Unconventional Women: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy


I know a fair bit about the Civil War. After all, I teach a course on the subject every other year.  So when I picked up Karen Abbott’s fascinating Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War for my book club, I was surprised to learn so much. Abbott traces the exploits of a quartet of women who engaged in covert operations in and around the Union and Confederate capitals during the war.

Emma Edmonds is perhaps the least well-known of the group. Born Sarah Emma Edmondson in New Brunswick, Canada, Emma ran away from home in 1857 to escape her authoritarian father and the marriage he had arranged for her. Surviving as a lone young woman in the mid-nineteenth century was no easy task, so Emma changed her last name to Edmonds, cut her hair, and dressed in men’s clothing. As a man, Emma was able to obtain jobs and make a living. She migrated to Michigan where she was a book salesman.

Edmonds was an ardent Unionist, and when the Civil War broke out in 1861, she enlisted in the Union Army under the alias Franklin Thompson. Because the Army gave only cursory physical examinations to soldiers in those days, she escaped detection upon enlistment. Edmonds played a variety of roles during the first two years of the war.  She fought in combat, nursed wounded soldiers after the first Battle of Manassas, and served as a mail carrier in military camps. She was also a courier, carrying messages between Union commanders.  Her superiors sent her on intelligence gathering missions on several occasions.  In a fascinating demonstration of the fluid nature of gender identity, she conducted some of these missions dressed as a woman.   Get it? A woman masquerading as a man masquerading as a woman.

Edmonds contracted malaria in 1863. Fearing discovery, she left the army and resumed her identity as a woman. Franklin Thompson was charged with desertion, but Emma Edmonds soon resurfaced, serving as a nurse with the United States Sanitary Commission, the private organization that ran Union hospitals.  In 1864, Edmonds published her memoir of her wartime service. She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.  After the war ended, Edmonds married and became the mother of three children.  Years later, she attended the reunion of her army unit, the Second Michigan Infantry. Her former comrades in arms gave her a warm welcome and eventually offered testimony that helped her clear Franklin Thompson’s record of the desertion charge and obtain a veteran’s pension.

In contrast to Edmonds’ quiet service, Rose Greenhow was well-known during the war years.  The widow of a U.S. State Department official, Greenhow cultivated friendships with many of Washington’s movers and shakers, and these men were frequent guests in her home. When the war broke out, Greenhow, a rabid Confederate sympathizer, immediately began collecting intelligence. A U.S. army officer who turned double agent recruited Greenhow as a spy and provided her with a cypher, a system for encoding messages. Greenhow passed messages on Union troop strength and movements to General P.G.T. Beauregard, information that helped him achieve a resounding Confederate victory at the first Battle of Manassas in July 1861.

Greenhow’s activities soon aroused the suspicions of Union officials. Famed detective Alan Pinkerton, the head of the new U.S. Secret Service, soon ordered surveillance of her actions. After detectives raided her home and found incriminating materials, Greenhow was held under house arrest for several months before she and her daughter were imprisoned at the Old Capitol Prison. She continued her espionage activities (with less success) throughout this period. She was released in May 1862, on the condition that she move to the Confederacy and stay there.  Jefferson Davis and Confederate officials received her as a hero.

In 1863, Greenhow was dispatched to Europe on a diplomatic mission to seek British and French support for the Confederate cause. She and her daughter sailed to Britain on a blockade runner, and once she arrived in London, she published her memoir My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. In 1864, Greenhow left her daughter in a French convent school and set sail for home.  Off the coast of North Carolina, the ship on which she was traveling ran aground and then was confronted by a Union gunboat. Fearing capture, Greenhow fled the Confederate ship on a rowboat which capsized. Rose was carrying about $2,000 in gold in a pouch around her neck, royalties from her book, and she drowned. She was honored by the Confederacy with a military funeral in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Like Rose Greenhow, Elizabeth Van Lew used her position in society to gather intelligence, but Van Lew spied for the Union. Descended from a Pennsylvania family and educated in Philadelphia, Van Lew was a committed abolitionist, a position that had always made her suspect among her Richmond neighbors. Upon her father’s death, the family had freed its nine slaves, some of whom continued to work for the family as paid servants. One of these was a woman named Mary Bowser. Van Lew family members continued their action on behalf of the enslaved in the years leading up to the war, often purchasing and emancipating slave families about to be split up at auction.

