On occasion, women became heroines of the Confederate cause purely by accident. Such is the case of Emma Sansom.
Born on June 2, 1847, Emma was a beautiful girl, tall and elegant, with large, deep blue eyes, auburn hair, and a fair complexion. In 1852, she moved with her family from Georgia to Gadsden, Alabama. Six years later, her father died, but the family managed to maintain their farm. Once the Civil War commenced, Emma’s brother, Rufus, enlisted with the 19th Alabama Infantry Regiment while she, her mother, and an older sister maintained the farm.
Emma had just returned from shopping one sunny morning, when suddenly, she heard the sound of approaching men and horses. Still standing in the yard, holding the reins, she watched as hundreds of Union soldiers arrived.
“We were home on the morning of May 2, 1863, when a company of men wearing blue uniforms and riding mules and horses galloped past the house and went on towards the bridge. Pretty soon a great crowd of them came along and some of them stopped at the gate and asked for some water. One of them asked me where my father was and I told him he was dead.
‘Do you have any brothers?’ asked the Yankee soldier.
‘I have, sir,’ I said.
‘Where are they?’
‘In the Confederate army,’ I told him.
‘Do you think the South will whip us?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I think we will win because God is on our side,’ I said.
‘I think God is on the side with the best artillery,’ said the soldier.”
Emma stubbornly held onto her horse’s reins until another soldier snatched them away from her. Still, the women refused to panic. The soldiers searched their house for guns and saddles. Discovering Rufus, who was home recuperating from a wound he had received, they took him prisoner. The Yankees proceeded to nearby Black Creek, which was swollen from recent heavy rains, and torched the wooden bridge. The women were standing on the front porch, grieving Rufus, when Nathan Bedford Forrest appeared.
“Can you tell me where I can get across this damn creek?” he asked.
Fifteen-year-old Emma told him that the bridge had been burned, and that there wasn’t another one for two miles. She informed him of a ford two hundred yards away where she had seen cattle cross in low water, and where he and his men could likely cross, despite the raging current. Emma offered to escort him if one of his men would saddle a horse for her.
Forrest replied, “There is no time to saddle a horse; get up here behind me.”
Taking her hand, he pulled her up behind him on his steed, and assured her mother that he would return Emma safely. The duo rode down to the riverbank, but came under enemy fire, so they rode into the foliage and dismounted. Finding the spot she had referred to, they emerged from the cover of trees, and were once again fired upon.
Emma placed herself in front of Forrest. “General,” she said, “stand behind me. They will not dare to shoot me.”
Forrest, being the gallant cavalier that he was, refused. “I’m glad to have you for a pilot, but I’m not going to make breastworks of you.”
He left her under cover behind the roots of a fallen tree. Crawling on his hands and knees, he looked back behind him, and saw that she had followed. With some consternation, he confronted her about going against his wishes.
“Yes, General,” she said, “but I was fearful that you might be wounded; and it’s my purpose to be near you.”
Defiantly, she waved her bonnet in the air. The Union soldiers on the other side realized they had been shooting at a female, so they immediately dropped their weapons and gave three cheers. Emma started for home, but soon came upon General Forrest again. He told her that one of his men, who had been killed, was laid out in her house, and requested that her family bury him in a nearby graveyard. After asking that she send him a lock of her hair, he rode off to later become victorious in the campaigning. By bluffing the Yankees into believing his troops were larger in number, he succeeded in capturing Colonel Abel Streight’s Union forces. He also returned Emma’s brother to her.
Emma could have faced severe retribution for aiding General Forrest. She escaped from her close call unscathed, except for a few bullet holes that had passed through her skirt. “They have only wounded my crinoline,” she casually remarked.
Forrest was so grateful for Emma’s heroic gesture that he gave her a note of thanks:
Hed Quaters in Sadle
May 2 1863
My highest regardes to miss Emma Sansom for hir Gallant conduct while my posse was skirmishing with the Federals across Black Creek near Gadsden Allabama.
N. B. Forrest
Brig Genl Comding N. Ala
After the war, the State of Alabama awarded Emma with a gold medal, and awarded her a section of public land “as a testimony of the high appreciation of her services by the people of Alabama.” She married in 1864, moved with her husband to Texas, and had five sons and two daughters. Emma died on August 9, 1900, and is buried in Little Mound Cemetery, twelve miles west of Gilmer, Texas. Her legacy lives on in a poem written by John Trotwood Moore. A monument in Gadsden, Alabama was erected by the UDC in her honor, and a school there is named after her.