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Book Review: “Liar Temptress Soldier Spy”

Morse-code messages in needlework . . . dispatches sewn into hoop skirts . . . a spy/coquette called both “an accomplished prostitute” and “the Secesh Cleopatra” . . . who knew? At this, the beginning of Women’s History Month, we offer Toni Myers’s review of a rousing new book about the daring and resourceful female spies (and soldiers) of the Civil War. —Ed.


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The United States was soon to celebrate its 85th birthday on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The 23 Northern states had over 22 million people; the South had 9.1 million, 4 million of this number living in slavery. Dependent, subservient, and unequal, America’s white women (and freed slaves living in the North) had few rights that year, when the Civil War brought them out of their homes and into the raging and bloody conflict.

Most volunteered as nurses and supply people, as many as 400 were soldiers in disguise as men, a few were spies. Karen Abbott gives us Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, a page-turning and factual account of four women spies, two for the North and two for the South. How brave they were to emerge from their sheltered lives as virtual chattel and take on the most dangerous jobs imaginable!

We meet fearless 17-year-old Belle Boyd of Virginia, surrounded by Yankee soldiers as one prepares to ravish her mother. She pulls out her pistol and shoots the offender in the neck, demanding of the rest: “Only those who are cowards shoot women. Now shoot!” (Spoiler alert: she survived to do lots of damage to the Union cause.)

Frank Thompson, age 19, joined the Michigan Infantry and became one of 50,000 soldiers in Washington, D.C. Frank managed to pass the Army physical, though ”he” was really Emma Edmonds, who’d been posing as a man since she escaped an imminent arranged marriage back in Canada.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, at 47 a widow with three children (five others had died), was head of Washington, D.C.’s Confederate spy ring. Rose had lots of confidants—men in power who conferred/dallied with her behind closed doors. Like Belle, Rose was not on the side of the slaves.

At 43, Elizabeth Van Lew, of Richmond, Virginia, had never been married. Though she had Yankee roots, she was rich and therefore tolerated by local society. Unlike Belle and Rose, she was intensely anti-slavery. Elizabeth began spending her inheritance to buy slaves and then free them or, if they so wished, employ them.

All four women were relentless in pursuit of their causes. They were willing to take great risks and were stoic in accepting hardships like constant surveillance and prison. Other than some acknowledgement by generals and others who benefited directly from their reports, they had few backers, not much support—and no vote. Spies were everywhere in the Civil War, and even the simple act of selling goods to aid the troops was deemed conduct “unbecoming a lady.” The war was up close and personal, hazardous to all; 620,000 men died in the Civil War, 2 percent of the population and the highest body count of any American conflict to the present day.

Next Page: The Confederate spies


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  • Toni Myers March 4, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks, Barbara. Reading and writing, I became quite interested in this terrible, on our land, war. I will pick up your recommended book at the library. Brava to Gertrude!

  • Barbara Pugliese March 4, 2015 at 11:46 am

    I always enjoy reading Toni’s book reports. This one looks especially interesting, since I am now a transplant to Georgia. I recommend the book Suffer and Grow Strong by Carolyn Newton Curry. This is the story of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas and her life during and after the Civil War. The story is based on her diary that she began at 14 and continued for 41 years. She was the daughter of a very wealthy landowner and slave owner from Georgia. It would be interesting to compare the two books. Gertrude Clanton Thomas went on to become a spokesperson for women’s rights.