Profiles In Nursing

Sarah Edmonds Seelye a.k.a. Frank Thompson (1841–1898)

A master of disguise, this Civil War nurse went undercover as a Union spy

Sepia tone photo of Sarah Seelye and cover of her book Nurse & Spy

Although during the Civil War it was possible to pay someone else to serve for you in the Army, some people — including about 400 women — used subterfuge and even disguises to enter military service. One of those adventuresome women was Sarah Edmonds Seelye, who went to elaborate lengths to serve the Union as a nurse and a daring spy.

A Talent for Espionage

Despite her later devotion to the Union cause, Sarah Edmonds was actually born in Nova Scotia, Canada. After a difficult early life, she fled her abusive father — who she later said would have preferred a son — and resettled in the United States.

When war broke out between the states, Edmonds’ desire to serve in the military led her to cut her hair, don men’s clothing, and try to enlist in the Union Army as a man. It took four attempts, but finally, disguised as “Frank Thompson,” Edmonds became a nurse in the 2nd Volunteers.

She had no difficulty maintaining her persona; in fact, her wartime bunkmate said years later that he had no idea she was anything other than what she appeared. That talent for disguise would serve her well in her secondary role as a military spy.

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On her first mission for Gen. George McClellan, Edmonds used silver nitrate to darken her skin, adopted the alias “Cuff,” and slipped behind Confederate lines disguised as a Black man.

She managed to have herself assigned to a kitchen detail, which allowed her to glean a great deal of information about the number and morale of the Confederate troops and their available weapons, including which of their artillery pieces were actually “Quaker guns” (logs painted black to look like cannons from afar).

Other guises Edmonds adopted for her espionage work included “Bridget O’Shea,” a fat Irish peddler, and a Black laundress. In total, she completed 11 missions, all successful.

“Small Part in so Great a Work”

Between missions, Edmonds would resume her guise as “Thompson” and return to work as a nurse. Of course, what she practiced was not nursing as we understand it today. In her 1865 memoir, she wrote that Army nurses “spend much of their time in digging drains around the tents, planting evergreens, and putting up awnings, all which add much to the coolness and comfort of the hospital.”

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Nonetheless, Edmonds exemplified nurses’ dedication to duty even in the era before licensure. Although her hours were long and grueling, she viewed tasks like treating soldiers suffering from typhoid fever as a rare honor. “How thankful I was that it was my privilege to take some small part in so great a work,” she wrote.

Correcting the Record

Edmonds’ military career came to an end after she contracted malaria. Knowing that her real identity would be quickly revealed in a military hospital, she left the camp and sought treatment as a civilian woman. She planned to return, but found that in her absence, “Frank Thompson” had been branded a deserter. Edmonds abandoned her disguise and traveled to Washington, D.C., where she worked as nurse until the end of the war.

After the conflict, Edmonds wrote her memoir, entitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Although full of creative embellishments, it was very successful, selling 175,000 copies. She donated the profits to the War Relief Fund.

In 1867, Edmonds married Linus Seeyle, with whom she eventually had three sons. Although happy in her new life, the charge of desertion haunted her. She petitioned the War Department for a review of her case, and in 1884 was granted an honorable discharge from the Army, plus a bonus and a veteran’s pension of $12 a month. She was the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization formed after the war by veterans of the Union Army.

She died in 1898 and was buried in the military section of Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

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