Emma Edmonds, a Civil War spy

Emma Edmonds specialized in disguises. It was a way of life you could say, one which began in her teens.

Back then, she lived on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, being raised by a doting mother and an abusive father who resented Emma for not being born a boy. He wasn’t good to her. And when he tried to marry her off at fifteen, she decided to leave.

Emma Edmonds portrait
Emma Edmonds

She traveled alone to the U.S. And this is where Emma Edmonds became Franklin Thompson, probably because Franklin had more opportunities than Emma did. And Franklin became a bible salesman living in Hartford, Connecticut, and then a bookseller in Flint, Michigan.

Soon the Civil War started. Emma, an ardent supporter of the Union, felt a duty to serve. So she joined. As Franklin, of course. Physical checks were sparse then.

Emma worked as a nurse but yearned for something more. She wanted to become a spy.

That chance came.

Emma needed to infiltrate the Confederate camp stationed near her own. So Emma did what Emma knew how to do well. She changed her identity. Using silver nitrate to darken her skin, Franklin Thompson became Cuff, a southern black man. And then she wandered near the Confederate camp, expecting to be picked up for some work need. Which she was.

Over a few days in camp, she learned important information, including the Army building “Quaker Guns,” or cannons that looked real from a distance but were just wooden logs in reality. Then she escaped from the camp and returned to her own, where she told leadership what she learned.

Emma, or Franklin, or Cuff, or an Irish peddler by the name of Bridget O’Shea, which was a future identity, would take part in eleven spy missions during the war.

Note: If you enjoyed this snapshot biography of Emma Edmonds, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a donation. Visit our Patreon page to donate. Your support is much appreciated.

Note: this post was updated on February 10th, 2021.

“Emma Edmonds, a Civil War spy” sources: Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit, https://bit.ly/2K6B0DGhttps://bit.ly/2HjuHe5