(Photo of Belle Boyd, the rabid secessionist and successful Civil War spy)
When I read a title that sounds like a John Le Carre novel, I am always intrigued. Karen Abbott’s new book, LIAR TEMPTRESS SOLDIER SPY: FOUR WOMEN UNDERCOVER IN THE CIVIL WAR has many elements of the espionage master’s work and she weaves a series of wonderful stories into a historical narrative that could pass for fiction. The book Abbott has written explores the role of women during the Civil War, an area that has not been addressed sufficiently by historians. Her work is less about the contribution of women in general who performed domestic tasks for confederate and union forces, but mostly about the lives of four women who played prominent roles during the war; Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd who supported secession, and Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds who remained loyal to the union. All four women engaged in espionage during the war, and their lives reflect their own personal dangers in addition to the death and destruction that they witnessed during the “war between the states.” In telling the stories of these heroines, Abbott integrates important aspects of the political and military history of the war into her narrative very effectively as each statement or document that appears is supported by by her research, though there are a number of places in the narrative when she appears to take some poetic license as she quotes from works of fiction as if they were accurate sources.
For the reader who sets out to read Abbott’s historical monograph they will find that, at times, it reads like an espionage thriller. As they progress in the book they will meet many important historical characters, including; General Stonewall Jackson, General George McClellan, Detective Alan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Napoleon III among many others. The book is organized chronologically with alternating chapters dealing with each of the subject women. At times this approach can be confusing, and perhaps each woman could have been dealt with separately to create greater cohesion and then a chapter or two discussing how their lives may have interacted. None the less the book is a quick and interesting read and focuses attention on four unsung heroes who can now be seen in a new light.
(Photo of Sarah Emma Edmonds, Union spy who changed her sex identity during the Civil War)
What separates Abbott’s account of the war is her in depth portrayal of her subjects and how they used their own inner resources to place themselves at risk in promoting the cause they believed in and were willing to die for. The first, Belle Boyd, a charismatic character, who loved the limelight and had a force of personality that dominated most situations she found herself in. Raised in Martinsburg, Va. she was a staunch secessionist who abhorred the union. She engaged in numerous plots to acquire intelligence for the confederacy and employed her saucy, feminine whiles with men to gain whatever she needed. Her life is fascinating and is worthy of her own biography. Perhaps her lowest moment in the war, aside from the defeat the south suffered was the secession of western Virginia, including her own home county of Berkley, forming the state of West Virginia. Second we meet Emma Edmondson, Canadian women who wanted to join the union army. The strategy she adopted was to assume the identity of a man named Frank Thompson and when she survived her physical exam she joined Company F, 2nd Michigan infantry. She began as a male nurse and soon became a mail currier and spy for the union. She kept her identity secret from everyone but two soldiers she served with that she fell in love with. She survived a great deal of combat and was very effective. Throughout the war she feared someone above her in rank would discover her true sex more than she feared death. Her life is also an amazing story and she did write her own memoir entitled; MEMOIRS OF A SOLDIER, NURSE AND SPY! A WOMAN’S ADVENTURES IN THE UNION ARMY. Third, is the life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow who lived in Washington, DC and was counted on by the Confederacy to obtain as much intelligence as possible. She was friends with Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and headed a spy ring prone to “indiscretions” with men. She worshiped Southern senator, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and mirrored his political views. She had a number of lovers, the most important of which was Henry P. Wilson, an abolitionist Republican who was the union Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. She has been credited with providing the intelligence that allowed the confederacy to defeat the union army at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). During the course of her career she was arrested a few times and served short prison sentences in Washington at the Capitol Prison. After being exiled to the south she was sent by Jefferson Davis to England and France to try and gain recognition of the Confederacy by these nations. On her return to the United States her blockade running ship was intercepted by the Union Navy. Lastly, and probably the most impactful of the four women on the course of the war was Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy society woman, and a strong unionist who lived in Richmond. Her career as a spy was fraught with danger since most of her neighbors and politicians in the confederate capitol knew her wartime sympathies. There were numerous attempts to try and catch her, by searching her mansion which became a union safe house, constant searches by detectives, and numerous attempts at entrapment. Despite all of these obstacles she organized and ran the Richmond spy ring and its conduit to the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves and union soldiers to the north, and maintained a “secret room” upstairs in her mansion as a transshipment point for those fleeing the south. General Grant, grateful for her work sent her a personal note: “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” Grant awarded her the position of Postmaster General of Richmond during his presidency to try and compensate her for all the wealth that was poured into the northern cause during the war.
(Photo of Rose Greenhow, a Confederate spy during the Civil War and her daughter and part time currier, “Little Rose”)
It is not my purpose to recapitulate Abbott’s narrative but they are a myriad of interesting and surprising revelation that she brings to the fore. Since women were not allowed to serve in the union army and there really was no military legal precedent for what to charge them should they be caught, union military officials would kick them out of the army under the charge of prostitution. There were about 300-400 women in the union army during the Civil War, and Abbott tells a number of stories dealing with their plight. In addition, the author relates the activities of Detective Alan Pinkerton who was in charge of union espionage for part of the war. The role of detectives emerges throughout the narrative and how they interacted with Boyd, Greenhow, and Van Lew. We witness a blend of societal graciousness and hospitality on all sides, but at the same time Abbott is letting the reader know what each character thought. The chapter that deals with Pinkerton’s arrest of Rose Greenhow is priceless. Abbott describes in detail the house search and how Greenhow was able to finagle documents into the hands of her eight year old daughter, “Little Rose,” as the conduit to avoid detection by Pinkerton’s agents and getting the intelligence to sources outside her home. Even under constant surveillance Greenhow continue to spy for the Confederacy employing her daughter as her currier. Another important vignette that Abbott discusses is how Elizabeth Van Lew, a friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife is able to convince her to take on one of her freed slaves as a servant in the Confederate White House. As the war turns against the Confederacy, Davis, for a time, is at a loss as to how Union spies seem to know military plans soon after he had conferred with General Robert E. Lee, or other southern generals. The work of Van Lew’s servant, Mary Jane, was certainly an important contribution to the Union cause.
(Photo of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond socialite who spied for the Union during the Civil War. A woman who was widely praised by General U.S. Grant)
Karen Abbott has certainly done a service to the memory of four women who were under cover during the Civil War. It makes for an excellent read and I recommend it to Civil War buffs and those interested in an aspect of women’s history that few are familiar with. As Elizabeth Van Lew alluded to after the war, women made major contributions to the northern victory but when it came for them to receive military pensions they had to beg men for what was due them, because they did not have the vote.