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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

By Karen Abbott

I do a lot of reading on the train. My commute to work takes about forty-five minutes when the MBTA (Commuter train into Boston, MA) is running on-time. To lessen the amount of stuff I need to schlep to the office, I use a Kindle. I love the ability to read a ‘sample,’ to get a sense of a story and see if this grabs me. Karen Abbott’s book certainly did just that and had me swiping page after page, hungry for more.

She tells the true story of four women who risked everything to become spies during the Civil War. Her riveting account, using a wealth of primary material, is full of titillating details. We follow Belle, Emma, Elizabeth and Rose as they intrigue, seduce, scheme, and fight their way through the most dramatic events of the Civil War.

Karen begins with Belle Boyd, who after shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, became a courier and spy for the Confederate army. Belle, not an obvious beauty, used her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds, a native from Canada, escaping an unappealing arranged marriage to a much older man, cut her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hiding behind her Southern graces, orchestrated a network of spies under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives. Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a beautiful widow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, using her young daughter Rose to send information to Southern generals.

The cast of real-life characters includes Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and even Emperor Napoleon III of France.

Isabella ‘Belle’ Maria Boyd, Confederate spy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Sara Emma Edmonds as Private Frank Thompson

Elizabeth Van Lew, circa 1861 By National Park Service –, Public Domain.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow with her youngest daughter and namesake, “Little” Rose, at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862, photo by Mathew Brady.

The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote “Eloquent… A riveting psychological inquiry and probing examination of the courage, incomparable patriotism, stamina, and agility of four women who repeatedly risked their lives to serve their citizenry… Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy [feels] like an operatic espionage novel, where deception, betrayal, love, and redemption are interspersed with gripping combat scenes and perilous rescues.” I couldn’t agree more. I loved this book and highly recommend it.

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