Emma Sansom (1847-1900) is remembered in Alabama as a heroine for aiding Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest during Union colonel Abel D. Streight's raid through northern Alabama. Sansom's assistance led to Forrest's capture of Streight and his large Union raiding party near Cedar Bluff in the spring of 1863.
Emma Sansom was born on June 2, 1847, near the small town of Social Circle, Georgia, to Micajah and Levina Vann Sansom, a niece of influential Cherokee leader James Vann. When Emma was five years old, her parents moved the family, which would include 12 children, to a farm outside the town of Gadsden, Alabama. Emma's father died six years later on Christmas Eve.
The story of Sansom's actions during Streight's Raid (April 19-May 3, 1863) is part Alabama history and part myth. Although she did aid Forrest in locating a crossing on Black Creek, some of the details, particularly alleged conversations between Sansom and the cavalry commander, have undoubtedly been dramatized. On the afternoon of May 2, Streight and 1,700 infantry, many mounted on mules, crossed Black Creek (located three miles from Gadsden) ahead of Forrest and destroyed the only local bridge, thus impeding the Confederate pursuit. Unable to use the bridge to cross the swollen creek, Forrest rode to a nearby home to find someone knowledgeable about the local terrain and came upon 16-year-old Sansom. According to an account published in the Jacksonville Republican one week later, Sansom volunteered to guide Forrest to a nearby ford. Initially, her mother objected to the idea of her daughter being escorted by a group of strangers. But Forrest was well known and respected, and Sansom's mother dropped her objections. With Sansom's guidance, Forrest located the ford, crossed it, and caught up with the Union forces. While escorting the general, Sansom reportedly faced enemy fire that ceased after the Union soldiers discovered that they had been firing upon a teenage girl.
Sansom's actions directly helped Forrest capture Streight and his raiders near Cedar Bluff the following day. By aiding the Confederate general, Sansom risked possible retribution for herself and her family from the Union soldiers had they escaped capture. At the time of the raid, her brother, who had been wounded in battle while serving in the Confederate Army, was at home recuperating from his injuries. His presence, in addition to her actions, would have certainly stirred the interest of the raiding party. That potential sacrifice made Sansom an enduring heroine of the Confederacy for generations.
In October 1864 Sansom married farmer Christopher B. Johnson. Around 1868, they moved to Upshur County, Texas, and the remainder of Sansom's life was spent primarily rearing the couple's seven children and running her household. In 1887, Johnson died, and Sansom never remarried. Historians have found no evidence that she wrote or commented on her wartime experiences in her adulthood. She passed away on August 9, 1900, and was buried in Little Mound Cemetery in Upshur County.
Sansom's legacy has endured as an idealized representation of a feminine heroine defending the Confederacy. Her association
with General Forrest further cemented her distinction as a heroine of the South. In 1906, the Gadsden Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument honoring her Civil War contributions. The base of the statue contains a carving of Sansom accompanying Forrest on horseback. In the 1920s, the town
named a high school in her honor. She was also the subject of a poem written by John Trotwood Moore. A chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Louisiana bears her name.
Additional Resource s
Hurst, Jack. Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, Wayne Flynt. Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Keith S. Hébert
University of West Georgia
Published September 24, 2007
Last updated October 7, 2012