“War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself.” ― Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Four clandestine women who are not what they seem. Each fights in her own way to support the cause for which she is willing to give her life. The premise of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott is enthralling even though it’s strictly historical, proving the adage that fact is often stranger than fiction. Abbott structures the book chronologically, weaving each woman’s story through the four long years that tore the United States apart, and tells each woman’s exploits with the detail and style of a novel.
Belle Boyd could easily be described as the “real life” Scarlett O’Hara. The prima donna of Martinsburg, Va., at the age of 17 she shot a Yankee officer in the head when a group stormed into her home with perverse intentions toward her mother. She then dared any of the rest of the soldiers to shoot her, claiming, “Only those who are cowards shoot women. Now shoot!” Her intrepidness led her to become a spy for the Confederacy, using her powers of flirtation whenever possible. Her story is full of midnight rides, spying on Union generals’ strategic planning meetings and even a sprint across the battlefield to deliver intelligence to Stonewall Jackson, right before the Battle of Front Royal.
Emma Edmondson, a native Canadian, first dressed as a man to run away from home in order to avoid her abusive father and an undesirable arranged marriage. A firm abolitionist, she felt it was God’s calling for her to join the Union army when Abraham Lincoln asked for volunteers, and she did so as “Frank Thompson.” She witnessed some of the war’s most horrific battles in addition to spying behind enemy lines disguised as a slave — both male and female on different occasions — as well as an Irish peasant woman. However, she may have found her greatest danger through falling in love.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was the affluent widow of Dr. Robert Greenhow, a politician in the State Department. After his death, Rose continued as a socialite in Washington, D.C., and her Southern sympathies were greatly influenced by her friendship with John C. Calhoun. She was given control of the D.C. spy ring early on in the war and used her charms to seduce Northern generals, gaining valuable information. Jefferson Davis credited one of her discoveries as ensuring the South’s great victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. Even while imprisoned, Rose pried open a loose board in the floor of her cell and passed her 8-year-old daughter, “Little” Rose, down to the Confederate soldiers below to convey and receive intelligence. She culminated her career as a Southern spy by running the Union blockade and sailing abroad to lobby for the Confederacy in England and France.
Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, used a secret room on the second floor of her large mansion to start and run the Richmond Underground spy ring. She arranged for the escape of many Union soldiers from local Confederate prisons and for their transportation back to Union lines. She also placed her servant, Mary Jane, a former slave whom she had sent abroad for higher education, in the Confederate White House to work for Varina Davis. Mary Jane had a photographic memory, and the Union thus benefitted from her task of frequently cleaning and examining every paper on Jefferson Davis’s desk — a privilege she possessed since no one thought she could read.
Mary Jane would wait for an opportunity to record all of the pertinent data she gleaned and then sew it into a dress that Varina needed taken to the seamstress; Elizabeth then collected it and sent the intelligence to Union generals. Jefferson Davis once confided in his Brigadier General G. J. Rains that “no printed paper could be kept secret,” and wondered how the enemy seemed to know their plans before they had even been finalized. Elizabeth’s communications with General “Beast” Butler and General Grant gave them vital information in capturing Richmond towards the end of the war.
Abbott makes each of these remarkable women live and breathe throughout the book in a way that is usually reserved for historical fiction. The only other author who has captured me with all-consuming engagement in nonfiction is Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit and Unbroken. My only complaint is its bias, but then what book written on the Civil War can truly claim impartiality? While I think Abbott truly did give an effort to refrain from bias in the beginning, by the end of the book the Confederate Army’s soldiers were presented as barbarians in shocking comparison with the Union Army’s gentlemanly conduct, and the two Northern women emerged as rather angelic in contrast with the South’s femme fatale heroines. That one flaw aside, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories about the Civil War, female heroics or espionage.
Jacket design by Lynn Buckley, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers