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Book Review: “Liar Temptress Soldier Spy”

Rose Greenhow.

Rose Greenhow.

Rose Greenhow should be counted among the casualties. Having proven her worth as a useful spy, Rose was sent by Jefferson Davis to court the French and British elite. It turned out that they were mostly on the side of the abolitionists. She died a Confederate heroine in 1864 as she was returning from England with a large sum of money for the cause—money she herself had earned by writing her memoirs. With the blockade-running Union Navy hovering nearby, her ship became stuck on the shoals at the entrance to the Cape Fear River, in North Carolina. Rose insisted on a lifeboat, fearing capture. It overturned at once. Rose died, strangled by the heavy bag of gold around her neck as she sank in the water.

In 1888, the Ladies’ Memorial Association marked her grave with a marble cross and the tribute “A bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government.” Even Allan Pinkerton had spied on Rose’s activities, a sign of her importance. Rose had been imprisoned, yet kept up espionage when under arrest. She communicated by Morse code embedded in needlework. Women spies, using the tools of their traditional homebound roles, were successful in part because their ruses were so unexpected. They did not follow the spy rules known to men. Nor did they stop when capture by the enemy was a danger.

Belle Boyd.

Belle Boyd.

Belle Boyd was a classic Southern belle, yet not as beautiful as she herself believed. Boasting to her cousin, Belle declared: “I am tall…my form is beautiful. My eyes are of a dark blue . . . my hair is a rich brown . . . and my foot is perfect.” (Her shoe size: 2 ½.)

She interrupted a dinner party at home when she was 11, riding her horse Skeeter into the dining room during the second course. Belle, who never willingly ceded the spotlight, was known in some quarters as “the fastest girl in Virginia, or anywhere else, for that matter.”

Lots of women in Virginia were spying, usually doing no more than counting Union troops passing by. This was too tame for Belle, who actually found herself between the lines during the Battle of Fort Royal in the northern Shenandoah Valley. When the Union took Fort Royal back, they imprisoned Belle. Newspapers anointed her the “Secesh Cleopatra,” though the Northern press referred to Belle as an “accomplished prostitute.” She was soon freed to continue her activities, many in support of her idol, General Stonewall Jackson. Again imprisoned, tricked by a Union spy, she’d become quite famous, with a new nickname bestowed by the French; “La Belle Rebelle.”

Belle was to run afoul of Union general Benjamin “the beast” Butler. Butler had issued General Order #28, “the Woman Order,” threatening that any woman who insulted or showed contempt for any U.S. officer should be arrested and treated as a prostitute. (Calling women prostitutes was a favorite way of discounting them, it seems.) Belle had the chance to berate Butler in person, living to tell the tale.

Post war, Belle had a stage career of sorts, and died of a heart attack at age 56. Describing her life in an interview, Belle declared, “I have lied, sworn, killed (I guess) and I have stolen, but I thank God that I can say on my deathbed that I am a virtuous woman.”

Next Page: Fighting and spying for the North


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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.