Thursday, April 16, 2015

Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

By Karen Abbott
Harper, September 2014

About the Book

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate Army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

My Review

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy tells the incredible stories of four women, two Confederates and two Union supporters, who risked their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, to conduct espionage during the Civil War. Each woman took on many or all of the labels included in the title at one point or another during the brutal conflict.

Rose Greenhow, based in D.C., seduced Northern politicians to unearth secrets that she sent directly to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rose also traveled to Europe in the hopes of garnering support there for the Confederate cause.

Belle Boyd was born near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. She was quite the Southern jezebel, entrapping men on both sides. Both Rose and Belle were imprisoned by the Union at various times for their actions.

Emma Edmonds, from Canada, cut her hair, lowered her voice, and assumed the persona of Frank Thompson, a Union soldier. Emma was sent across enemy lines many times and suffered debilitating injuries and serious illness during her time with the soldiers, but she remained a staunch supporter of the Union cause, donating all the proceeds of her memoirs to wounded Union soldiers.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy single woman with strong abolitionist views living in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Elizabeth ran the Richmond underground, a vast network of spies that fed information back to Union generals.

I found these stories absolutely riveting. Of all, I think Elizabeth was my favorite. Elizabeth had everything to lose as a single female in hostile territory, and she was hated by her neighbors as well as by her estranged sister-in-law, all of whom tried, in vain, to get her arrested on numerous occasions. Her brother John was forced into the rebel army despite Elizabeth’s pleas. She carried out her espionage largely at her own expense and was never fully compensated for her activities by the government, even after the war. She had a keen instinct and was fully aware of the dangers she faced as her underground network grew, exposing her to many strangers which only increased her chances of discovery. Not even when the rebels tried to burn down her house around her ears did she back down. She was rewarded, for a time, for her services by a grateful president, Ulysses S. Grant, but the hatred and animosity of her neighbors after the war made the end of her life a sad one. Unlike Rose, Belle, and Emma, Elizabeth never cashed in by selling her memoirs.

These stories of courage, intelligence, and instinct highlight some true female heroes. I will say though that I don’t recommend “reading” this an audio book, as I did. There are far too many names and because the author skips between the four women, it can be difficult to keep all the characters straight. I highly recommend this book, but I believe the print version is the better way to go.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer


Peter Leavell said...

Enjoyed this interview, Patrick!

Terri Wangard said...

I heard Karen talk about her book at a club meeting last month. Emma fascinated me. How'd she get through a physical to join the army? Better question is, what physical? Some got through on the basis they were breathing.

Susan@ Reading World said...

Sounds interesting!