U.S. Civil War Sesquicentennial: Women Played Crucial Roles Too

Even though history was one of my undergraduate majors, I am embarrassed to say that I have read little in the field since finishing college.  However, one day several weeks ago at my library I came across a recent history audiobook which looked so intriguing that I could not resist it.  The audiobook was Karen Abbott’s recent Liar,Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.   At OC Public Libraries we also have the book in print format.

Abbott’s fascinating book is a work of nonfiction, based on diary and journal entries, newspaper articles, official records and other primary sources of the Civil War time period.  She tells the personal stories of four women -- two Unionists and two Confederates -- who each took part in the war in a significant way.  She alternates between their stories, describing the progress of the war from start to finish. 

One of the women whom Abbott discusses is Belle Boyd, still a teenager when she decides to enter the war in support of her strong belief in the Confederacy.  This decision is partly galvanized by the rough handling of her mother by a Union soldier one day.  Belle defends her by shooting the offending soldier, shortly starting her wartime career as a spy and courier.  The other young woman in Abbot’s account is Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian by birth, who had begun dressing as a man some years before the war in order to avoid being married off to an older neighbor.  Emma enlists in the Union Army as a soldier, serving as a medical assistant, spy and courier.

Slightly older than Boyd and Edmonds is Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy woman living in the Confederate capital of Richmond, but a staunch Unionist herself.  An abolitionist, she becomes very adept at passing coded messages and obtaining information about troop movements, which she then passes on to Union command through her associates. One of her more well-known associates is her servant, Mary Elizabeth Bowser.  Also in Van Lew’s age range is the also wealthy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Confederate supporter who passes coded messages and engages in romantic relationships with various men at least partly in order to obtain information about Union military plans.  Greenhow also undertakes a diplomatic mission to Europe on behalf of the Confederacy, as does Boyd.

Abbott has really achieved something special with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy… because while it is chock full of accurate information taken straight from Civil War-era documents, it reads with the easy flow of a novel.  There is suspense too in this work, as we wonder what will become of our four heroines at critical moments, whether it is Van Lew allowing Confederate soldiers to inspect her house while Union soldier prison escapees hide behind a bedroom door, or it is Edmonds at the point of possibly revealing to her best military friend that she is actually a woman.  

Abbott also gives one a sense of the distinct personalities of these four capable and quick-thinking women.  Additionally the reader learns much about how the Civil War was actually fought on the ground, the challenging lives of soldiers and everyday life during the time period in general.  In the audio version, Karen White gives an extremely expressive reading, providing varied voices for characters both male and female, and even changing pitch to indicate direct quotes.  I very highly recommend this book to adults and older teens who are seeking an absorbing look at the U.S. Civil War through the lens of the female experience.

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