Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Civil War buffs and those interested in 19th century and women’s history will definitely want to check out this book. Knowledge of the Civil War is not required to enjoy it.

Abbott traces the heroic actions of four women during the Civil War. Two for the North and two for the South.

For the South:
Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow.
In 1861 Boyd was 17, a bold, adventurous girl from Virginia. Her story begins when she shoots a Yankee at point blank range and doesn’t bat an eye.
Greenhow was 43 in 1861, a widow deeply intrenched in the politics of Washington, D.C. who used her connections to head a spy ring, passing on important information about northern plans to southern leadership.
Both women are depicted as boisterously committed to their cause, but both also seemed to have a need of self-aggrandizement that made me, at times, roll my eyes at their words.

For the North:
Emma Edmonds, aka, Franklin Thompson and Elizabeth Van Lew.
In 1861 Edmonds was 19 and had already been living as a man. Originally from Canada she enlisted in the northern army in Michigan as a man and served as a battlefield nurse, then as a letter carrier, and finally as a spy.
Van Lew was 43 at the outbreak of the war, a wealthy Virginia “spinster” and abolitionist with deep ties to the North who helped northern soldiers and slaves escape and became the head of a spy network, passing on important information about southern plans to northern leadership.
Both of these women are portrayed as more cautious and less flamboyant than their southern counterparts and come off as being much more grounded.

There’s a fifth woman involved who should be given accolades. No matter the risks taken by Boyd, Greenhow, Edmondson, and Van Lew, they were all white women which meant they’d perhaps have at least a chance of talking their way out of trouble if caught. It was war and spies were executed, so I don’t mean to belittle their risks, but Mary Jane Bowser, on the other hand, was born a slave to the Van Lew family. She was freed after Elizabeth’s father died and educated in Philadelphia. She’d been working as a servant for Elizabeth who asked her to go undercover as a slave servant and act as a sleeper agent in the home of not just any high ranking confederate, but in the mansion of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Intense, right?

While chronologically weaving the story of these women, Abbott includes tidbits about the war and what conditions were like for soldiers and civilians. Like how “depraved hucksters” sold “Yankee skulls” and rebel women wore brooches made out of the bones of soldiers scavenged from battlefields.

One of the most startling mentions was about a widow who was too sick to move from her bed and whose house happened to be in the middle of the battlefield at Manassas. Her foot was shot off  during the fighting and she died the next day.

There is also a scene where Edmons/Thompson undergoes a physical examination to become a spy. She worried about her sex being uncovered, but the focus of the exam was on her head. Phrenology was supposed to reveal one’s character:

She silently prayed that her head did not betray her sex; phrenological studies on women often concluded that their organs of “adhesiveness,” cautiousness, and procreation were so prominent as to elongate, and even deform, the middle of the back of the head. The doctor poked and prodded with his caliper and scratched notes on a pad. Emma felt stifled inside her frock coat, drops of sweat sliding down between her breasts. He determined, finally, that Frank Thompson indeed had the head of a man, with “largely developed” organs of secretiveness and combativeness. Emma acted as though she’d expected to hear as much, and took the oat of allegiance.

Famous figures of the time make their way into the story and add to its richness: Nathaniel Hawthorne is mentioned as are Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Mary Chestnut. Thomas Carlyle plays a role, as does Napoleon III. Then there’s Pinkerton and his crew, including at least one female detective. As always, Mary Todd Lincoln is mocked for her plainness and northern General McClellan is portrayed as a do-nothing general. However, on the southern side of the fence, instead of General Lee stealing the show Stonewall Jackson gets much more ink in this book.

This is a thick book, 544 pages, and at times it felt like it. It seems that the repetitive structure of going back and forth between four stories and the lack of a sharper unifying drive within the narrative made it was slow going here & there. However, the book was never a slog to get through, it simply isn’t a swift historical narrative so don’t expect a read like, say, The Devil in the White City.

One historical inaccuracy jumped out at me from the second page of the preface where Abbott sets the scene of troops pouring into each capital in the spring of 1861. She mentions that “taps” is played at night. That gave me pause because having read The Killer Angels earlier this summer where the bugle calls of General Butterfield are discussed and which led me to read a bit more about Butterfield, it is well documented that Taps wasn’t written until July 1862. Some may excuse this as a minor inaccuracy, but it did cause me to be on guard as a reader.

For example, Abbott makes a point of stating that she didn’t make up any dialog, but she did, it seems, imagine scenes that, while adding some spice (such as Belle waiting for General Butler with her hands on her hips and impatiently tapping her foot) or giving closure to a section (like Rose  “spreading” her daughter across her lap to tell her a story and making sure the good guys win) also caused me to stop and wonder if these things really happened. Leaving the flow of a narrative to check footnotes for documentation is not something a storyteller wants the reader to do on a regular basis.

The above are minor complaints compared to the overall enjoyment of reading about these courageous women who risked their lives to fight for what they believed in. This is an engaging and important book, one that shows women’s active participation in the waging of warfare long before they had the right to vote.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Karen Abbott
HarperCollins, 9/2/2014
Source: uncorrected proof for TLC Book Tours


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