Book 90 of my 2015 Reading Challenge
read from November 19 - December 20
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
by Karen Abbott
Summary (via the book jacket)
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, bestselling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything - their homes, their families, and their very lives - during the Civil War.
Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an avowed rebel with a dangerous temper, shot a Union soldier in her home and became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her considerable charms to seduce men on both sides.
Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union private named Frank Thompson, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war and infiltrating enemy lines, all the while fearing that her past would catch up with her.
The beautiful widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians, used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals, and sailed abroad to lobby for the Confederacy, a journey that cost her more than she ever imagined.
Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring - even placing a former slave inside the Confederate White House - right under the noses of increasingly suspicious rebel detectives.
Abbott's pule-quickening narrative weaves the adventures of these four forgotten daredevils into the tumultuous landscape of a broken America, evoking a secret world that will surprise even the most avid enthusiasts of Civil War-era history. Including Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, Detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shines a dramatic new light on these daring - and, until now, unsung - heroines.
A note on her sources: "This is a work on nonfiction, with no invented dialogue. Anything that appears between quotation marks comes from a book, diary, letter, archival note, or transcript, or, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew, from stories passed down by her descendants...Characters' thoughts are gleaned or extrapolated from these same sources. In any instance where the women may have engaged in the time-honored Civil War tradition of self-mythology, rendering the events too fantastic, I make note of it in the endnotes or in the narrative itself."
The research and the joy of having access to actual diaries were the strongest points of the book for me. It was absolutely fascinating to catch those little glimpses of things that don't matter in the long run but showed their humanity. For example, a prostitute who kept notes on her clients included things like "The Maryland Governor? Do it bending over, bark sometimes." Who knew people did things like that back then???? :)
In the beginning I had flip to the description to keep track of which name went with which woman. The middle part was very intriguing but as the war was winding down it was less exciting and felt like it dragged in the end.
I learned many new things, including Mary Todd Lincoln was from Kentucky and had a brother, three half brothers, and three brothers-in-law in the Confederate army. Also, being a postmaster was one of the highest federal offices a woman could hold and it was among the highest paying as well.
There were many examples that highlighted how different war was back then.
- Civilians ate picnics on blankets while watching battles through opera glasses. Besides not understanding why someone would think it was entertaining, it's hard for me to imagine war sticking to a designated "battlefield" and being able to find a safe spot to watch.
- The picket lines, where Union and Confederate soldiers would stand facing each other and guard their lines but otherwise not engage with each other.
- The armies calling for a temporary truce after a battle to collect their soldiers.
- Stopping their fighting for the evening, the sides would lay close to each other until fighting resumed at 7:30 a.m.
A Few Quotes from the Book
"[Women] had to adjust quickly to the sudden absence of fathers and husbands and sons, to the idea that things would never be as they had been. They had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, to influence in how the battles were waged. Instead they took control of homes, businesses, plantations."
"Women's loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself, but now there was a question - one that would persist throughout the war - of what to do with what one Lincoln official called "fashionable women spies". Their gender provided them with both a psychological and a physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women's proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men."
"The battles you have fought under my command will proudly live in our nation's history. The glory you have achieved, our mutual perils and fatigues, the graves of our comrades fallen in battle and by disease, the broken forms of those whom wounds and sickness have disabled - the strongest associations which can exist among men - unite us still by an indisoluble tie. We shall ever be comrades in supporting the constitution of our country and the nationality of its people."