Author: Karen Abbott
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 528 (hardcover)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women – a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow – who were spies.
“After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.
“Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.” – from the Amazon summary.
Elle Tea’s Review
These women had balls. There’s just no other way to put it. Balls. These women had them. Great big ones.
I am a huge history buff, with interests stretching back to the beginning of the universe (yeah, literally), but those interests typically stay solidly away from North America and, even for England and the Continent, they wain after the Edwardian era.
That being said, the (American) Civil War itself is, while interesting, just not something that interests me enough to pursue anything beyond a very superficial knowledge. I attended schools on the West Coast (where I recall the Civil War being relegated to a single chapter in a couple of history books) and abroad (where it wasn’t mentioned at all), and I lived most of my adult life in the Pacific Northwest which, besides a few forts tasked with guarding the Columbia River from Confederate boats, engaged exactly zero actual enemy combatants and had positively no battles on its own soil. So, for most of my life there just haven’t been that many reminders that I’m missing out on an important part of this country’s history, which, had things turned out any differently, would have certainly changed the politics, economics, foreign relations, and civil rights as we know them.
What I am a fan of is kick-ass women, so when this popped up as suggested reading for me on Amazon, I thought I’d give it a go. And I’m glad I did, because these women… I mean… Wow – these women!
I said in my most recent review that we, as humans, tend to cast our own opinions quite freely, judging people based on how we think we would act in the same scenarios; however, in the cases of Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Emma Edmonds, and Elizabeth Van Lew, I found myself judging myself more harshly than any of them, turning to the Manimal at various points and saying, “There is no way in hell I could have done this. I would have crumpled. I would have run. I would have begged.”
“War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself…”
To begin with, I wasn’t aware of the laws in place for dealing with spies, which essentially stipulated that spies who were soldiers for the opposition were treated as enemy combatants – captured, jailed, and given trials – whereas civilian agents were immediately dubbed traitors to their country (be that the United States of America or the Confederate States of America) and either exiled or hanged. This fact is stated fairly early in the book, and for me it underlined everything these women chose to do from that point on; yes, they were women and would possibly be granted some leniency based on their gender… but that was no guarantee.
My favorite of them all was Elizabeth Van Lew, a single, middle-aged, Southern-born, Northern-educated woman living with her widowed mother in a mansion in Richmond, Virginia. Her neighbors threatened her home and her life, the newspapers leveled dangerous accusations at her and her mother that riled the locals’ proud sentiments against them, frequent attempts were made to entrap her, spies read her mail and watched her through the windows of her home, relatives were interrogated about her business dealings and asked specific questions about her loyalty to the Confederacy, and soldiers were often sent to search her home and grounds – sometimes going so far as to stay overnight or for a few days. Despite all of this, she managed to set up a sprawling spy network that included high-ranking officials and servants in the White House of the Confederacy, soldiers in the rebel army, at least one local woman, and railroad operators. She smuggled money, messages, troop movements, maps, runaway slaves, and captured Union soldiers to the North – all through her home, right under the nose of the Confederate government, the seat of which was located only a few blocks away. There was never a moment when she wasn’t “on” – it must have been exhausting in every sense of the word, not to mention lonely… and in the end, heart-breakingly thankless.
Though at least four-hundred women are believed to have impersonated men in order to fight in the Civil War, Emma Edmonds, known as Frank Thompson during her stint in the Union army, was remarkable in that (a) she was Canadian and, therefore, fought solely because she believed the Union to be the just and right cause, and (b) she not only fought on the lines but also served as an officer’s aide, military postmaster (running messages from the front to the camps), and a successful spy. In fact, because of “Frank’s” youthful features, “he” was often called upon to disguise “himself” as a woman – essentially making Emma a real-life Victor-Victoria: a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Her accounts of how she dealt with practical issues such as menstruation, appearing to shave with the other troops, having male bunk-mates, routine physical examinations, and, eventually, amorous attachments to fellow soldiers were as eye-opening as they were mind-boggling.
“War will exact its victims of both sexes, and claims the hearts of women no less than the bodies of men.”
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was tough as nails and a veritable puppetmaster, and there’s no denying that. She was a statuesque, witty, charming, intelligent woman who, after the death of her husband, immersed herself in some rather sketchy behavior with quite a few Northern politicians; despite her scandalous reputation amongst the women of the neighborhood, her popularity with the men never waned, and they sought her advice and counsel on various aspects of government – bringing to her boudoir secrets that she immediately dispatched to her beloved Southern contacts. The methods she used to smuggle many of these encrypted messages were both simple and sheer genius – small purses rolled within elaborate hairstyles, guns and medicines strapped to the insides of steel crinolines, letters sewn into bodices… Not even imprisonment, deprivation, separation from her youngest daughter, and deportation broke this formidable woman – the Earth itself had to literally swallow her alive and spit her back out before the fight went out of her.
I’ve saved the boy-crazy Belle Boyd for last – not because her contributions to her “side’s” war efforts were any less than those found in the gallery of women with which she shares this spotlight, but solely because her general attitude was the least palatable for me. I really enjoyed how she began her formal rebellion against the Union – a scene which it is impossible to believe didn’t influence a similar one found in Gone with the Wind – but, though she successfully managed to aid the Confederate war effort in her own way, her overall need for recognition of every little deed she managed to carry out and her ravenous hunger for fame (or infamy, she didn’t seem to care which) went against the very job she had resigned herself to do.
Besides highlighting the deeds of these four exceptional women, Abbott also makes sure to stress the surroundings in which these ladies found themselves, the lives they’d led prior to the War, and the horrors they experienced and witnessed during the Civil War itself. There are affairs, socialites, and fancy dinners… but there are also fields of bodies left to rot where they fell, festering wounds covered in maggots, and medical practices from which it is a wonder anyone could survive.
It is a fast-paced read and one which, I believe, will hold the attention and garner the interest of even the most averse to non-fiction among you. This opinion is mainly owing to the one thing I actually didn’t much care for: the occasional bit of poetic license taken by Abbott. I prefer the non-fiction books I read to be based entirely on fact and not include, in the guise of facts, the author’s own assumptions about how things might have looked or how someone may have felt. This is a personal preference of my own, however; I’m not blind to the fact that I’m in the minority when it comes to genuinely enjoying informational non-fiction over narrative non-fiction.
All in all, I’d definitely recommend this book to just about everyone. It’s interesting, emotional, entertaining, and a great way to spark some interest in this period of American history.
Besides, it’s got a great message for young women: anything men can do, women can do – and we can do it in corsets and crinolines! 🙂
Elle read the Kindle version of this book.