Civil Disobedience

By Anjali EnjetiSeptember 12, 2014

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

KAREN ABBOTT’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy features four of the most influential and celebrated women in the Civil War: Belle Boyd, a native of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), and a Confederate courier with an itchy trigger finger; Union sharpshooter and medic Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson (later known as Emma Edmonds), who disguised herself as soldier Frank Thompson; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a widow, Washington, DC socialite, and head of the local Confederate spy ring whose seductions of high-ranking Union officials elicited key battle strategies; and Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond lady with Yankee roots who operated an extensive espionage ring inside the Confederate capital and hid Union prisoners in her mansion. Abbott’s book is a riveting psychological inquiry and probing examination of the courage, incomparable patriotism, stamina, and agility of four women who repeatedly risked their lives to serve their citizenry.

Dozens of biographies have been published about Boyd, Edmonds, Greenhow, and Van Lew, and three of the women published their own memoirs. (Union spy and abolitionist Van Lew declined to write a memoir, believing it would be in “coarse taste.”) Union soldier Edmonds penned Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-fields. Socialite and Confederate spy Rose Greenhow wrote My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington. Confederate courier Belle Boyd published Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, just as the war was winding down, and, later, scripted plays where she performed as herself, documenting her missions during the war. Weaving their stories into a singular volume, as Abbott does, creates a sweeping narrative arc, capturing the women’s cumulative efforts on the execution of battles at crucial junctures and the repercussions of their achievements on one another.

Divided into five chronological parts, the book spans each year of the war from 1861 to 1865. In the summer of 1861, cunning though impeccably mannered Confederate spy Greenhow had already begun assembling her network, including a lawyer, a dentist, a Sister of Charity, and an opium smoker. God-fearing soldier Emma Edmonds, as Private Frank Thompson, tackled basic training and prepared for the advance into Virginia. Hot-tempered courier Belle Boyd, at only 17 years of age, shot a Yankee soldier after he manhandled her mother. Van Lew, a “frail, pampered spinster” from Richmond, transformed a room on the top floor of her mansion into a hideout for Union prison escapees and later orchestrated their safe passage back to the North.

Though Abbott primarily focuses on the Civil War years, she masterfully extracts crucial details of the women’s youths. These incidents foreshadow their future ambitions and provide additional insight into their characters, such as when a very young Belle Boyd brazenly rode her horse into the house interrupting her parents’ dinner party, or when a peddler handed nine-year-old Emma Edmonds a book entitled Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain: A Tale of Revolution! — the only book she’d ever read besides the Bible. Abbott then projects forward after the war to trace the women’s lives to their end.

What is most remarkable and perhaps the greatest strength of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is the myriad of passages Abbott has culled from books, diaries, letters, notes, or, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew, stories passed down by her descendents. “War will exact its victims of both sexes and claims the hearts of women no less than the bodies of men,” bemoans Confederate courier Boyd while still in her teens on the eve of battle. Boyd would be imprisoned twice for her Confederate actions, and her life after the war would echo with restlessness and frustration as she searched for a purpose as worthy as her Civil War service. Edmonds, one of approximately 400 women who disguised themselves as either Confederate or Union soldiers, sometimes wore a second layer of disguise as a black slave or an Irish peddler. But what Edmonds failed to hide was the crippling emotional toll that taking care of the wounded and dying took on her. “The ground around that tree for several acres in extent was literally drenched with human blood, and the men were laid so close together that there was no such thing as passing between them.” Abbott curates captivating, revealing quotes that evoke not just the horrors of the war, but the sometimes futility of participation.

Protesting the charge of corresponding with the enemy, Greenhow defended herself in court:

I have been taken from my home and carried to prison, to be insulted and subjected to a treatment of the most outrageous kind. Every association of my home has been broken up and destroyed. If the government deigns to send me across the lines as an exile, I have no alternative but to go as such.

Greenhow’s indomitable fealty to the Confederate cause, and her fear of a second imprisonment by the Union, would contribute to her untimely death.

Before an advance on Richmond, abolitionist and Union spy Van Lew observed,

Men riding and leading horses at full speed; the rattling of their gear, their canteens and arms; the rush of the poor beasts into and out of the pond at which they were watered. The dust, the cannons on the crop roads and fields, the ambulances, the long line of infantry awaiting orders.[…] I realized the bright rush of life, the hurry of death on the battlefield.

As Abbott later reveals, Van Lew’s life would not include a “hurry of death.” Though she would endure criticism from Richmond society, lose her fortune, and experience hours “lonely and long,” she would live until age 82.

