Friday, July 17, 2009

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye

Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye was born in December, 1841, in New Brunswick, Canada. At age fifteen she ran away from home to escape a tyrannical father and an unwanted arranged marriage. After two years of living as a single woman, Sarah decided to pursue her fortune disguised as a man. Her travels as a Bible salesman brought her to Flint, Michigan, where she resided in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. After the fall of Fort Sumter, Sarah volunteered for the Union cause and under disguise she soldiered using the alias Franklin (Frank) Thompson. She joined the United States Army, Company F, Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, in May of that year. Her militia unit was known as “Flint’s Union Greys.” She served in the Army as a field nurse, spy, soldier and mail carrier. After the war, she wrote her memoirs in a book entitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps and Battle-Fields, which was published in 1865.

In the letter transcribed here, Sarah gives great detail about an accident she suffered while carrying the mail between Washington and Centreville, Virginia, near where the Second Battle of Bull Run (or the Second Battle of Manassas) was about to take place. Colonel Orlando Poe had assigned her to be postmaster for the regiment, and she felt a great sense of urgency and duty about delivering the mail before the battle began. In the letter she is writing to her friend, R. H. Halsted, to give him a Statement of Facts about the accident so that he can write an affidavit to the government on her behalf. She had been receiving a Civil War pension of twelve dollars per month since 1884, and she needed the testimony of her friend in order to support her request for an increase in pension. At the end of the letter, Sarah talks about how she has suffered with her injuries, and states, “my entire left side from my head to my foot shows symtoms of paralysis, and it may be, that very soon, I shall not need a pension.” This haunting statement was unfortunately true, for it was only one year later, on September 5, 1898, at age 57, that Sarah passed away. She is buried in the GAR section of Washington Cemetery in Houston, Texas, with a limestone marker that says, “Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse.”

Transcription of a letter from Sarah Edmonds Seelye to Richard Halsted, requesting his support for her appeal for an increase in her Civil War pension

La Porte, Texas

Sept. 6, 1897

My Kind Friend[1]

   I herein give you a Statement of facts in regard to the accident referred to in my letter. Said accident occurred on the day of the 2nd battle of Bull Run, while on my way with the mail, from Washington, to our troops near Centerville[2].

   I was trying with all my might to reach Berry’s Brigade[3] before the battle commenced, and in order to do so, I took advantage of every near cut that I possibly could, by leaping fences and ditches instead of going a long way round.

   When I had accomplished about half the distance between Washington and Centerville, I saw a chance to cut off a mile or more, by leaving the road and taking a short cut, which I thought best to take advantage of, but after having gone a considerable distance from the road, I found myself confronted by a very wide ditch, which I attempted to cross; but instead of leaping across it my mule reared and fell headlong into it, and I was thrown with such force against the side of the ditch, that I was stunned and unable to escape further injury from the frantic efforts of the mule to extricate himself from such an unpleasant position.

   There was some water, and deep mud at the bottom of said ditch, and where the mule tried to get up, his feet stuck fast in the mud, and he would fall back and try again. Finally he succeeded in getting out, but how long I remained there I never knew, but the first sound that struck my ear was the booming of cannon, and the first thought that flashed across my brain was “The mail! The mail!”

   On crawling out of the ditch I realized that I had sustained severe injuries. I had no use of my left lower limb. I felt sure it was broken, and the intense pain in my left side, and breast, made me feel sick and faint; while the bare thought of the undelivered mail drove me almost frantic.

While my mind was thus taking in the situation, I was trying to creep towards the mule, which stood a few yards distant, patiently waiting for me. Notwithstanding my distressed condition I at once set about readjusting the saddle and mail bags, which now hung, mud bespattered, underneath the mule’s stomach; but how to get the mud off, and get on the mule’s back was the all important question. But after several ineffectual attempts to remount I finally succeeded, by making loops in a long rope halter, and fastening one end to the pummel of the saddle.

   I then started for the battlefield with the utmost speed that I could endure, and after extreme suffering I reached our troops, who had not yet become engaged in action, and after delivering the mail I went to the rear where I found Dr. Vickery,[4] with the hospital corps and ambulance.

I made no report of the accident, but simply said that I had hurt my leg and it was very painful, and asked him for something to rub on it to relieve the pain.

After the battle was over and the Army had gone into camp, I found myself in a more serious condition than when the accident occurred. I had received internal injuries which caused frequent hemorrhage from the lungs. But I dared not report the fact nor apply for medical treatment, for the very first thing would have been an examination of my lungs—which to me simply meant “dismissal from the Service.” Consequently I took the utmost pains to conceal the facts in the case and silently endured all the misery and distress which the unfortunate accident entailed upon me, rather than to be sent away from the army under guard like a criminal.

   Had it not been for you, and two other boys—Sam Houlton[5] and Robert Bostwick[6]—I probably should have died in my tent. Notwithstanding I was so lame I could not put my left foot to the ground, I would not give up but persisted in going after the mail, but when I returned I had three dear friends to take the burdens from my shoulders. You distributed the mail for me, sold my watches,[7] collected and took care of my money. Bostwick brought my meals to my tent, and Sam always had some new healing remedies for my wounds and bruises. God bless you all!

   Four years ago, when I had an application filed for increase of pension my left lower limb was bandaged from the ankle to the knee, and I had not been able to wear a shoe, proper, on it for over two years—and my left side from the waist to the collarbone I had to keep covered with porous plasters, to enable me to breathe with any degree of comfort. Thank heaven, I am much better now, than I was then, in many respects; but my entire left side from my head to my foot show symtoms of paralysis, and it may be, that very soon, I shall not need a pension.

