Case File: Soldiers In Skirts


I was told that one of my great-great-great-grandmothers was a soldier in the Civil War. Could it be true? - F.W. Simpson, New Bedford, CT


All my life I've heard family gossip and debate about an ancestress alleged to have fought in the Civil War. I finally decided to put the rumor to rest, one way or the other. First, I had to find out who this distant ancestress was. I asked my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and got several different answers: Emma Thompson, Sarah Edmonds, Sarah Edmondson, and so on.

Well, I spent a few weeks developing a family tree. Eventually I had a list of possible candidates, but none of the names were close to matching the alleged soldier. I hadn't proved anything.

Taking the other side of the case, I started looking on the Internet for variations of the Emma, Sarah, and Edmonds names. After several attempts, I finally hit pay dirt. A history review about women in the Civil War mentioned that a "Sarah Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson," had served in a Michigan regiment. After going through regimental histories to find the right unit, I sent for the service records of Franklin Thompson (not exactly the same name, but the only F. Thompson in the ranks). According to the records, "she" was a private in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry. But I still didn't have a link.

One day, as I was stumbling through yet another search of online government records, I found something very strange. The written record for House Bill 5335 (March 28, 1884) says, "That Franklin Thompson and Mrs. Sarah E.E. Seelye are one and the same person is established by abundance of proof and beyond a doubt."

It seems House Bill 5335 was all about awarding her a special pension for her service as "Pvt. Thompson." I had proof!

Now I'm trying to learn more, but I'm having some trouble with facts, even in primary sources. For instance, in 1865 she wrote a book, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, in which she describes amazing exploits. But she also claims to have been at Antietam (the single bloodiest day in American military history). And yet her regimental history says the unit had "Duty in the Defences [sic] of Washington, D.C., September 3 to October 11."

So which of those primary sources do I trust? It looks like I'll have to keep on trying to find whatever truth might be hiding behind my great-great-great-grandmother's skirts.

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