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.

THE BELL WITH SEVEN LIVES

Travelers headed south across Central Texas may discover an interesting story of survival while passing through Cuero.  On the southwest corner of US highways183 and 87, the handsome mission style St. Mark’s Lutheran Church boasts three bells in its arched façade.

The small bronze bell, the one on the lower right, began life on the Reliance, a merchant ship sailing as part of the Morgan Steamship Line between New Orleans and the thriving port of Indianola.  In 1856, Indianola residents were enjoying a party aboard the Reliance docked at the end of one of the port’s long piers extending into Matagorda Bay, when a fire broke out. All the partygoers escaped unharmed and as they watched the burning ship sink into the shallow water they heard the ringing of its tiny bell.

The Lutherans needed a bell for their new church, and with Morgan Steamship Lines’ permission, some of the members dove into the bay to retrieve the bell for the church steeple.

Nine years later, during the Civil War, Union troops occupied Indianola for a few months.  While confiscating everything of value to take with them, a group of Union soldiers climbed the Lutheran church steeple and tossed the little bell to the ground, intending to return for it as they loaded the other booty.

That night, some of the church members quietly retrieved the bell and buried it. During the next ten years Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, gave bells to most of the Indianola churches, which probably explains why the little bell remained buried and forgotten.

In 1875 a terrible hurricane wrecked Indianola, destroying most all the church buildings.  Many residents moved inland to places like the new railhead town of Cuero. Then, another devastating storm and fire in 1886 turned Indianola into a ghost town, forcing its residents to give up and move inland.

Meantime, Lutherans in Cuero, after holding services for several years in the German school house, finally built their first church in 1889.  As the building neared completion and talk centered on the need for a bell in the handsome steeple, one of the members remembered helping bury the little bronze bell almost twenty-five years earlier.  He led a group to the site where the little bell waited, and they proudly mounted it in the steeple.  For about five years the bell called the congregation to worship until a member donated a much larger bell.

Again, the little bronze bell took a new life summoning volunteers of the Cuero Fire Department.  After several years, the volunteer firemen installed a modern alert system, and an observant church member discovered the little bell tossed in a trash heap.   Upon completion of the present church in 1939, the little bell found its final home as one of three bells in the peal.

Serving as St. Mark’s Prayer Bell, it rings when worshipers pray the Lord’s Prayer and it tolls softly at the conclusion of funeral services as the casket is moved from the front of the church to the narthex.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church history claims the little bronze bell as a symbol for the calling of God’s people—to continue serving as circumstances change, even after being buried and resurrected or thrown on a trash heap.