Spies, Raiders & Partisans

    Sarah Emma Edmonds  "Spy Disguised As A Slave"  December 1841 - September 5, 1898

Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man at the outbreak of the Civil War and enlisted in the Union army under the name Frank Thompson. While stationed in Virginia at the beginning of the Peninsular campaign, Edmonds volunteered for a mission inside Rebel lines at Yorktown. A phrenological exam by physicians (an examination of the conformation of the skull, believed to indicate mental faculties and character) determined her fitness for duty as a spy- but not her sex- and she was enlisted for the mission.

Edmonds decided to infiltrate Rebel lines disguised as a black man. She bought clothing from a fugitive slave, obtained a wig "of real negro wool", and colored her head, hands, and arms with silver nitrate. She slipped past Rebel pickets at night and the next morning joined slaves who were returning to Yorktown after taking breakfast to the pickets. At Yorktown Edmonds and the slaves were put to work with picks and shovels on fortifications. After a day of hard labor, Edmonds recorded that her hands were "blistered from my wrists to the finger ends."

That evening, Edmonds talked one of the slaves into exchanging duties with her. For the next two days she carried buckets of water around the camp, a job that enabled her to gather intelligence about the fortification and its armament. She recorded that she even caught a glimpse of Gens.. Robert E.. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.

The evening of her third day inside Rebel lines, Edmonds was sent with her group of slaves to carry supper to the picket lines, where she was surprised to find that some of the pickets were black men. Edmonds reported that as she was talking to one of the black pickets, an officer came up, gave her a gun, and ordered her to take the place of a picket who had recently been shot. Taking advantage of her position, she slipped away during the night and returned to the Yankee lines with the captured weapon and information about Confederate fortifications.

Fascinating Fact:  "I'm darned if that feller ain't turning white", one slave said to another as he pointed to Edmonds. The hot, sweaty work had caused the silver nitrate to fade. Edmonds explained to the slaves: "I've always expected to come white at some time, my mother's a white woman."


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