Emma Edmondson, Union Spy

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Born in 1841 as Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, the future spy grew up as the youngest of five children on her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada. To please her father, who apparently wanted a son, Emma dressed and worked on the farm like a boy. When she faced an unwanted, arranged marriage in the late 1850s, she ran away from home, and changed her name to Edmonds. She dressed as a man when she reached the United States and began calling herself Frank Thompson as she traveled about the country selling Bibles.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she continued her masquerade as Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry. Military records indicate that Private Thompson served as a nurse and regimental mail carrier. The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia. Emma worked as a nurse at Manassas and helped procure hospital supplies at the Battle of Yorktown.

Although the military record does not say Emma served as a spy, several notations of “absent on duty” coincide with her spy missions. In her first clandestine adventure, she put on a black wig, used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and pretended to be an escaped slave employed on the earthworks at Yorktown where she identified a Confederate spy. At least twice she went behind Confederate lines “disguised” as a woman, including a time when she worked as a black laundress for the Confederates. On another occasion she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea and sold apples and soap to Confederate soldiers. During one of the missions she began having “chills,” the first sign of the malaria that would grow steadily worse.

Emma saw plenty of action when the 2nd Michigan participated in the Battle of Williamsburg. She served as an orderly for a general in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse and in the Battle of Fair Oaks she observed the use of the Intrepid, a balloon that successfully reported Confederate troop movements. In the summer of 1862, while working as a regimental mail carrier, Emma made a round trip of about 100 miles, often sleeping on the side of the road.

Private Franklin Thompson

Private Franklin Thompson

Several campaigns followed, including the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before the 2nd Michigan moved to the Western theater of operations. By mid-April 1863, as the malaria grew worse, her request for a furlough was denied. Fearing discovery of her secret identity if she were hospitalized, she deserted.

She resumed life as a woman and worked as a female nurse for the United States Christian Commission. During this time she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which captured the nation’s imagination, becoming a best seller at 175,000 copies. She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.

Emma married a fellow Canadian, Linus H. Seelye, in 1867, and after moving several times they settled with their five children in LaPorte, Texas.

For several years Emma gathered affidavits from 2nd Michigan veterans in an effort to clear the charge of desertion from the record of Franklin Thompson. Finally, on July 5, 1884, an Act of the 48th Congress granted Emma Edmonds Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, an honorable discharge and allowed a pension of $12 a month.

The General George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic on April 22, 1897, invited Emma into its membership, the only woman known to be a member of a Civil War veteran’s organization.

Continuing bouts of malaria caused her health to deteriorate and on September 5, 1898, Emma Edmondson, Union Spy, died. On Memorial Day 1901, her body was moved to the Washington Cemetery in Houston and given military honors.

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Black History Month Part III

During the years that Texas was part of Mexico, the government offered free blacks the same rights of citizenship and opportunities for land ownership as were provided to white settlers. And just like the white colonists, the free settlers of color worked to establish successful lives in the new country.  William Goyens (sometimes spelled Goings) settled in Nacogdoches in the early 1820s and became

William Goyens

William Goyens

an Indian Agent, working as a mediator and interpreter between the settlers and Cherokees of Northeast Texas. Born in North Carolina in 1794, the son of a white mother and mulatto father (with Cherokee ancestry), Goyens’ fair complexion may have helped him establish a successful blacksmith business in Nacogdoches and begin land speculation.  His work as an Indian Agent earned the trust of the Indians, the Mexican government, and the settlers in East Texas.  He opened a freight hauling business, manufactured and repaired wagons, traded with the Indians, began lending money, and developed successful sawmill and gristmill operations.  He married a white widow and adopted her son. Despite barely escaping being sold back into slavery on two business trips to Louisiana, Goyens owned as many as nine slaves and added to his wealth by entering the slave trade as a buyer and seller of human chattel.

During the buildup to the Texas Revolution, Goyens served as Sam Houston’s, interpreter as Houston negotiated a treaty with the Cherokees that kept them from siding with the Mexican Army during the war.

After Texas won Independence from Mexico in 1836, laws under the new Republic changed the status of freedmen.  Many slaveholders feared that the prosperity of freedmen would encourage rebellion among their slaves.  The constitution of the Republic of Texas took away the citizenship of free blacks, restricted their property rights, and forbade permanent residence in Texas without the approval of the congress.  The laws became even more restrictive for free blacks after Texas annexation as the twenty-eighth state.

Despite living the rest of his life in the mansion he built west of Nacogdoches and continuing to amass considerable wealth, William Goyens was forced to hire some of the best lawyers in Nacogdoches to defend against white neighbors who constantly attempted to take the property he accumulated. Goyens died in 1856 and is buried next to his wife on the property they acquired near Nacogdoches.

Hendrick Arnold, the son of a white man and black mother, moved with his family from Mississippi to Stephen F. Austin’s colony in 1826.  During the Texas Revolution, Arnold and his father-in-law, Erastus (Deaf) Smith, earned an almost legendary reputation as scouts and spies for the Texan cause. Beginning with the 1835 capture of San Antonio, Arnold’s bravery and skills in the fight for San

Arnold in foreground of Joseph Musso mural.

Arnold in foreground of Joseph Musso mural.

Antonio earned him a citation for his “important service.”  Deaf Smith suffered serious injuries in the Texan’s fight for San Antonio, and Arnold nursed him back to health.  Then, Arnold joined Deaf Smith as they scouted for other cavalry units, even infiltrating the Mexican camps with Deaf Smith disguised as a Mexican and Arnold posing as a runaway slave.  Before the Battle at San Jacinto, Deaf Smith’s spy company followed Sam Houston’s orders to destroy the bridge that would have offered escape from the field of battle for both armies, thus sealing the boundaries for the final battle for independence.

Like all the men who fought for Texas Independence, Arnold was compensated in land for his service, however, his property lay northwest of present Bandera, a site with poor soil that edged Indian territory, evidence of the lower status that a free black man held in the society of that period.  Arnold never lived on his land, choosing instead to live near San Antonio where he operated a gristmill.

By 1827 Arnold had fathered a daughter, Harriet, with one of his father’s slaves, and despite his own status as a free black, Arnold kept Harriet as his slave.  By the fall of 1835, before his participation in Texas War for Independence, Arnold had settled in San Antonio where he married Martina, the stepdaughter of Deaf Smith.  After Texas joined the Union, Arnold placed his daughter Harriet, who was about nineteen, in an indentured-servant contract with James Newcomb.  Newcomb was to pay $750 for Harriet’s service and then free her after five years. The Texas Black History Preservation Project points out that Arnold may have thought that Newcomb, a white man, had a better chance than Arnold of getting the Texas Legislature to accept a petition to allow Harriet to live in the state as a free woman.

Before the end of the indenture contract, both Newcomb and Arnold died in the 1849 Bexar County cholera epidemic.  Newcomb’s administrator successfully petitioned the Texas Legislature to allow Harriet to remain in Texas as a free woman, but Arnold’s wife (it is unclear who she was) sued the administrator for $2,000 plus the $750 due on the indentured-servant contract and asked that Harriet be returned as her slave.  The results of the suit are not clear.  Harriet may have been allowed to remain in Texas as a free woman.

Emma Edmondson–Union Spy

Born in 1841 as Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, the future spy grew up as the youngest of five children on her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada.  To please her father, who apparently wanted a son, Emma dressed and worked on the farm like a boy.  When she faced an unwanted, arranged marriage in the late 1850s, she ran away from home, and changed her name to Edmonds.  Upon reaching the United States, she dressed as a man, began calling herself Frank Thompson, and traveled about the country as a Bible salesman.

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she continued her masquerade as Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry.  Military records indicate that Private Thompson served as a nurse and regimental mail carrier. The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia.  Emma worked as a nurse at Manassas and helped procure hospital supplies at the Battle of Yorktown.

Although the military record does not say Emma served as a spy, several notations of “absent on duty” coincide with her spy missions. In her first clandestine adventure, she put on a black wig, used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and pretended to be an escaped slave employed on the earthworks at Yorktown where she identified a Confederate spy. At least twice she went behind Confederate lines “disguised” as a woman, including a time when she worked as a black laundress for the Confederates.  On another occasion she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea and sold apples and soap to Confederate soldiers.  During one of the missions she began having “chills,” the first sign of the malaria that would grow steadily worse.

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Emma saw plenty of action when the 2nd Michigan participated in the Battle of Williamsburg. She served as an orderly for a general in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse and in the Battle of Fair Oaks she observed the use of the Intrepid, a balloon that successfully reported Confederate troop movements.  In the summer of 1862, while working as a regimental mail carrier, Emma made a round trip of about 100 miles, often sleeping on the side of the road.

Several campaigns followed, including the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before the 2nd Michigan moved to the Western theater of operations.  By mid-April 1863, as the malaria grew worse, her request for a furlough was denied.  Fearing discovery of her secret identity if she were hospitalized, she deserted.

During the illness, she resumed life as a woman and then worked as a female nurse for the United States Christian Commission.  During this time she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which captured the nation’s imagination, becoming a best seller at 175,000 copies.  She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.

Emma married a fellow Canadian, Linus H. Seelye, in 1867, and after moving several times they settled with their five children in LaPorte, Texas.

For several years Emma gathered affidavits from 2nd Michigan veterans in an effort to clear the charge of desertion from the record of Franklin Thompson.  Finally, on July 5, 1884, an Act of the 48th Congress granted Emma Edmonds Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, an honorable discharge and allowed a pension of $12 a month.

The General George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic on April 22, 1897, invited Emma into its membership, the only woman known to be a member of a Civil War veteran’s organization.

Private Franklin Thompson

Continuing bouts of malaria caused her health to deteriorate and on September 5, 1898, Emma Edmondson, Union Spy, died.  On Memorial Day 1901, her body was moved to the Washington Cemetery in Houston and given military honors.

Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy

At the beginning of the Civil War, 17-year-old Marie Isabella (Belle) Boyd hardly fit the image of a daring spy.  A tall, slender blonde with a hooknose and protruding teeth, Belle had graduated Baltimore’s Mount Washington Female College and enjoyed the luxury of a Washington debut.  Family stories abound of the lively, oldest child of eight growing up as a tomboy climbing trees and finally in protest for being excluded from the adult dinner table at age eleven, she rode her horse into the dining room and announced, “Well, my horse is old enough isn’t he?”

Belle’s family lived in Martinsburg, Virginia (present West Virginia) and owned six slaves, one of whom, Eliza, became Belle’s constant companion.  Secretly, at night by candlelight, Belle defied the law by teaching Eliza to read and write.  When Belle began her other secret adventures—spying on Union troops—Eliza reportedly helped by carrying messages to Confederates in a hollowed-out watchcase.

In Belle’s memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison published in 1866, she relates a story that appears to signal the beginning of her involvement in the Civil War.  The Union captured Martinsburg and while ransacking homes and businesses, a group of drunken soldiers invaded the Boyd home and tried to raise a Yankee flag.  Mary Boyd, Belle’s mother, exclaimed, “Every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.”  Belle continues the story by writing that one of the soldiers “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.  I could stand it no longer . . . we ladies are obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.”  Belle drew her Colt 45 pistol and killed the gentleman.

The subsequent inquiry found Belle had “done perfectly right,” according to her account.  For a brief period sentries posted around her home kept watch on her activities, which worked to Belle’s profit.  She charmed secrets out of one of her overseers and related the information to Confederate officers—the beginning of her career as a spy.

Union officials began to watch Belle’s activities, but she managed to take advantage of her minders’ sense of chivalry and their natural deference to “ladies” to gather detailed information on Union movements that she passed on to Confederate commanders.

After visiting her father who was serving in what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, Belle began carrying messages between generals Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard.

In May 1862, probably while employed in a hotel owned by her relatives in the Shenandoah Valley town of Front Royal, she overheard plans to send Union forces east out of Front Royal, reducing the Union’s strength in the town.  She rode that night; some accounts say fifteen miles through Union lines to pass the information to Confederate Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.  When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to the edge of town to meet Jackson and inform him of the light enemy strength.  Jackson’s aide later described seeing a woman in white gliding swiftly out of town seeming to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waving a bonnet as she came.  Belle claimed in her memoir, “Federal pickets . . . immediately fired upon me . . .rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me . . . numerous bullets whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing.”  Jackson captured Front Royal and wrote a personal letter of appreciation for Belle’s bravery.  Some accounts say she received the Southern Cross of Honor.

The detective, Allan Pinkerton wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “She (Belle) gets around considerably, is very shrewd, and is probably acting as a spy.  She is an open, earnest, and undisguised secessionists, and talks secession on all practicable occasions . . .informant considers her more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operation than any three men in the valley.”

After being arrested in July 1862 and again the following year, she became known as the “Joan of Arc of the Confederacy.”  She volunteered to carry Confederate papers to England aboard the blockade-runner Greyhound only to be stopped on May 10, 1864.  She “managed” to escape, fled first to Canada, then on to London where she married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had captured the Greyhound.  Upon Hardinge’s return to the United States, he was jailed for aiding and abetting an enemy spy.  Soon after his release, he either died mysteriously or disappeared.

Belle remained in London where she wrote her two-volume memoir, gave birth to a daughter, and began a stage career.  By the end of 1866 Belle retuned to the United States with her daughter and made her stage debut in St. Louis under the name of Nina Benjamin.

Belle’s Texas connection began in 1868 when she acted in several plays in Houston and Galveston.  She moved on to Austin when she gave several dramatic readings at the Texas postwar constitutional convention.

Belle sampled domesticity in 1869 when she gave up her stage career to marry Dallas businessman, J. S. Hammond.  Their union produced three children and lasted until 1884 when Belle divorced Hammond and two months later married the twenty-four-year-old stock-company actor, Nathaniel Rue High.

Belle returned to the stage in 1886 under her maiden name, Belle Boyd, with High serving as her business manager.  She opened her Toledo, Ohio, debut with the dramatic story of her exploits as a Confederate spy.  She toured the country performing in a Confederate gray uniform and cavalry-style gray hat.

In 1900, after ending a lecture with the dramatic words “one God, one flag, one people—forever,” Belle Boyd died of a heart attack.