Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot
Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it. The topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.
I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?” Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.
Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.
Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.
It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union as for her heroic actions.
Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional) caused by the war and its aftermath.
As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….