she began living as a man under the name Frank Thompson and immigrated to the United States, where she began working as a traveling Bible salesman. She enlisted in the Union Army under her assumed name in 1861, and became an army nurse.
Edmonds, as Frank Thompson, took part in numerous battles during her time in the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Williamsburg. She also acted as a spy for the Union Army, going behind enemy lines on espionage missions.
In 1863 Edmonds contracted Malaria. Knowing that her identity as a woman would be discovered if she sought medical attention, she left the war, and “Frank Thompson” was charged with desertion. Edmonds continued to act as a nurse with the United States Christian Commission under her own name until the end of the war.
Edmonds went on to publish a memoir called Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In 1882, she applied for a veteran’s pension and was able to clear her record of desertion. In 1898, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic.