- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

After the Civil War, an arthritic, 44-year-old woman wrote the U.S. military pension bureau from Canada asking for a $12-a-month pension and was refused because no Army medical records existed for her male alias, Pvt. Frank Thompson.
She replied: "Being a woman, I felt compelled to suffer in silence in order to escape detection of my sex. I would rather have been shot dead, than to have been known to be a woman and sent away from the army."
Among the 175 names listed in the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., is at least one Canadian Sara Edmonds who helped pioneer the field of American espionage during the Civil War.
Unlike most of the estimated 250 female soldiers who to follow their husbands or lovers into the army adopted a male identity and picked up a gun, Edmonds enlisted for patriotism and adventure. Though she fought at the First Battle of Manassas, Edmonds' military career included service as mail carrier, a general's aide, a nurse and a daring spy.
Her missions into the Confederacy disguised variously as a black man and female slave secured her a place among the ranks of the great spies.
"Spunky, smart and daring," Edmonds stands out as a "shining star among women soldiers," said DeAnne Blanton, co-author of "They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War."
She was born in New Brunswick in 1842. Edmonds fled an unwanted marriage arranged by her father for the haven of America around 1858, a time when in effect there was an open border between the United States and Canada. To ensure that her father could not find her, she made her first foray into a secret life by adopting a male identity, Frank Thompson.
Finding success as a traveling book and Bible seller, Edmonds was in Flint, Mich., when she heard the news that the Civil War had erupted. Though a woman and a Canadian, Edmonds, then just 19, passed for a "beardless youth" and enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteers, Company F.
In her book, "Nurse and Spy in the Union Army," Edmonds explained that while "I was not obliged to remain here during this terrible strife," she felt it wrong to "seek my own personal ease and comfort while so much sorrow and distress filled the land" where she had begun a new life.
The physical exam of enlistee Edmonds was limited to noting that she had teeth and fingers to enable her to tear a powder bag and fire a gun, and a glance of her hands.
The doctor, she wrote, asked her what her hands had been doing up until now. "Getting an education mostly," she replied. With that, Edmonds was sworn into the Union Army.
One of an estimated 50,000 Canadians who served in the military during the Civil War, mostly in the Union Army, Edmonds met someone she knew from Canada in her company. Edmonds kept her true identity hidden from this unnamed lieutenant, but she suggested in her book that he may have been someone she loved. After he was killed, she decided to become a spy.
As it happened, Edmonds asked for the job the day after one of the Union's spies in Richmond was discovered and hanged. That left a vacancy.
Edmonds was sent to Washington and interviewed by a panel of three generals including the then-commander of Union forces, Gen. George B. McClellan.
Having passed their scrutiny and a weapons test, she was given a psychological exam by military phrenologists, who found that the bumps on her head revealed courage and cunning. Edmonds was then sent on her first mission.
Using mercury to darken her skin, and wearing a wig made from real African hair, Edmonds made herself into a black man and crossed into Confederate territory.
Spotted by Confederate troops, Edmonds explained she was "a free Negro" traveling to Richmond to look for work.
A Southern soldier retorted that there were no free Negroes while the Yankees were around, and he ordered Edmonds to join the group of slaves traveling with them as workers.
Edmonds ate and slept with the slaves, and worked with them building fortifications, cooking and serving meals, all the while making surreptitious sketches of the garrison, primarily in the Richmond area.
At one point, one of the slaves noticed Edmonds had a white patch on her skin, but Edmonds turned the suspicion that might have exposed her into general laughter. She always expected this would happen some day, Edmonds told them, "'cause my mother's white."
As evidence Southerners were prepared to fight alongside blacks, one night Edmonds was sent to the line to stand post with a gun. She used the opportunity to run through the woods and fields, dodging patrols and skirmishes, and back to the Union encampment.
In another guise, as a black servant girl, she was able to listen in on the discussions of senior Southern officers.
Edmonds' career came to an abrupt end when she contracted a severe case of malaria in mid-1863. Fearing exposure if she went to a military hospital, Edmonds shed her male disguise and entered a civilian hospital.
Unfortunately, by the time she recovered, Pvt. Thompson was wanted for desertion. Edmonds spent the rest of the war as a civilian female nurse.
As the war drew to a close, Edmonds wrote "Nurse and Spy," which became an instant best seller.
But Edmonds, generous to a fault, gave most of the book's profits to various veterans groups, eventually ending up sick and poor.
Listed as a deserter and giving a personal history that seemed unbelievable, the pension bureau refused her repeated requests for veteran's benefits. Finally, after letters of support poured in from generals, ordinary soldiers and politicians, two congressional bills were passed clearing Thompson's name and ordering payment of the pension.
Edmonds died in the United States in 1898. She is the only woman buried in Washington Cemetery in Houston, the burial grounds of the George B. McClellan chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Barry Brown is a Toronto-based writer who has written a screenplay about Sara Edmonds.


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