With my Kindest regards

to you & family I am

Yours Fraternally

S. Emma E. Seelye

[1] Richard H. Halsted grew up in Genesee County and enlisted in the Michigan Second Infantry at Flint on April 23, 1861. Twenty-three at the time, he eventually rose to the rank of sergeant. He was taken prisoner at Campbell’s Station, Tennessee, on Nov. 16, 1863, but he returned to the regiment June 4, 1864, a month before he was mustered out of the army at Detroit. In 1897 Edmonds wrote to him and asked him to help her secure an increase in her pension from the government, something he agreed to do. She sent him her “statement of facts” on September 6, 1897. Halsted died at Concord, Michigan, in 1903. See Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers in the Civil War 1861-1865, vol. 2, Second Michigan Infantry (Kalamazoo: Ihling Bros. & Everard, 190?), 81; hereafter, Record: Second Michigan Infantry.

[2] Centreville, Virginia. The Second Battle of Bull Run took place between August 28th and 30th, 1862. Robert E. Lee defeated General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Pope’s forces retreated to Centreville. For more on the battle see John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

[3] Col. Hiram G. Berry of Maine distinguished himself in the battles of Bull Run and Williamsburg. He was made brigadier-general on March 20, 1862 and was assigned command of the Third Brigade, which at the time consisted of the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Michigan, and the 37th New York regiments. Edmond’s regiment was part of Berry’s Brigade, Kearny’s Division, Heintzelman’s Corps. At the Second Battle of Bull Run Lieutenant Colonel Louis Dillman commanded Edmond’s regiment. See Record: Second Michigan Infantry, 4, 7; also, Charles P. Mattocks, “Major-General Hiram G. Berry,” in the Collections of the Maine Historical Society, 3rd ser., vol.1 (Portland: Maine Historical Society, 1904), 162-86.

[4] Richard S. Vickery enlisted in the Second Infantry at Ft. Wayne on May 17, 1861 and was wounded in action on July 30, 1864. Thirty years old when he enlisted, he remained in the service long after the Civil War, rising to the rank of major and surgeon and serving as the surgeon of the Soldiers’ Home, Virginia. He retired in 1895. Record: Second Michigan Infantry, 176-77.

[5] In 1861 Samuel M. Holton, age twenty-three, enlisted in the Union Army in Battle Creek, his hometown, joining Company C, Second Infantry. He served as hospital steward and was connected with the hospital department from the time the regiment was organized, suggesting how Edmonds, who worked as a nurse, came to know him. He was taken prisoner at Savage Station, Virginia, on June 25, 1862, because he refused to leave his patients when the army left the hospital in the hands of the Confederates. He was exchanged four months later. Honorably discharged in 1865, he was still living in Battle Creek in the early 1900s. Record: Second Michigan Infantry, 91.

[6] Three Bostwicks enlisted in the Second Infantry—Dana, Lafayette, and Robert. Dana died “from wounds received in action, Nov. 24, 1863.” Robert died in prison at Andersonville, Georgia, on June 18, 1864. Lafayette, who was also wounded in action, but is listed as living in Pontiac, Michigan in the early 1900s, is the soldier to whom Edmonds is referring. In her letter to Richard Halsted, dated January 27, 1885, she writes “I wrote to Bostwick, and the enclosed is his reply.” They must have been close friends from the beginning; both enlisted in Flint in late May 1862. Lafayette Bostwick was discharged from service at Detroit on July 21, 1864. See Record: Second Michigan Infantry, 37-8; Emma E. Seelye to Richard H. Halsted, 27 January 1885, S. Emma E. Edmonds Papers, Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University.

[7] The meaning of “sold my watches” is unclear.

Sarah Edmonds Seelye to Richard Halsted Letter Images

Seelye letter pages 1 and 2   seelye letter pages 3 and 4 Seelye letter pages 5 and 6

Click images to enlarge


Commentary on the Seelye Letter

sarah on horseback[4] There are different methods of transcription. The editors of Michigan in Letters employ a conservative style of expanded transcription—the aim being to make the documents as easy to understand as possible without introducing changes of content or meaning. For clarity, minor textual changes are introduced in the transcriptions. These include: a standard form for datelines, salutations, and closings; standard paragraph breaks (paragraphs are separated by a line); capitalization of the first letter of each sentence; and standard terminal punctuation at the end of each sentence. Edmonds, for example, uses semi-colons or dashes to end complete sentences, the editors use periods. Missing words, when obvious, are supplied in brackets, and interlinear insertions are silently brought into the text. Words unintentionally repeated and words crossed out, if they don’t carry significant meaning, are silently emended (for example, Edmond’s “asked him for something to rub on it” is transcribed “asked for something to rub on it”). Otherwise, if not confusing to the reader, original punctuation, capitalization, and spellings are retained (Edmond’s “symtoms”—in “my foot shows symtoms of paralysis”—is retained).

Edmond’s letters to R. H. Halsted were given to the Clarke Historical Library in 1964 by Halsted’s grandson Kilbourne H. Snow. There are seven letters altogether. As part of the donation, the library also received a scrapbook Halsted kept, which contains newspaper clippings about Edmonds.


Further Reading on Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye

Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army : Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-fields. Hartford: W. S. Williams & Company, 1865.

Fladeland, Betty. “New Light on Sarah Emma Edmonds, Alias Franklin Thompson.” Michigan History 47 (December 1963): 357-62. Recently reissued online  (accessed July 15, 2009).

Pferdehirt, Julia. “Sarah Emma Edmonds 1841-1898: Soldier, Nurse, and Spy in the 2nd Michigan Infantry.” In More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Michigan Women. Guilford, Conn: Morris Book Publishing, 2007.Stevens, Bryna. Frank Thompson: Her Civil War Story. New York : Macmillan Pub. Co., 1992.