A Most Improbable Spy: The Story of Frank Thompson

It’s the kind of story that would never be accepted as a script for a spy movie, as it is too outlandish a concept and too improbable a story to be believable. But yet, it is completely true – for the most part, anyway.

During the American Civil War, one of the most successful spies for the American Union was a Canadian. Franklin (Frank) Flint Thompson was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but was living in Michigan when he enlisted in the Union Army and served as a field nurse and infantryman in the 2nd Michigan Volunteers Regiment, fighting against the Confederate Army, displaying an unusually high aptitude in a very broad range of skills.

Not long into Frank’s infantry career, word spread among the Union ranks of a captured Union spy being executed before a Confederate firing squad. That meant there would be an opening in the spy ranks and Frank applied for the opportunity. It was probably his “jack of all trades” characteristic that won Frank the spy post.

Over the next two years, Frank developed a reputation as one of the best spies in the business, successfully completing eleven missions, some involving deep cover in Confederate territory to gain intelligence and information on troop movements and strength, armaments, strategies and schemes.

Frank disappeared suddenly after contracting malaria and without an announcement of capture by the Confederate Army, Frank was branded a deserter by the Union Army.

Franklin Flint Thompson was never seen again.

What makes this story so outlandish and improbable, you ask?

Franklin Thompson was actually a Canadian-born woman, named Sarah Emma Edmonds. She preferred going by her middle name, “Emma” and hailed from the maritime province of New Brunswick, in Canada.

Emma was the fifth daughter, born in 1841 to Elizabeth Leeper and Isaac Edmonds, a farmer who desperately wanted a son to assist in running the family farm. Another daughter was a deep disappointment to Isaac and he made no secret of it. “Franklin Thompson” was a character that Emma had developed very early in life, probably as a way of coping with her father’s obvious displeasure with her and deflecting his frequent wrath. Through a tumultuous and traumatic childhood, Emma grew up as a “tomboy”, wearing boy’s clothes, working the farm anyway, and learning the practical skills that would later serve her well as a Union soldier. At 16, Emma ran away to escape a pending arranged marriage. Travelling and fending for herself, she made a living selling Bibles door-to-door.

When the American Civil War broke out, a 20-year-old Emma was living in Flint, Michigan, where the bibles she sold were published, and she felt it her patriotic duty to enlist in the Army. Her first two attempts to enlist – as Franklin Thompson – failed due to her “slight physique”. On her third attempt, however, the Union Army was hard pressed for soldiers, so the physical examination was not required and she successfully enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Volunteers.

As Private Frank Thompson, Emma quickly gained notoriety for her diversity of skills, equally proficient firing a rifle with the infantry as tending to the wounded after the battle, or nimbly and quickly delivering secret dispatches as a courier.

Emma assumed many other identities in her role as spy, not the least of which was “Bridget O’Shea”, an Irish apple and soap peddler. It must have been a great mystery to her Union compatriots how “Frank” portrayed a woman so convincingly.

For probably her most challenging assignment, Edmonds blackened her skin using silver nitrate and wore a black wig to assume the identity of a black man named “Cuff” in a Confederate military encampment. After gaining the confidence of the Confederate soldiers in the camp, she managed to eavesdrop on conversations and gain valuable information for the Union officers. She would again stain her skin with silver nitrate to portray a black washer-woman and retrieve critical documents, and once again to reprise the identity of “Cuff” for another excursion. Most of her exploits as a spy are included in her memoir.

In the spring of 1863, Frank contracted malaria. Treatment at a military hospital would mean discovery as a woman, so she sought treatment at a private hospital. Upon her recovery, Emma saw wanted posters identifying Frank Thompson as a deserter. Deserters were executed, so that ended any chance of Frank Thompson returning to the Union Army.

After serving as a nurse in a hospital for wounded soldiers in Washington, DC, Emma returned to Canada and married Linus Seelye before the couple moved to the States seeking employment.

Emma was not eligible for a military pension, given that she was a woman. Starting in 1876, Emma vigorously petitioned the War Department to review her case. After 8 years and with the assistance of her comrades from the 2nd Michigan Volunteers, the Desertion charge was removed from her service record and Emma became the first woman in American history to receive a Civil War pension. In 1897, Emma was admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic as its only female member.

Emma’s autobiographical memoir was originally titled “Unsexed, or the Female Soldier”, and was published in 1864. It was quickly republished as “The Nurse and Spy in the Union Army” and became a best-seller under this title. Historians argue over the biography’s accuracy, claiming that it is not possible for all of her claims to be true. Emma claims to have fought at Antietam, but her regiment was not there. Emma also claims to have been at the siege at Vicksburg, but that occurred months after she left the Union Army. Both of the stories she recounts from Vicksburg and Antietam are similar to other stories that had emerged at the time, so some historians consider these to be embellishments.

I stumbled across the book first as a new entry (January 14, 2015) at Librivox, where you too can listen to Emma’s thrilling autobiography read entirely by TriciaG

Several copies of the autobiography are available for download from the Internet Archive as Digitized editions from: (high quality colour) the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection; (high quality colour) University of California; Harvard University; Oxford University; New York Public Library; University of Michigan; and under its original title of “Unsexed: or, the Female Soldier” from the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute Collection.

Her story is also told in the 1960 book, “She Rode With The Generals”, subtitled “The True and Incredible Story of Sarah Emma Seelye, Alias Franklin Thompson” written by Sylvia G.L. Dannett and available for free at Google Books

In 2004, a newly researched biography “Honor Unbound” was written by Diane L. Abbott and Kristoffer Gair, and is available (for purchase) at alibris.

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