Sarah Seelye lived a seemingly ordinary life in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1882. She and her husband were well-respected members of the community where they raised their family. But as her health started to falter at age 43, she realized past adventures were catching up to her. Her body ached with rheumatism, and she suffered from the side effects of heart, liver, and kidney disease. With only her husband’s limited income to pay her medical bills and support her family, she needed help. Getting it meant revealing a decades-old secret to Congress: she illegally served in the Union army disguised as a man.
When she was 15 years old, Sarah Edmonds ran away from her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada, to escape an undesirable arranged marriage. Knowing that she would have difficulty traveling alone as a young woman, she dressed in male attire and adopted the name Franklin Thompson. She found work as a traveling Bible salesman in Connecticut and reveled in the freedom granted by her new identity.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, her travels took her to Flint, Michigan, where she heard a call for volunteers to enlist in the Union army. The army prohibited women from joining its ranks, but Sarah’s patriotism for her adopted country propelled her into service. She later recalled, “I felt called to go, and do what I could in defence [sic] of the right.” Quite comfortable in her disguise, she passed the army’s hasty physical examination and embarked on her next adventure as Franklin Thompson, a private in Company F, Second Regiment, Michigan Infantry Volunteers.
Serving alongside men who were unaware of her true identity, Sarah tended to the wounded as a field nurse at the First Battle of Bull Run. Then, during the Peninsular Campaign, she delivered messages on horseback through the swamps of eastern Virginia as regimental postmaster. She joined in the fighting during the Battle of Williamsburg, Seven Days’ Battles, and Second Battle of Bull Run. Later, serving as General Orlando M. Poe’s orderly, she delivered messages during the Battle of Fredericksburg. She used her rifle when the situation demanded it, and she helped injured soldiers as often as she could.