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 to a man she didn’t love, Emma decided to leave.

Black and white historical photograph of Emma Edmonds. She is depicted as a young woman with dark hair pulled back, wearing a mid-19th-century dark dress with a high collar. Emma is sitting sideways with her body turned to face the camera, and she appears to be writing. The photo has a faded appearance, indicative of the age of the photograph.
Emma Edmonds

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

Soon, the U.S. 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 in battles such as the one at Antietam, but she yearned for something else. 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 best. She changed her identity. Using silver nitrate to darken her skin, Franklin Thompson became Cuff, a southern black man. Then, she wandered near the Confederate camp, expecting to be picked up for needed work. 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, telling leadership what she had 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.

Notes:

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  • This post was updated on February 13th, 2024.

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