October 12th, 2014

pearly whites.

Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

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

While many books have been written about the great men who commanded the armies of the American Civil War, and some books have been written about the lives of soldiers themselves, comparatively few books have studied the lives of the women who were active in the war effort. I refer not to the Scarlett O’Haras who bravely protected their families and homes, but to the women who spied on the enemy, the ones who impersonated men to fight in the army, and the ones who helped sneak slaves and prisoners to freedom. Four such women are showcased in Karen Abbott’s new book: Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd, who spied for the Confederate army; Emma Edmonds, who assumed the identity of a man to fight for the Union side; and Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy woman who helped captured Union soldiers escape from prison and led an espionage network that extended into the household of Jefferson Davis himself. Each woman sacrificed and suffered much for the cause she believed in, and their contributions helped shape the outcome of the war.

Each woman had a different plan of attack and motivation for her role. Belle Boyd, a pretty young girl with a thirst for adventure, seemed to crave celebrity as much as a Confederate victory. Her chapters are infused with a giddy thrill and a schoolgirl actress’s love of drama. Her older counterpart, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, was a prominent socialite in Washington DC, and her friendships with powerful Union leaders gave her easy access to valuable intelligence, which she passed along to the Confederacy. Eventually imprisoned for her crimes and exiled to the South, Rose became a diplomat, traveling in Europe to represent the Rebel cause.

Sarah Emma Edmonds enlisted in the Union army under the name Frank Thompson, and served honorably for two years. She was rarely involved in combat, instead serving as a field nurse or donning female disguises to spy on the Confederate army. (As a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman, Thompson was remarkably effective in gather intelligence.) She often heard rumors of other female soldiers, but the only account of her meeting another one is of debatable authenticity. When Thompson contracted malaria, she was forced to desert less an army medic discover her true identity. Years later, she was able to have the desertion charge removed from her record after revealing her incredible story.

The final character in this book is Elizabeth Van Lew, a spinster in Richmond, Virginia who ran an extensive spy ring throughout the Civil War. Using her social connections she successfully planted her servant Mary Bowser in the household of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, and for years Mary successfully passed valuable intelligence on to the Union. (I was disappointed that Mary was only a background figure in this book, but a wonderful novel about her, The Secret Life of Mary Bowser, was published a few years ago.) Van Lew also smuggled Union soldiers out of the local prison despite ever-increasing surveillance on her household from local detectives.

These four women led fascinating lives, but all of them have had their stories previously published. Edmonds-Thompson published her own autobiography at the end of the Civil War, and in the 20th century has popped up in over a dozen books. Van Lew is less documented but has still appeared as the main or a major character in six novels. Greenhow’s story was told in two TV movies and two biographies in the 20th century, although to the best of my knowledge this is the only book to mention her since the new millennium began. Even Belle Boyd’s story has been told multiple times, in her own words (Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison) and by others. I wish that Abbott had picked at least one woman less well-documented (Mary Bowser!!!) because Civil War buffs may already be very familiar with these women.

Their stories are also told in alternating chapters, which makes the first half very confusing. It can be tricky to track two distinct narrators in a book when their lives don’t overlap; with four, it’s nearly impossible. I found it especially tricky to keep Belle and Rose straight, since their activities and techniques for spying on the Union soldiers were so similar. Eventually, everyone is established enough that you can appreciate each woman for her individual personality, but like I said, at that point the book is halfway over.

Earlier this year, I read Abbott’s biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, and this may have colored my perception of her writing. I found her narrative style to be almost gossipy, focused on sexy, sordid details. It certainly made the books unlike a typical Civil War biography! It’s a sword that cuts both ways, though – I can think of some friends who would find the book more interesting for this casual style, while others would be turned off by it.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy , buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
2012: Sailor Moon Vol. 7 by Naoko Takeuchi
2011: Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! by Fumi Yoshinaga
2010: Taking a break – thank my teachers for it!
2009: Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
2008: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld