Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman “Male Nurse”

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Emma Edmonds
Emma Edmonds came to the U.S. as a teenage Canadian immigrant.

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a teenage immigrant making her way on her own in Michigan when the Civil War broke out. She had been raised on a failing farm in Nova Scotia in Canada, but she had to leave her abusive father. Emma ran away from home when her father arranged for her marriage to the man he was financially indebted to, essentially selling her off to pay his debts. When her father tried to track her down, she assumed the identity of a man, Frank Thompson, to help her evade him.  She crossed the border into the United States under this masculine guise and lived in New England before moving to Flint, Michigan.1

Women immigrants coming to the United States sometimes hid their identities as women. This could help them escape abusive fathers or husbands. For women travelling alone, it also served as protection against sexual abuse along the way.  Once they came to the U.S., they might continue to use the disguise as a way to obtain jobs in occupations otherwise closed to women.2

When war came a few years after her immigration, Edmonds joined the army as a man, Frank Thompson, on May 21, 1861. While this may seem like a fantastic scenario to modern readers, there were several hundred women whose service in the army while disguised as men has been documented. Civil War soldiers were given perfunctory medical exams at induction which did not involve undressing. Soldiers rarely bathed and avoided being seen nude. Women typically passed themselves off as teenage boy recruits.3

hospital alexandria vaA ward inside a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.

At the end of the war, Edmonds tried to explain her decision to join the army. She wrote; “It is true, I was not an American—I was not obliged to remain here during this terrible strife—I could return to my native land.” But, she said, “It was not my intention, or desire, to seek my own personal ease and comfort while so much sorrow and distress filled the land.” Still, she wondered what she, as a young woman barely out of her teens, could do. She joined the army as a male “Field Nurse.”4

Edmonds accompanied the army to the battlefield of First Bull Run in July of 1861. She tended to the battlefield wounded and she was almost captured by the Confederate cavalry during the Union army’s disastrous retreat. After the Battle of Bull Run, Edmonds tended the wounded at different hospitals in Alexandria, Virginia. She found a more lasting post at the newly established hospital at Georgetown near Washington.  There she encountered men wounded in body and mind. On August 3, 1861, she recorded in her journal “Have been on duty all day. John C. is perfectly wild with delirium, and keeps shouting at the top of his voice some military command, or, when vivid recollections of the battle-field come to his mind, he enacts a pantomime of the terrible strife…” The inadequacy of the medical corps preparations were fully on view to the young nurse; “There are five hundred patients here who require constant attention, and not half enough nurses to take care of them.” 5

emma edmonds markerHistorical markers describing Emma Edmonds’s life were erected in Michigan and Texas. She was one of only three women admitted to full membership in the Civil War veterans organization the Grand Army of the Republic.

Everything from trained staff to medicines to food was in short supply. Emma Edmonds had to beg for supplies from women in town just to feed her men.6

As her nursing days went on, Edmonds noticed that she hardened to the suffering of the men. “Oh, what an amount of suffering I am called to witness every hour and every moment. There is no cessation, and yet it is strange that the sight of all this suffering and death does not affect me more… It does seem as if there is a sort of stoicism granted for such occasions.”7

As Frank Thompson, she served alongside a male friend, a fellow Canadian immigrant in the Michigan Volunteer Infantry.  Emma Edmonds wrote that though she had known her Canadian friend since childhood, he had not realized who she was, but that he befriended his comrade because “Frank” was an immigrant from his homeland. Her friend was, she wrote, “like myself, …a wanderer from his native land. There was a strong bond of sympathy existing between us, for we both believed that duty called us there, and were willing to lay down even life itself, if need be, in this glorious cause.” One day in 1862, he was killed in a skirmish in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. “Now he was gone,” she wrote, “and I was left alone with a deeper sorrow in my heart than I had ever known before.”8

Video: Care of the Wounded After Pickett’s Charge

Resource: You can read Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds.

Sources:

1. The Lives of Emma Edmonds by Carl Senna NY Times Disunion April 21, 2014; Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865); They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
2. They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
3. They Fought Like Demons, Women Soldiers in the Civil War, By DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook published by Louisiana State Press (2002).
4. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 197-200)
5. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 580-582)
6. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 586-588)
7. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 588-590)
8. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields by Emma Edmonds (1865) (Kindle Locations 999-1002).

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union?

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains

24. Lincoln Dashes German Immigrants Hopes for Emancipation

25. When Hatred of Immigrants Stopped the Washington Monument from Being Built

26. Inside the Mind of a Know Nothing

27. The Evolution of the Know Nothings

28. The Know Nothings Launch a Civil War Against Immigrant America

29. The Know Nothings: From Triumph to Collapse

30. The Lasting Impact of the Know Nothings on Immigrant America.

31. Lincoln, the Know Nothings, and Immigrant America.

32. Irish Green and Black America: Race on the Edge of Civil War.

33. The Democratic Party and the Racial Consciousness of Irish Immigrants Before the Civil War

34. The Confederates Move Against Latino New Mexico

35. Nuevomexicanos Rally As Confederates Move Towards Santa Fe—But For Which Side?

36. The Confederate Army in New Mexico Strikes at Valverde

37. The Swedish Immigrant Who Saved the U.S. Navy

38. The Confederates Capture Santa Fe and Plot Extermination

39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.