Elizabeth Van Lew operated an effective spy ring in Richmond, helping Union POWs escape from the city’s Libby Prison and hiding them in a secret room in her attic. She conveyed a great deal of military and political intelligence to Union officials. Van Lew was fearless, continuing her espionage activities even while a Confederate official was living in her home. She even managed to place Mary Bowser as a servant in the household of Jefferson and Varina Davis, enabling her to spy on Confederate officials at the highest level.

The Van Lew family depleted its fortune through its actions on behalf of the Union, and Elizabeth tried in vain to be reimbursed for the money she had spent on intelligence activities. President Ulysses S. Grant did, however, reward Elizabeth for her wartime service with an appointment as postmaster general in Richmond. Van Lew was ostracized by her neighbors.  She lived to the ripe old age of 81, growing more isolated with each passing year. Only in her final days did she reveal that she had kept of secret diary of her wartime activities.

Belle Boyd was the least sympathetic of the four women profiled by Abbott. Born to a Virginia family of limited means, Boyd was a tomboy and a committed rebel. After Union troops searched her home, verbally abused her mother, and hung a Union flag from the Boyd family home, Belle flew into a rage and shot a Yankee soldier.  She was tried and acquitted for the shooting, but she also became the target of Union surveillance. She used this to her advantage, charming the men assigned to watch her into revealing sensitive information which she then passed on to Confederate commanders. Brazen in her espionage activities, in July 1862, she was arrested and imprisoned in Washington’s  Old Capitol Prison, the place where Rose Greenhow had been held until two months before. She was released and returned to the Confederacy in a routine prisoner exchange only to be rearrested a few months later and eventually released again.

Boyd was a self-promoter extraordinaire. Even in her spying days, she was flamboyant and never hesitated to publicize her own exploits. By 1862, she was notorious in the Union and Confederacy alike. In 1864, she made her way to England where she married a Union soldier and published her memoir, Belle Boyd, In Camp and Prison. Her husband died in 1866.

Upon returning  to the US, Boyd remarried.  She and her husband toured the country working as an actress and giving lectures about her adventures during the Civil War. She also published a memoir. She divorced and married a third time, dying in Wisconsin at the age of 57; she had gone to Wisconsin to deliver a lecture to a chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR),  the Union veterans organization. Ironically, this Confederate spy was a popular speaker among Union veteran groups, and members of the Spring Grove, Wisconsin GAR chapter served as her pall bearers.

Abbott tells the story of these four women’s wartime exploits in roughly chronological order, shifting back and forth from one woman to another as she moves through the war.  Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is meticulously researched. Abbott draws heavily on each woman’s personal writings, but she also mines the records of other Union and Confederate officials and civilians to reconstruct their lives. Abbott is an excellent story-teller though in places, particularly in the middle, I found that the book dragged a little.

Even though I was vaguely familiar with the stories of all four women, I learned a lot. For example, I knew that Richmond had suffered great privations near the end of the war, but it had never really hit me that the city existed in a virtual siege mentality from the earliest days of the fighting. Likewise, I knew that there were networks of Union and Confederate spies working during the war, but I never realized how extensive these networks were.  Because Richmond and Washington were the capitols of the warring nations, they were at the center of huge espionage rings that involved people at the highest and lowest levels of society.

Abbott’s book was a good read. If you want to know more about the role that a few unconventional women played in shaping the outcome of the Civil War (aka as the “late unpleasantness” among some Southerners), I recommend you pick up Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. It’s also available on ebook and in audiobook.  Order online at all these formats at Hub City Bookshop or pick it up at your favorite bookstore.

If you want to learn about the more than 400 women who masqueraded as men and served in the Union and Confederate armies, you’ll enjoy They Fought Like Demons by DeAnn Campbell and Lauren Cook. they fought like demons

To learn more about Rose Greenhow, you might want to read her memoir which is also available in print and ebook formats. It’s entitled My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolitionist Rule at Washington.

southern lady yankee spyHistorian Elizabeth Varon has written a fascinating biography of Elizabeth Van Lew entitled Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. 

And last but not least, here’s my favorite female soldier of the Civil War, Jennie Hodges AKA Albert Cashiers.  Read his/her story here:  “Alberalbert cashiert Cashiers’ Secret” by Jean Freedman.

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