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Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War - Karen Abbott

Four Civil War femme fatales? Yes, please!


This book is EVERYTHING!* It's like A League of Their Own had a lovechild with Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's (DKG) Team of Rivals seasoned with an extra dash of siren song. (Or do you not season children?)


Actually, it's hard to dream up a single concoction to represent all that is contained in Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. It is a unique breed of narrative non-fiction, with dialogue taken from primary sources (à la Eric Larson or DKG), but with a bit more literary leeway given (e.g. I can't imagine how one would garner access to the dying thoughts of a drowning woman and/or the extent to which a purse full of gold may have tugged at her neck). Additionally, the four women do not share a single story by any stretch of the imagination — a good thing if, like me, you enjoy "rotisserie-style" narration.**


Setting the Scene:

We open curtain around summertime 1861, which (and I hope you already know this) coincides with the American Civil War. Since any man worth his mettle is battlefield-bound (click the picture below, The Art of Inspiring Courage, for some of the means by which the lady-folk made sure of this), there are bound to be many changes in the women's world. While some members of the fairer sex were content to contribute to the war effort by darning socks, others went above and beyond the typical call of duty.

The Art of Inspiring Courage, October 1863

Belle Boyd:

Belle's name was the only one with which I was familiar prior to reading this book. If ever there comes a time when we all get to go back in time to slap a person of our choosing, Belle would be pretty high up on my list (though don't tell her that, she'd probably take it as a compliment).

Maria Isabella aka Belle Boyd

"Why pick on poor Belle?" you ask. Where do I begin? For one thing, I have an (admittedly ironic) disdain for women who hate other women, and boy did Belle ever begrudge fellow females. She was also a media/attention hound (see how i refrained from using the word whore? oops!) before it was even a thing. When she was finally tossed into Old Capitol Prison (after her sixth or seventh arrest), she was "insulted" by the lack of torment she received relative to Rose O'Neal Greenhow (who you'll meet soon enough). 


I couldn't help but feel smug satisfaction when I read that Belle was rebuffed by a fellow inmate in her constant search for a man to marry. Also, she was super into General Stonewall Jackson — to a near pathological extent (some might call it John Hinkley-esque), she tried to blackmail Lincoln, and so many other things, but my blood pressure can't take any more contemplation of the self-proclaimed “Cleopatra of the Secession.”


Sarah Emma Edmonds:

Unlike a certain southern drama queen, Emma Edmonds was hoping not to be noticed for her participation in the war. Why? Well, it wasn't strictly legal for a woman to impersonate a man to join the ranks (though, Abbott speculates, that there may have been up to 400 women who did so). However, Emma, not usually one for lying and deception, felt that it was her god-given duty to help with the war effort in whatever way possible. And, thus, one Frank Flint Thompson enlisted with the 2nd Michigan Infantry.  

Sarah Emma Edmonds alias Frank Thompson

"Frank" logged most of his time as a battlefield medic, known as a "field nurse" (which had no feminine connotation at the time). Her story has the trials that often come with being a woman playing a man, especially in context intense for all.


Edmonds/Thompson's role got even more gender-bending when she was sent undercover as a man pretending to be a woman across enemy lines in order to collect some intel. Her story takes many a turn that I consider spoiler-worthy, so do with that what you will.


Rose O'Neal Greenhow:

Remember the lady who was lucky enough to receive way more torment than the envious Belle Boyd while locked up in Old Colony Prison? That would be Rose. And, while I'm no fan of Rose's politics, I've gotta give it to her when it comes to spycraft. There are over 174 documents intercepted going to and from Greenhow (some in pretty impressive ciphers) in the National Archives.  

Rose ONeal Greenhow with Little Rose, 1862

Why so much fuss over Rose? Well, she was pretty good at her "job," which, after her recruiter/handler, Thomas Jordan, officially defected to the CSA and went off to war, was pretty much Spymistress of the Confederate Secret Service. And, arguably, it was her communication of Union intel to General P. G. T. Beauregard that sealed the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run.  


Rose had access to important information as a Washington socialite, well versed in "flattering" information out of the city's political elites (and potentially paramours). So, soon enough, Detective Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service, was building up a dossier of info on Rose's activities. 

Det. Allan Pinkerton w Lincoln and McClellan, 1863

Rose Greenhow, like Belle Boyd, had the annoying habit of "unsexing" herself (as far as I'm concerned, if you're running a spy ring and packing heat, you're kind of fair game), and then whining about how unfair it was to subject a woman to such barbarous treatment.


Between referring to Unionists as "slaves of Lincoln...that abolition despot," and (pro-slavery as ever) describing seasickness as "..the greatest evil to which poor human nature can be subjected," my patience wore thin with Rose. Also, if you don't want your daughter, Little Rose, in prison, you should probably avoid using her as a spy.


Elizabeth Van Lew (and Mary Jane too):

Elizabeth Van Lew sacrificed what could have otherwise been a cushy life for her abolitionist beliefs. She emancipated her family's slaves (though some opted to stay as paid servants), and spent the bulk of her inheritance buying and freeing their relatives. Living in Richmond, hers was not a particularly popular position to take.

Elizabeth Van Lew with brother, nieces, and servant

Like Rose Greenhow, Van Lew ran a sizable spy ring, but her real stroke of genius involved a collaboration between Elizabeth and her much beloved servant (for lack of a better word), Mary Bowser aka Mary Jane Richards. Having taught Mary Jane to read and write, referring to her as a “maid, of more than usual intelligence,” was quite the understatement. Mary Jane had an exceptional eidetic memory, which was what made her such an amazing asset "on the inside," when Van Lew "offered" Mary Jane to Varina Davis, First Lady of the CSA.


Parting words:

In an attempt to keep this review from becoming book-length, I'll stop here. If the subject(s) of this book are of interest to you, then I highly recommend it. I enjoyed the writing well enough, though it was hard to separate content from form. However, there aren't nearly enough books out there on kick-ass ladies in Civil War lore, so thanks, Karen Abbott, for that!


* That's a thing kids say on the internet these days, right?

** Not a real term, but I can't think of a better way to describe the method of rotating among otherwise separate stories.

† I feel like a lot of people would want to take a swing at Hitler, and I really hate waiting in line.

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