Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War caught my attention because I like to read about topics that are somewhat off the beaten path. Karen Abbott writes about four women who served their country, whether it was the Union or Confederacy, as spies and in other functions.
I had known some of what Belle Boyd did during the war, but the other women were new names to me. Honestly, Boyd had never impressed me. True, she was an effective spy, but it seemed like what she was doing was just as much about making herself important as it was to help the Confederacy.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a member of Washington society who was able to seduce politicians and military men into divulging secrets. I found her time in prison very interesting in how she refused to let it break her, but then she feared going back so it definitely had an effect on her.
Elizabeth Van Lew was part of Richmond society who helped hide Union soldiers in her home and pass on information to the North. I actually found the story of Mary Bowser, one of Van Lew’s servants, more interesting. Bowser was hired in the Confederate White House and collected information right from Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s home and passed it on to Van Lew.
Emma Edmonds’ story was the one that truly caught my attention. She took on a male persona and became a soldier in the Union army where she fought, nursed soldiers, and served as a postmaster. She also went undercover as a female slave to collect information.
The epilogue that explains what happened to these women after the war I found particularly interesting. Although I am pleased that the country recognized the contributions these ladies made to the war effort, not all of them led happy lives after the war.
Abbott does a great job of telling the stories in a compelling way, but sometimes the transitions between the stories was muddled. I found that I was quite fascinated to find out what would happen to these ladies.
I am surprised that Abbott included the stories of all four of these women in one book. I would think that any of them deserve their own book.
I was worried when I started reading that Abbott would write a feminist, politically correct book. I am pleased to say that is not the case. At times, I saw some things that might be construed that way, but that could have been because I was looking for it. By and large, it was a straightforward and compelling story.
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy serves as a good introduction to these ladies, but you should look for additional books to flesh out the stories. Some reviewers have pointed out problems in some of the details that Abbott included. Many of these are minor problems, but some are distracting. One that caught my attention was her description of what the Confederate soldiers did to the Union dead after a battle. I have never read anything like that before and it seems so outrageous that she would have wanted to make sure that it was verified.
In other sections, I found myself thinking, “I wish I had written a passage like that in my books.” Abbott definitely made me appreciate the efforts of the women more than I had when started reading.
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