Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott’s latest nonfiction work, tells the story of four women — Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds, Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow — who refused to sit idly by and watch the Civil War take its toll. There was little that women could do those days in any official capacity, but each of the women featured in this book, as well as several of their female servants, found a way to actively support their side.
In the Yankees’ corner, the wealthy and well-connected Elizabeth Van Lew was a Union sympathizer living in Confederate territory. She and her brother were abolitionists who treated their servants well and even sent one of them, Mary Jane, off to be formally educated in the North. By orchestrating a well-informed spy ring and finding Mary Jane work in Jefferson and Varina Davis’s home, Van Lew was able to send valuable information to the Union.
Emma Edmonds came from a much more humble background, escaping her abusive father by running away and disguising herself as a man. As Frank Thompson, she enlisted in the Union army, mostly working as a medic, but eventually also working as a spy and a messenger. She saw battle, and save for two confidants, had to keep her true identity a secret; plenty of women posed as male soldiers in order to serve their country and many fought in battle; however, women who were discovered were treated as little more than prostitutes and were cast out in shame. It wasn’t until old injuries flared up in her later years that Emma decided to come clean about her identity; she fought for the pension that male veterans took for granted.