Emma was one of five girls in a strong Christian family. Because her father really wanted sons, he forced the girls to dress like boys and work in his fields. When Emma became 17 years of age, her father arranged a marriage that Emma refused. After so many years of physical and verbal abuse, Emma ran away from home.
Finding it difficult to find work as a young girl, Emma started dressing like a male. She changed her name to Franklin Thompson, and found a job with a book company in Hartford, Connecticut. With her Christian background, she was quite successful at selling Bibles.
After being transferred to Flint, Michigan, Emma decided to join Company F of the Second Michigan Regiment of Volunteer Infantry, still as Franklin Thompson. As a military nurse, she participated in several major Civil War battles including First Bull Run/Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
At Antietam, Emma found a soldier dying on the battlefield. As she attended to “him,” the injured fighter revealed that "he" was actually a woman! Emma prayed with her as she died, and buried her without her gender being revealed. During the Civil War, it is estimated that over 400 women fought in the Union army disguised as men.
Eventually, the Union Army used Emma as a spy to go across enemy lines. Sometimes she “disguised” herself as a white woman, and at other times, she blackened her face, hair, and hands with silver nitrate, and spied as a black man. At some point during her amazing exploits, Emma contracted malaria. Rather than going to the camp hospital where her true identity would be discovered, Emma deserted the army and checked into a private hospital.
When she had recuperated, Emma knew that she could not return to the army or she would be executed as a deserter. So, Emma found a job with the United States Christian Commission, which provided medical attention and spiritual encouragement for soldiers as they returned from war. While there, she participated in a religious revival among Union soldiers that had converts of over 100,000 souls! One of her co-workers was the well-known author Louisa May Alcott.
In 1865, Emma published a book titled, “Nurse and Spy in the Union Army,” and donated the proceeds to various societies that ministered to veterans of the Civil War. After the war, Emma met Linus Seelye, and moved to La Porte, Texas. In 1884, Emma attended a Michigan veterans’ reunion, which led to Congress forgiving the desertion of “Franklin Thompson,” and awarding her a pension of $12 per month.
When Sara died in 1898, she was buried in Washington Cemetery in Houston. In 1992, Sara Emma Edmonds Seelye was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame, and her memoirs were republished under the title of “Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy.”
God kept His hand on Emma, as she struggled to be a witness for Him. And the Lord will do the same for you. As the song says, “Live for Jesus, that’s what matters.” Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. (1 John 2:6 NIV)