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Book Review: “Liar Temptress Soldier Spy”

Emma Edmonds

Emma Edmonds

“Cheerfulness was my motto,” said Emma Edmonds, aka Frank Thompson, referring to her nursing work with dying soldiers. She was an outstanding soldier, brave and stalwart, and her religious beliefs and strong opposition to slavery contributed to her excellence as a nurse, as regimental mail carrier, and as a spy. When a woman tried to kill her while Emma fetched supplies for the troops, Emma shot the woman’s hand: “I didn’t want to kill the wretch, but I did intend to wound her.” Emma took her captive to the hospital—unusually considerate for a soldier in such times.

Spies in this war often wore disguises or feigned disabilities. Three generals, including George McClellan, sent Emma on her first mission—as a slave going to Yorktown—to assess troop strengths. (To become “Ned,” she cut her hair short, wore a wig, and “darkened her head, face, neck, hands, and arm”; some of it came off later in the rain.) She brought back information, which was mostly ignored by McClellan, though it proved accurate. Her next assignment was ironic, since she had to impersonate a woman.

Despite broken bones after a mule threw her, and bouts of recurrent malaria, Emma soldiered on without treatment, fearing exposure of her deception. She refused surgery and other medical procedures, for the obvious reason. (A number of women playing male soldiers were caught, one because she gave birth.) She eventually deserted, saying: “I never for a moment considered myself a deserter . . . I left because I could hold out no longer.”

Her postwar book, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse and Spy: a Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army, was a success. It sold 175, 000 copies. (The biggest publishing phenomenon of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sold 300.000.) She donated all proceeds to the wounded soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.

Emma married soon after the war, though she regarded marriage as a kind of personal defeat, thinking how the census takers sum up a woman’s employment as “married woman.”

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew

At 43, Elizabeth Van Lew was considered an eccentric old spinster by the people of Richmond, Virginia, where she lived. She was a rich woman. The only man she’d wanted to marry had died of yellow fever in his twenties.

She wheedled Confederate General John H.Winder, provost marshal of Richmond, into allowing her compassionate access to Yankee prisoners, a much-whispered-about action. (Personal note: The despicable general was deemed responsible for the 13,000 deaths at notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, a place my very young great-grandfather barely survived, lucky for me.)

When Winder grew suspicious of her activities and sent officers to search her home, she praised him as a true Christian—this while she was hiding several Union escapees inside her secret room. Family servant Mary Jane Richards, freed by Elizabeth at age 3 and sent to a Quaker school up North and then to a mission in Liberia, agreed to work at Jefferson Davis’s Confederate White House in order to glean information important to the Union cause. Clothing sent out for repairs became the conduit. Mary Jane was presented to the Confederate first lady as uneducated but hardworking. In truth, Mary Jane had an amazing memory and could relay entire conversations or documents back to Elizabeth. Dispatches were sewn inside Mrs. Davis’s voluminous hoop skirts when sent to the seamstress.

Late in the war, when members of Elizabeth’s spy ring were being arrested, Mary Jane was under suspicion since important plans had been leaked to the Union. Elizabeth smuggled her out of town in a wagon, covered with manure—disgusting but lifesaving. In fact, servants and slaves had been aiding the cause of freedom for some time. The great Harriet Tubman had her own band of spies.

In April 1865, rebel troops burned Richmond homes as they retreated. Many people brought their valuables to Elizabeth, guessing that her home would not be destroyed by the advancing Union army. When Elizabeth heard “Yankee Doodle Dandy” being played in the street, she retrieved her flag from its hiding place and let it fly over the porch, for the first time in four years.

Mary Jane returned to teaching black children. General Grant spent an afternoon with Elizabeth. But her neighbors did not forgive her, and after a brief stint as postmistress of Richmond (the government changed), she had no more money. She could not sell her home. Elizabeth died a lonely woman at age 82.

But her bravery earned her admiration in the North. A group of admirers of Elizabeth Van Lew, including the grandson of Paul Revere, raised money for a memorial stone: 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.

Karen Abbott’s Liar Temptress  Soldier Spy is a stunning achievement—thoroughly researched, with 76 pages of notes, bibliography, and index. There is no invented dialogue. Photos, maps, and drawings enhance the pages. It is fun to read, full of the detailed adventures of its subjects and, yes, the gossipy parts as well. Descriptions of the horrendous conflict that was our Civil War rivet and even surprise the reader. One is left wanting to read more. Our politics today are divisive, and we hear threats of secession that make us ponder. This war is a reminder that we never want to repeat the experience.

Most of all, Abbott’s book is a long overdue acknowledgment of the bravery and determination of Civil War era women, who were willing and able, despite the most challenging odds.


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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.