On March 28, 1884, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 5335, a private law granting Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye a Civil War veterans pension. Unlike a public law which applies to the nation as a whole or a large group of people, a private law addresses the needs of a single person or small group. Although women were prohibited from joining the army, Seelye served in the United States Army under the alias Franklin Thompson.
After running away from her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada, as a teenager, Seelye traveled freely throughout the northern United States dressed in male attire. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, she found herself in Flint, Michigan, where—as Franklin Thompson—she enlisted as a private in the United States Army. Serving alongside men who were unaware of her identity, Seelye tended to the wounded as a field nurse, served as a regimental postmaster, and fought in combat. Two years into her three-year enlistment, she contracted malaria and deserted her post fearing that medical treatment would reveal she was a woman.
By the 1880s, financial hardship led Seelye to seek a pension for relief. Supported by her army comrades, she went directly to Congress to explain why she deserved a veterans pension. Representative Byron M. Cutcheon, a former colonel in the Michigan Infantry who knew Franklin Thompson during the war, sponsored a bill to grant Seelye a pension. Grateful for Seelye’s dedication to the Union as a soldier and a nurse, the House voted to grant her a pension of $12 per month in March 1884. By the first week of July, the Senate followed suit and President Chester Arthur signed the bill granting her a pension.