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.
On the Confederates’ side, Rose O’Neale Greenhow was a beautiful widow who seduced many a Unionist in order to obtain information from them. She and her daughter suffered greatly as a result; the Union had no problem throwing her in a filthy prison, and with her went her young daughter. Although they gained sympathy and notoriety, the experience haunted Rose and the thought of being thrown back in a Union prison took an unbearable toll.
Finally, Belle Boyd was a sassy teenager who wanted to be the center of attention and participate in all the action. She first gained notoriety at the age of sixteen, when Union troops entered her home and grabbed her mother; Belle shot and killed the soldier. After that, she fancied herself indispensable to the Confederacy and eventually found work as a messenger and spy; at one point, she found herself in the same prison as Rose O’Neale Greenhow.
It was an interesting mix of women, though three of them published well-received memoirs following their exploits and so were already part of the historic record. The person I would have really loved to hear more about was Mary Jane, Elizabeth Van Lew’s black servant who was sent to work for the Confederate president and First Lady. Hers was a fascinating (and high-risk) situation, and she’s the one who needs a full biography written about her!
For the most part, the book speeds along at a brisk pace (not an easy feat, considering it’s over 500 pages long). Many a time, chapters end on cliffhangers. Abbott recreates scenes, though she uses excerpts from letters and diaries as well. I appreciated that the book covers almost the entire span of the women’s lives; it breezes over the early years, focuses mostly on the Civil War years, and reflects on the impact that their involvement had on the rest of their lives. Such as Elizabeth Van Lew, faced much a lifetime of resentment and hardship for their involvement. For others, such as Belle Boyd, the effects came later in the form of feeling on the brink of mental collapse from time to time. Considering the focus of the book was the Civil War, the examination of the women’s later years, though brief, was just enough for a satisfying ending.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War was released in September 2014 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book is on tour right now, so be sure to check out what other bloggers are saying!