40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.

41. Did Immigrants Hand New Orleans Over to the Union Army?

42. Did New Orleans’ Immigrants See Union Soldiers As Occupiers or Liberators?

43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.

44. Union General Ben Butler Leverages Immigrant Politics in New Orleans

45. Thomas Meager: The Man Who Created the Irish Brigade

46. Thomas Meagher: The Irish Rebel Joins the Union Army

47. Recruiting the Irish Brigade-Creating the Irish American

48. Cross Keys: A German Regiment’s Annihilation in the Shenandoah Valley

49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.

50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.

51. Slaves Immigrate from the Confederacy to the United States During the Peninsula Campaign

52. The Irish 9th Massachusetts Cut Off During the Seven Days Battles

53. Union Defeat and an Irish Medal of Honor at the End of the Seven Days

54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.

55. Carl Schurz: To Win the Civil War End Slavery

56. Carl Schurz: From Civilian to General in One Day

57. Did Anti-German Bigotry Help Cause Second Bull Run Defeat?

58. Immigrant Soldiers Chasing Lee Into Maryland

59. Scottish Highlanders Battle at South Mountain

60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation

61. The Irish Brigade at Antietam

62. Private Peter Welsh Joins the Irish Brigade

63. Preliminaries to Emancipation: Race, the Irish, and Lincoln

64. The Politics of Emancipation: Lincoln Suffers Defeat

65. Carl Schurz Blames Lincoln for Defeat

66. The Irish Brigade and Virginia’s Civilians Black and White

67. The Irish Brigade and the Firing of General McClellan

68. General Grant Expells the Jews

69. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Its Destruction At Fredericksburg.

70. Fredericksburg: The Worst Day in the Young Life of Private McCarter of the Irish Brigade

71. Forever Free: Emancipation New Year Day 1863

72. Private William McCarter of the Irish Brigade Hospitalized After Fredericksburg

73. The Immigrant Women That Nursed Private McCarter After Fredericksburg

74. Nursing Nuns of the Civil War

75. The Biases Behind Grant’s Order Expelling the Jews

76. The Jewish Community Reacts to Grant’s Expulsion Order

77. Lincoln Overturns Grant’s Order Against the Jews

78. Irish Families Learn of the Slaughter at Fredericksburg

79. Requiem for the Irish Brigade

80. St. Patrick’s Day in the Irish Brigade

81. Student Asks: Why Don’t We Learn More About Immigrants in the Civil War?

82. Missouri’s German Unionists: From Defeat to Uncertain Victory

83. Missouri Germans Contest Leadership of Unionist Cause

84. German Leader Franz Sigel’s Victory Earns a Powerful Enemy

85. Immigrant Unionists Marching Towards Pea Ridge

86. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge: Opening Moves

87. Pea Ridge: The German Unionists Outflanked

88. German Immigrants at the Battle of Pea Ridge

89. The Organization of the “German” XI Corps

90. The Irish Brigade on the Road to Chancellorsville

91. The “German” XI Corps on the Eve of Chancellorsville

92. The “Germans Run Away” at Chancellorsville

93. The New York Times, the Germans, and the Anatomy of a Scapegoat at Chancellorsville

94. An Irish Soldier Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

95. Lee’s Army Moves Towards Gettysburg: Black Refugees Flee

96. Iron Brigade Immigrants Arrive at Gettysburg

97. Iron Brigade Immigrants Go Into Battle the First Day at Gettysburg

98. The “German” XI Corps at Gettysburg July 1, 1863

99. An Irish Colonel and the Defense of Little Round Top on the Second Day at Gettysburg

100. A Prayer Before Death for the Irish Brigade at Gettysburg: July 2, 1863

101. The Irish Regiment that Ended “Pickett’s Charge”: July 3, 1863

102. Five Points on the Edge of the Draft Riots

103. Before the Draft Riots: The Cultivation of Division

104. The New York Draft Riots Begin

105. Convulsion of Violence: The First Day of the New York Draft Riots

106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.

107. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate and the Know Nothings

108. Killing Pat Cleburne: Know Nothing Violence

109. Pat Cleburne: Arresting a General, Becoming a General

110. The Immigrant Story Behind “Twelve Years a Slave”

111. A German Immigrant Woman’s Gettysburg Address

112. Pat Cleburne: The Irish Confederate’s Emancipation Proclamation

113. Pat Cleburne: The South Can’t Use Black Soldiers Without Ending Slavery

114. The Suppression of Pat Cleburne’s Emancipation Proposal

115. An Irish Immigrant Colonel’s Warnings Ignored at Chickamauga

116. An Immigrant Colonel’s Fighting Retreat at Chickamauga

117. August Willich: German Socialist at Chickamauga

118. Hans Heg:at Chickamauga: Norwegian Commander on the Eve of Battle

119. Ivan and Nadine Turchin: Russian Revolutionary Aristocrats at Chickamauga

120. German Immigrants Pinned Down at Chickamauga

121. Hans Heg: To Die for His Adopted Country at Chickamauga

122. Patrick Guiney: An Irish Colonel on the Edge of the Wilderness

123. Immigrants March Out of The Wilderness and Into a Wicked Hail of Gunfire

124. Peter Welsh in the Irish Brigade’s Purgatory at Spotsylvania

125. Peter Welsh: What Sacrifice Must the Immigrant Make for His Adopted Land?

126. A Second Irish Brigade’s Catastrophe at a Forgotten Fight Near Fredericksburg

127. An Irish Man and a French Woman Between Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

128. Two Irish Brigades Swept Away by a Hurricane from Hell at Cold Harbor

129. Petersburg: The Start of a Ten Month Siege that Devoured Men and Disabled the Irish Brigade

130. A Volcano in Virginia: The Battle of the Crater

131. 1864 Election: The Immigrant Voter & Abraham Lincoln

132. August Belmont: The German Jewish Immigrant Who Led the Opposition to Lincoln’s 1864 Reelection

133. Lincoln and the Superiority of the “Negro” over the Irish

134. Lincoln’s Germans and the Election of 1864

135. Lincoln’s German Lawyer Comes Out Swinging in the Election of 1864

136. Lincoln Wins the Election of 1864 With Immigrant Votes

137. American Refugee Camp in Civil War Kentucky Destroyed by Union Soldiers

138. Kentucky Civil War Refugee Camp Reborn and Reconstructed After Expulsions

139. Immigrant German “Hamburgers” Tormented and Captured at Petersburg

140. German General Weitzel and His African Canadians at Petersburg

141. Irish Regiment at the Beginning of the End of the Confederacy at Five Forks

142. Richmond Burning: The German Immigrant and Black Troops Who Saved the City

143. Appomattox: The Capture of a Confederate Army & the Fall from Grace of an Immigrant General

144. Lincoln Assassinated: John Wilkes Booth’s Immigrant Conspirators

145. Immigrants Hunt Lincoln’s Killers and Help Capture the Confederate President

146. Lincoln’s Murder and the New York Irish American

147. Lincoln’s Funeral in Immigrant New York

148. German General Carl Schurz Begins His Investigation of the Post-War South

149. Carl Schurz Warned That a “System of Terrorism” Was Taking Hold in the Post-War South in 1865

150. Immigrants in the Union Navy: Minorities in the Majority

151. How Immigrants Were Recruited into the United States Navy

152. African Canadian Sailors in the Union Navy

153. High School Student Proves Professor Wrong When He Denied “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Existed

154. The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

155. No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

156. Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

157.  A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

158. Our Man in Sweden: Recruiting Immigrants to Strengthen the Union War Effort

159. German Immigrants and the End of Slavery in Missouri

160. 13th Amendment: Immigrants and the end of slavery in America

161. Finding Civil Immigrants Where You Wouldn’t Expect Them: The Irish and German Harvard Men

162. Recovering the memories of Jewish Civil War soldiers

163. Kate Cumming Confederate Immigrant Nurse and the Shiloh Disaster

164. Immigrant nurse reports on Civil War hospital organized by Nursing Nuns after Shiloh battle

165. Sarah Emma Edmonds: The Immigrant Woman As “Male Nurse”

166. Immigrant Women Struggled to be Recognized as Nurses After the Civil War

 

Cultural

Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

The Real Story Behind The Immigrants’ Civil War Photo

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

The Five Meanings of “The Immigrants’ Civil War”

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War

New Immigrants Try to Come to Terms with America’s Civil War

Important Citizenship Site to be Preserved-Fortress Monroe

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Civil War Blogs I Read Every Week

First Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award Goes to Joe Reinhart

Damian Shiels Wins Second Annual The Immigrants’ Civil War Award

Mother Jones: Civil War Era Immigrant and Labor Leader

Juneteenth for Immigrants

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler-Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained

No Irish Need Apply: High School Student Proves Yale PhD. Wrong When He Claimed “No Irish Need Apply” Signs Never Existed

The Fallout from No Irish Need Apply Article Spreads Worldwide

No Irish Need Apply Professor Gets into a Fight With Our Blogger Pat Young Over Louisa May Alcott

Professor Behind No Irish Need Apply Denial May Have Revealed Motive for Attacking 14 Year Old Historian

Books for Learning More About The Immigrants’ Civil War

Free Yale Course with David Blight on the Civil War

Cinco de Mayo Holiday Dates Back to the American Civil War


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