Review: Karen Abbott’s history of four Civil War women who spied or lied
The story of Civil War spy Elizabeth Van Lew almost defies belief. A wealthy society woman living in Richmond, Va., during the Civil War, Van Lew engaged in extensive undercover work for the Union — right under the noses of the Confederacy. Not only did she hide Northern soldiers in a secret room on the top floor of her mansion but she also passed messages to Union prisoners by using a hidden compartment in a chafing dish, employed a special cipher to send messages to agents in Washington, D.C., about Confederate troop movements and wore disguises to accomplish her espionage work.
In “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy”, Karen Abbott captures the spy-novel quality of Van Lew’s life, along with the undercover lives of three other famous Civil War-era women.
Rose O’Neale Greenhow was an ambitious Washington hostess and Southern sympathizer who used a secret code to supply military secrets to Confederate generals before the disastrous Union defeat at Bull Run, Va. Put under surveillance and eventually caught by the famous detective Allan Pinkerton, she landed in prison for her efforts and then was exiled to the South. Later in the war, she served as an emissary in Europe for no less than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Belle Boyd was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy who tried to flirt her way into war secrets; she defied the Union authorities around her, became a spy and also landed in prison. Sarah Emma Edmonds cross-dressed as “Frank Thompson” to fight for the Union; she was one of several hundred women who are estimated to have fought undercover in Civil War armies.
The stories of these four women have been told before. Both Edmonds and Boyd published melodramatic accounts of their exploits in their own day, and their stories have been told and retold since. Abbott’s innovation is to link the four stories in a continuous narrative, toggling among the women to move chronologically through the war. Not for nothing has Abbott, the bestselling author of “Sin in the Second City,” been called a “pioneer of sizzle history.” Here she creates a gripping page-turner that moves at a breathtaking clip through the dramatic events of the Civil War.
Abbott has done extensive research, as her bibliography shows. And she is at her best when she relies on the excellent histories that have been written of some of these women. Van Lew’s story, for instance, has been compellingly told by historian Elizabeth Varon, whose prizewinning “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy,” used extraordinary archival research to sift evidence and uncover the truths behind a life that had become the stuff of myth.
But Abbott is on shakier ground when she doesn’t have such careful historical work to rely upon and when the sources before her are fictions themselves. Historians have long recognized that Edmonds’ memoir, for instance, is a form of fictionalized autobiography — with the emphasis on fiction. A paper trail exists to prove that Edmonds was indeed a Union soldier; beyond that, it is clear that many of the stories Edmonds told of witnessing battles and acting as a spy were figments of her imagination, made up to add market appeal to her memoir, “Unsexed: or, The Female Soldier,” published even before the war ended. As historian Elizabeth Leonard has commented, Edmonds’ sensationalized memoir is “only loosely based on her actual experiences during the war.”
Abbott says her book is a “work of nonfiction, with no invented dialogue.” But what does this mean when the dialogue she quotes comes from works that are themselves heavily fictionalized and highly melodramatic? The result is sometimes an odd circularity, with stories that were invented during the Civil War (one disturbing story involves supposed Rebel atrocities after Bull Run that have since been widely discredited), sometimes presented as a form of fact now.
All this should not stop readers from engaging in an enjoyable read that introduces them to a fascinating set of characters. But it’s not clear why Abbott didn’t just call this a work of historical fiction. As fiction, her book would allow the reader a vivid engagement with the past through the imaginations of four extraordinary women. As a work of history, however, it raises as many questions as it answers.
Fahs is professor history at UC Irvine and author of “The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865.”
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Harper: 513 pp., $27.99
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