One of the hazards of reading a nonfiction book, especially one about a well-known subject, is that you know what happens in the end. Every time I got to a section about the Confederates, I was just thinking, “Oh, sweetie, this is not going to turn out well for your side.” Be that as it may, there were plenty of things I didn’t know going into this, especially as I can by no means be called a history buff. I knew that Lincoln was President, the Yankee Union was in the north and the Rebel Confederate was in the south, and it was about slavery and secession, and that’s about it. Now I know that I would like to have slapped Major General McClellan upside the head multiple times, that the war was more bloody than I thought it was, and that women played a much bigger part than I or many other people realized.
We follow four different women through the years of the war, two unionists and two rebels. (I was born and raised in New Jersey, so perhaps I am a bit biased in having the two union ladies be my favorites.) Amazon seems to have summed up our quartet quite well:
“After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.”
I found Belle Boyd to be a bit annoying – she was loyal to the South, yes, but she was more loyal to herself. The war began when she was 16, and she was immediately put in the spotlight, and she fought to stay there. Perhaps is was her age, or maybe it was her celebrity, but in my opinion nothing truly terrible happened to her. Rose Greenhow, the other Confederate spy, is a bit different. She seemed to be a bit promiscuous, but who am I to judge who a lady has at her home or how she earns her income? Like Belle, she had her celebrity status, but she was not an innocent young thing, and was seen as a much more serious threat. She and her daughter were treated abominably by the Union. Her own treatment may have been earned by Rose, but not her daughter. Then again, war is hard, and she was playing in the political arena. My favorites were Elizabeth and Emma. Elizabeth was quiet and proper in her espionage, offering what she had and treating everyone well. Emma gave up everything, even her sex, to serve the Union. Her position was the most dangerous, both in that she was being shot at on the front lines, and that if she was discovered she could have been killed by her own side. Belle and Rose were in the spotlight and in the papers, while Elizabeth and Emma were not.
This was my second audiobook, the first being Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu. The two could not have been more different. (Although I seem to have missed out on pictures and maps again. Drat!) After listening to the wonderful comedy of Christopher Moore, the introduction to this seemed dry as dust, and I had doubts that I was going to make it through. But then we got into the main part of the story, and things were better. While this will not be a book I will personally revisit, I am recommending it to others. It is well written and sheds light on an aspect of American history that has been somewhat in the shadows.