“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” by Karen Abbott tells the little-known story of four women who were spies during the Civil War. While this book is non-fiction, it reads like a thrilling espionage novel. Thoroughly researched with an impressive list of documentation by the author, it tells the compelling stories of four courageous women—Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a widow and Washington socialite; Belle Boyd, a small town girl from Martinsburg, Virginia (later West Virginia); Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian farm girl; and Elizabeth Van Lew, a Virginia abolitionist.
Greenhow was a strong supporter of the Southern cause. She charmed top military leaders and senators to glean information and send it to her friend General P. G. T. Beauregard (USMA 1838). She was credited by confederate authorities for providing the key information which allowed First Manassas to be a victory. Eventually, Greenhow and her young daughter, who was involved in her spying activities, were arrested by the North and became some of the first women detained during the war.
Boyd, loyal to the Southern cause, coaxed many Northern politicians into divulging secrets. With sheer determination, she served as a courier by carrying intelligence to her hero Stonewall Jackson (USMA 1846). When Jackson was about to attack Front Royal, Virginia in May of 1862, she ran onto the battlefield to provide the General with last minute information about the Union troop dispositions. Boyd was arrested six or seven times, and was far from being a model inmate: she waved Confederate flags from her window, sang Dixie, and devised a unique method of communicating with supporters outside.
Edmonds, who cut her hair off and passed herself as a man, served the North as a soldier/spy in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. Edmonds signed up as a male field nurse in the Second Volunteers of the United States Army under her alias Franklin Flint Thompson. In March 1862, she was reassigned as a mail carrier for her regiment. A few months later, one of General George McClellan’s (USMA 1846) spies was caught and executed by the Confederate Army; Edmonds volunteered for the open position. In the spring of 1863, Edmonds developed malaria. Out of fear of being discovered as a woman, she deserted. While Frank Thompson was listed as a deserter, Edmonds resumed worked as a nurse in war- torn Virginia for the remainder of the Civil War.
Van Lew lived in Richmond yet remained loyal to the Union. Her efforts at assisting Yankee soldiers escaping from Confederate prisons, and runaway slaves from their masters were no small feat during war time. Her neighbors, as well as the government, suspected her of such treason but were never able to catch her in the act. One of Elizabeth Van Lew’s loyal servants, Mary Bowser, served as a slave in the White House of the Confederacy. Because of Mary’s photographic memory, she able to provide extremely important information based on what she heard and read in Jefferson Davis’ (USMA 1828) Confederate White House.
A note regarding how the book is laid out: the author choose to chronicle the characters, moving back and forth between the figures, to tell the entire saga in accordance with the timeline. Initially I started reading “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” on an electronic device, however, I found it difficult to go back and review previous entries about a character. Thus, I personally found reading this in traditional print form more desirable.
“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” is beautifully written and a real page-turner. The book serves as a reminder that the heroes of our history are often found in the most unexpected places.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014)
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. No endorsement or recommendation of any specific products or services is intended or implied.
Contents contributed by Barbara Maroney-French, Facilities Support Assistant