She risked everything that is dear to man — friends — fortune — comfort — health — life itself — all for the one absorbing desire of her heart — that slavery might be abolished and the union preserved.
Epitaph on Elizabeth Van Lew’s tombstone
If your only exposure to feisty Civil War women is fictional heroine Scarlett O’Hara, you are missing out on some fascinating literature about real-life heroines. Last week, I reviewed I Shall Be Near to You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s historical novel based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Wakeman, like hundreds of other women, assumed the identity of a man and fought in the Civil War. Now I’m reading Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, another historical novel inspired by the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.
Rosetta makes a cameo appearance in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Karen Abbott’s rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies. When Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy with a very high opinion of herself, was arrested and imprisoned, her guard was “Private Lyons Wakeman” of the 153rd New York:
When Belle blew kisses to the blue-eyed, five-foot-tall soldier she was unwittingly flirting with a woman: twenty-year-old Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who had left her home in upstate New York a year earlier and reinvented herself as a man. She signed many of her letters home “Rosetta”, confident that her true identity would remain secret as long as she needed it to be.
Truth is certainly stranger than fiction, an adage that Abbott demonstrates in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy. Many events seem unbelievable; I kept having to remind myself I was reading history, not historical fiction. Abbott skillfully weaves the stories of each of the four women into one suspenseful narrative. Divided into five parts — one section for each of the war years, plus a final section about the women’s lives after the war — the book is much more than a collection of stories about four brave and independent women. It’s a painstakingly constructed history of the Civil War, based on the experiences of women who “chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war”. Each woman’s distinct personality comes to life on the page, thanks to the diaries, letters, archival notes, transcripts, and family stories that Abbott used in her research.
Belle Boyd literally got away with murder — she shot a Union soldier in her own home and then dared his compatriots to shoot her: “‘Only those who are cowards shoot women,’ she said, and spread open her arms. ‘Now shoot!'” She was later exonerated, and began a career in espionage, always looking for the chance to become the center of attention. Infatuated with Stonewall Jackson, she seized the opportunity to deliver a message to the general:
Hope, fear, the love of life, and the determination to serve my country to the last, conspired to fill my heart with more than feminine courage, and to lend preternatural strength and swiftness to my limbs. I often marvel, and even shudder, when I reflect how I cleared the fields, and bounded over the fences with an agility of a deer.
Belle, as Abbott frequently (and amusingly) makes clear, did not suffer from a lack of self-esteem.
Widow Rose O’Neal Greenhow ran the Confederate spy ring in Washington, D.C., conducting affairs with Northern politicians to gather information and using her own eight-year-old daughter to pass along intelligence. After Allan Pinkerton arrested her, she was imprisoned and eventually exiled to the South, where she continued her espionage activities. Jefferson Davis sent her as his emissary overseas to “court the French and British elite, in the hope she might rally support for the Confederacy”.
Emma Edmonds escaped a miserable family situation by disguising herself as “Frank Thompson” and joining the Union Army. She took cross-dressing to a new level when she carried out spy missions behind enemy lines “with yet another layer of disguise, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman”. Her daring acts of espionage were often the product of her own creative thinking, and also reflected her personal beliefs about slavery:
Emma went out of her way to interact with slaves whenever she had the chance, listening to their stories and hoping she might one day teach them. Her choice to disguise herself again as a slave was, in her current circumstances, the best way she knew to show empathy.
Although she lived in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist. She enlisted the help of her beloved servant, Mary Jane (a well-educated “free person of color”), in her espionage activities. She placed Mary Jane as a “sleeper agent” in the Confederate White House as an “excellent house servant” to First Lady Varina Davis. Mary Jane played the part of a “simple, illiterate maid, obsequious in manner and bumbling in speech . . . No one would think twice when she cleaned the president’s library, lingering as she dusted the desk piled with maps of fortifications and statistics about his troops”.
The title of Abbott’s book pays homage to John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy isn’t just about women in the Civil War; it’s about espionage in general. Like le Carré’s novel, Abbott’s study of Civil War espionage is about treachery and betrayal. The motives of female spies are as varied as the motives of male spies — belief in a cause; egotism; attraction to danger; escape from difficulty or heartache.
Liar Temptress Soldier Spy is a fascinating and illuminating reading experience. Abbott’s attention to detail shows not only in her exhaustive notes, but in the many excellent black and white photographs she includes. I also really appreciate the inventive titles she gives to each chapter. The chapter titles help set the tone in an apt and colorful way. Abbott could have started with “Chapter One”, but she decided on “The Fastest Girl in Virginia (Or Anywhere Else For That Matter) “. Already, the reader knows something about Belle Boyd, and about the kind of history book this is going to be.