Sarah E. Thompson Papers, 1859-1898
An On-line Archival Collection

Special Collections Library, Duke University

Original documents - scanned images and transcriptions


About Sarah Thompson

Sarah Lane was born February 11, 1838 in Greene County, Tennessee. In 1854, Sarah married Sylvanius H.Thompson and they had two children. Sylvanius later became a private in the 1st Tennessee Calvary U.S.A., where he served primarily as a recruiter for the Union Army. Sarah worked alongside her husband assembling and organizing Union sympathizers in a predominately rebel area around Greeneville, Tennessee. In early 1864, Sylvanius Thompson was ambushed and killed by a Confederate soldier. Spurred by her husband's death, Sarah Thompson continued her work for the Union, delivering dispatches and recruiting information to Union officers. When CSA General John Hunt Morgan and his men spent the night in Greeneville, Sarah managed to slip away and alert Union forces to his whereabouts. Union troops invaded the area and by her accounts, she personally pointed out Morgan hiding behind a garden fence to a Union soldier who proceeded to kill Morgan.

After this event, Sarah served as an army nurse in Knoxville, Tennessee and in Cleveland, Ohio. She supported herself and her daughters by giving lectures in several northern cities about her experiences during the war. In 1866 she married Orville J. Bacon of Broome County, New York and had two children with him. They were subsequently divorced and she married James Cotton in the 1880s. Cotton died, leaving her once again a single mother. After the war, Sarah's life was marked by the constant struggle to find suitable employment to support her family and to claim a pension for her services during the war. She worked through many temporary appointments in the federal government and eventually was granted a pension of $12 a month by order of a special act of Congress in 1897. She died on April 21, 1909 after being struck by an "electric car" in Washington, D.C., and was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

For more biographical information on Sarah Thompson, please refer to the following:

About the collection at Duke

The collection of Sarah Thompson Papers consists of 137 items spanning from 1855 to 1904. The collection centers around the murder of Thompson's husband, her intelligence work for the Union army which led to the defeat of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, and her subsequent post-war struggles against poverty, largely as a single mother.

Letters among Sarah and various family members give insights to her everyday life as a working mother and the supportive relationships she enjoyed with her sister and her second husband Orville Bacon's family. Sarah Thompson's own handwritten account of Morgan's defeat details her spying activities. Her account is further substantiated with letters from several Union officers who testify to her great service as a Union spy, a hospital nurse, and a devoted patriot to the cause. There are numerous letters from soldiers to Sarah after she fled north for her safety after Morgan's defeat.

Thompson's attempts to exploit her Civil War services in order to raise money to support her family are well-documented. Letters to Sarah from publishers and various townsfolk show that she gave numerous public lectures and tried to publish her story during the late 1860s. An amazing series of appointment and layoff notices in the late 1870s reflect her employment in a series of temporary positions within various government departments. Several war officers write letters of recommendations in an attempt to gain more solid employment for her. Frustration with low wages, frequent lay offs, and single motherhood culminate in a passionate letter to her employer where she pleads her war service should make her worthy of better treatment.

During this time period there are also documents supporting her bid for a pension for her war services. Testimonials from war officers are gathered in her favor. Letters to and from family members reflect her struggle to get assistance from elected government officials to represent her case. Eventually a bill is introduced and passed in 1897 which gives her a pension allowance of $12 per month for her services as a hospital nurse.

More information about related collections

You can find more information about the Special Collections Library and other holdings related to women and the Civil War through various pages at this site. For more information about other Civil War materials, browse the Duke on-line catalog or contact our reference desk directly at

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About the digitized version of the collection

Only a portion of the actual collection housed at Duke University has been scanned and transcribed. We have selected those documents which best represent the various aspects of Sarah Thompson's life. The on-line collection includes just about everything written by Sarah to give her own voice the greatest weight. We then selected those documents which best illustrate others opinions of her and accounts of her situation. Finally, we chose scattered documents which best exemplify her speaking engagements, relationships with family members, her employment and pension struggles. Documents not included in this digitized collection include numerous letters among various family members; several letters written to Sarah from friends after she had moved North; letters to Sarah's second husband Orville Bacon; and various employment documents, marriage licenses and membership certificates. For more information about items not available on-line, please contact the Special Collections Library Reference Desk.

Transcriptions were made from the originals, and retain the original misspellings and punctuation. Thompson's own letters are particularly difficult to understand, and in some cases there are words or sections that were illegible; where possible we supplied our best guess. If in your study of these papers you can shed some light on the text, please send us a note and we will be happy to add your contributions (and give you credit, of course!).

People who worked on this project:
Lydia Boyd: web page design implementation; photo scanning; proofreading
Ginny Daley: material selection and subject expertise; proofreading
David Faulds: transcription
Paolo Mangiafico: project coordination; web page design and editing
Laura Micham: research and editorial oversight; scanning; HTML coding

These papers were scanned with a Sharp JX-330 color flatbed scanner with Adobe Photoshop on a PowerMacintosh 9500/120. The "double size" images are 24-bit 150dpi JPEGs and the "full size" ones are 72dpi GIFs.

[Special Collections Library | Women's Studies Resources | Civil War Women]

A project of The Digital Scriptorium, Special Collections Library, Duke University. December 1996