While the title and the cover art would have one presuming this was some terrible historical romance novel, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is actually an amazingly researched, heavily detailed historical non-fiction about four women’s contributions to the outcome of the American Civil War. The book follows two unionists, Emma Edmonds (aka Frank Thompson) and Elizabeth Van Lew, and two secessionists, Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow, through the five years of the war, along with a summation of their lives after the war ends as well. The research is incredibly detailed, the stories of these four women interweaving as they pass like ships in the night through the same spaces and places, giving this book a well-roundness that many historical non-fictions miss. Abbott really takes the historical vacuum away and paints a broader scope that shows not just the micro stories of these women’s lives, but the macro picture of the time and place they were living in.
Each woman’s story is carefully plotted out, and while I think Abbott may have had to take some leaps about characterizing these women, overall, her use of only primary source quotes for dialogue, and in three cases, the women’s private journals, she probably got as close as possible to the personalities and inner selves of her subjects. I found myself falling for all four of them, even when I didn’t agree with their politics or decisions. So let’s me them:
Emma Edmonds (aka Frank Thompson) – a Canadian who escapes her abusive father by dressing as a man and becoming a traveling salesman in the US. (S)he dons a uniform and joins the Army of the Potomac to fight for abolition. (S)he’s at several of the biggest battles, runs spy missions for Gen. McLellan, works in the hospitals, and becomes a mail courier. (S)he defects in 1864 on fear of being ‘revealed’ and goes back to dressing as a lady person to stay concealed. While (s)he does marry a man later on, I wondered throughout this story if Emma was actually gender fluid, as she really enjoys being in a man’s persona and had dated women while embodying Frank. While (s)he does refer to herself Emma for the rest of her life, (s)he continues to wear men’s clothes, and it did make me wonder.
Elizabeth Van Lew – Aristocratic Virginian spinster who used her wealth and station to create one of the most successful union spy rings in enemy territory. She also helped hundreds of union prisoners escape to the north, and installed her servant, Mary Jane, in the Confederate White House to read all of Jefferson Davis’ plans and mail. Elizabeth was my favorite throughout this book: her wit, intellect, and unbelievable tenacity to keep the spy ring going in such a dangerous space was nothing short of amazing. And the end of her life is heartbreaking in that she never got any recognition or compensation for the incredibly dangerous stunts she pulled to get the union army the information they needed.
Belle Boyd – Middle-class Virginian who’s tenacious spirit and need to always be the center of attention puts her in the right place and the right time to spy for the Confederates. While Abbot paints a well-rounded picture of Belle, the impression I got was that it was always play-acting for Belle, and I don’t know if she ever really understood the gravity of what she was doing. While her convictions were strong and I felt for her when she was sent away from her family, there’s always the sense that Belle’s doing what Belle’s doing to benefit Belle. Her life after the war is something out of the Jerry Springer show.
Rose Greenhow – Influential Washington DC native who uses her station and feminine wiles to create the most successful confederate spy ring in enemy territory. Rose is like the foil to Elizabeth, and I wonder if Abbott chose to focus on these two women in order to make that distinction. Where Elizabeth was an upstanding Christian spinster above all reproach, Rose, while wealthy thanks to her late husband, runs a house of (potentially) ill-repute and is above nothing in order to get what the confederates need. Even after being imprisoned, she sticks to her cause, getting such useful information to Jefferson Davis that he appoints her as his diplomatic delegate to Europe.
If you’re at all interested in Civil War history beyond the pew-pews and cannon fire, I highly recommend this book.