These poignant passages not only highlight the women’s robust allegiances to their respective causes but also their sophisticated literary sensibility and refined rhetorical skills. The women, as Abbott expertly portrays them, are not simple-minded diarists accounting for the war in the margins of recipes or reports about social engagements. Boyd, Edmonds, Greenhow, and Van Lew are philosophers, intellectuals, and artists endowed with the gift of language, as well as women of action. Through Abbott’s telling, it’s apparent that not only did Boyd, Van Lew, Edmonds, and Greenhow help define the trajectory of the war, but also that the war defined them.

The excerpts of contemporary writing go beyond the four women’s voices, shedding additional light on either their notoriety or their dilemmas. Abbott includes firsthand observations from those who either investigated the women for suspected unlawful activity or developed friendships with them. A German immigrant and Union informant considered Boyd, “more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operations than any three men in the valley.” Allan Pinkerton, a Union detective charged with tailing Greenhow, noted: “A number of prominent gentlemen were received by the fascinating widow, and among the number were several earnest and sincere Senators and Representatives, whose loyalty was above question, and who were, perhaps, in entire ignorance of the lady’s true character.” Abbott also delicately depicts the blossoming of the friendship between Emma Edmonds as Frank Thompson and Union medical steward Jerome Robbins, one of only two men during the war who would eventually come to know Edmonds’s secret. Shortly after learning that Frank was really Emma, he writes: “God knows my heart that towards her I entertain the kindest feelings, but it really seems a great change has taken place in her or that the real her has been unmasked.” But their friendship would endure, even after Edmonds, who had been suffering from a recurrence of malaria and whose fears of exposure for her sex had reached a crescendo, deserted the army in 1863. Remarkably, Robbins had kept Edmonds’s secret during the entire length of her service, and just before Edmonds’s desertion, fed her sips of wine spiked with quinine sulfate in her tent to ease her suffering, understanding full well that he could not risk getting her treated at the hospital. With these riveting third-person perspectives, Abbott adds a layer of complexity to the women’s histories.

Abbott deftly reveals how the women’s military tactics and intelligence affected one another. Confederate spy Greenhow’s intelligence informed Confederate strategy for what would later be known as the Battle of Bull Run, a major victory for which she was praised by President Davis. This same piece of intelligence caused an embarrassing retreat of the Union army, for which Union soldier Edmonds harshly criticized her comrades:

Many that day who turned their backs upon the enemy and sought refuge in the woods some two miles distant, were found torn to pieces by shell, or mangled by cannon ball — a proper reward for those who, insensible to shame, duty or patriotism, desert their cause and comrades in the trying hour of battle, and skulk away cringing under the fear of death.

In September 1862, when Boyd, a great admirer of Greenhow’s, was released from Old Capitol Prison and sent to Ballard House in Richmond, she was given a hero’s welcome and held court with her idol. “For Belle the encounter was secondary only to meeting Stonewall Jackson, and she went to sleep marveling that she’d become who she wanted to be before even growing up.” Union sympathizer Van Lew also knew about Greenhow’s activities, but resented the praise Greenhow received from the local papers. “The same papers that had threatened Elizabeth for visiting Union prisoners now excoriated the Northern government for punishing a ‘true woman’ like Rose.” Abbott’s nimble prose underscores not only the hostile confrontations and jubilant victories on the battlefield, but also the women’s personal disappointments and triumphs.

And in 1863, while Greenhow, exiled to the South, met regularly with President Davis at his Richmond home, Van Lew’s family’s former slave and most valuable operative, Mary Jane Bowser, was dusting Davis’s office, memorizing the papers and maps on his desk, and eavesdropping on entire conversations between Davis and his team of generals — information which Bowser would later relay to Van Lew. If anything is missing from the book, it is Bowser’s own account of her covert activity in the Confederate White House, and a deeper understanding, from her point of view, of the unusually close, mother-daughter-like relationship between herself and Van Lew. Nevertheless, Abbott’s skilled narration of Boyd’s, Edmonds’s, Greenhow’s, and Van Lew’s lives provides an insightful commentary on how their actions directly impacted one another.

That is why the unification of these four stories together in one book makes Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy feel like an operatic espionage novel, where deception, betrayal, love, and redemption are interspersed with gripping combat scenes and perilous rescues. By elegantly unspooling the interiority of Boyd, Greenhow, Edmonds, and Van Lew as the War Between the States intensifies, Abbott delivers, in this thrilling read, eloquent and deserving tributes to four courageous women.


Anjali Enjeti is a novelist and MFA student in creative writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kirkus Reviews, Huffington Post, Paste, XO Jane, PANK,and ArtsATL.

LARB Contributor

Anjali Enjeti is the author of a novel, The Parted Earth, and Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change. Her other writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, The Boston Globe, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. She lives outside Atlanta.


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