'Liar Temptress Soldier Spy' finds thrills and chills in Civil War history

Four women – two Union sympathizers and two proud Rebels – served their causes in surprising fashions during the US Civil War.

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, by Karen Abbott, HarperCollins, 528 pp.

Karen Abbott's "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy," a historical account of four women fighting their own battles their own way during the Civil War, is full of so many titillating dramas and details, you could be forgiven for periodically checking the back of the book to make sure it's nonfiction you're reading and not a historical romance or a made-for-TV bodice-ripper. 

Consider the "Four Women Undercover in the Civil War" of the book's subtitle: On the Confederate side, there's Belle Boyd, who begins as a youngster sabotaging her parents' dinner party by riding horseback into the dining room from which she's been forbidden. She goes on to a boundary-crossing career, as a freelance spy who episodically employs her sex appeal to collect and betray Union secrets and to foil the plans of Yankee soldiers and statesmen.

Then there's Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a Washington DC society lady and spy who also uses her sex, her sewing, and her slaves, to transport information across the lines, and who eventually withstands house arrest, physical threats, near starvation, and imprisonment for the Southern cause, all with her young daughter "Little Rose" in tow.

But it's on the Union side that Abbott gives us the two true heroines of this book, with the astounding narratives of Emma Edmondson and Elizabeth Van Lew. They come from starkly different backgrounds – Emma from an impoverished Canadian rural life and Elizabeth from old Virginia wealth – but each demonstrate repeated acts of valor that are so entirely cinematic one can imagine Abbott protesting, "I couldn't make this stuff up!"

Take the truly astonishing tale of Edmondson: Born to a gruff New Brunswick father in need of  a son, Edmondson, in a childhood effort to please, learns how to break horses, fish and hunt like a lad, but then realizes the thanks she gets is to be married off to an aging neighbor farmer. So what does one do?

Apparently one joins the Union army, as a man, and goes to war.

Edmondson, as Private Frank Thompson, proceeds to distinguish her/himself in the battlefield, repeatedly, and is promoted to mail carrier (a dangerous occupation at war) and spy. In doing so, Edmondson becomes one of about 400 women who, Abbott reports, actively served as soldiers, posing as men, during the Civil War. As a spy, Edmondson goes under cover and crosses enemy lines disguised as a slave on one occasion, and on another occasion as an Irish woman.

Did you catch that? Emma Edmondson actually crosses Confederate lines and collects  information for the Union, as a woman impersonating a male soldier impersonating an Irish woman. And, one can hear Abbott protest, this is not a screenplay – it is history!

To further oblige our literary and dramatic sensibilities, Edmondson also manages to form a friendship with a fellow soldier and – yes – falls in love at war. And she manages to do this twice, eventually leaving the war front and returning home to marry someone else altogether and live somewhat peacefully ever after, though she endures a tragic loss of her children and is plagued by malaria. She also manages to collect her war pension.

Richmond's Elizabeth Van Lew as portrayed here is no less heroic, and historic.

As an unmarried society woman with a distaste for Virginia society, Van Lew comes from a family that educates and eventually frees its enslaved workers, much to the consternation of the neighbors. But when war breaks out, these progressive proclivities put Elizabeth Van Lew in actual danger.

She responds by becoming a spy for her beloved Union and its cause, and goes into partnership with a trusted enslaved woman, Mary Jane Bowser. Van Lew and Bowser together help to create an Underground spy ring worthy of John Le Carré, from whom Abbott draws her title. The two women sew dispatches into dresses, bury information in vegetables, and slip maps and materials into specially made shoes to be transported across Confederate lines.

Terrifically, Mary Jane Bowser gathers her information from the Confederate White House itself, where she is enslaved by Jefferson and Varina Davis, the Confederate president and First Lady.

And the plot thickens: Van Lew habitually breaks Union soldiers out of the nearby prison and then actually houses them in a secret room of her Church Hill mansion. To add to the complicating factors, she must hide the soldiers from not only the Confederate General Winder who has the mansion searched, but from her own two young, curious nieces.

In yet another of Abbott's cinematic scenes, Abbott describes an occasion where one niece, Annie, follows her aunt and decides to investigate the secret room: "She found the door slightly ajar. Peeking behind it she saw two men, foul-smelling, faces spackled with dirt. One of them pressed a grimy finger to his lips. 'Keep it all a secret,' he whispered, 'or else we will die.'"

With all these characters, scenes, and situations, of course the discerning reader, not to mention the historian, will question how much of this captivating narrative is absolutely verifiable fact, and how much of it is Abbott's gift for storytelling. For instance, when Emma Edmondson encounters her future friend and the man she loves, is it historically verifiable to conclude that she forbids "her gaze to linger on his dark eyes and razor cheekbones"?  Or can we verify, in  Belle Boyd's meeting with a lieutenant, the presence of her "gloved hand perched on his forearm, fingertips sinking into his skin"?

Much of Abbott's information comes from cited journals, letters, and the extensive writings by and about her subjects, from which she masterfully draws details to re-create scene after scene. But of course Abbott is likely taking some storytelling license. And her scenes, while sometimes verging into the contrived, often bring gems. Edmondson, in contemplating the plight of women soldiers posing as men, feels "as if she were living in the third person instead of the first, caught between pronouns."

So if Abbott's narrative gifts cross the line of accuracy by filling in some imagined details, the result is certainly a compelling – and true – read. Unlike some of even our best historians, one doesn't sense a struggle here to find narrative momentum; the language and scenes seem to unfold effortlessly. And that makes "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy" the closest you may get this year to a bodice-ripping, downright suspenseful, historical page-turner. 

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