Ansel Burch reviews Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Reviewed by Ansel Burch

Tomorrow the world you know could be gone. It can happen. It has happened before. Today we look to tensions in the Middle East and Asia with worry that just one more act of aggression could plunge those regions into war. What will happen if Russia does one more thing to needle the people of Ukraine? Will Israel and Palestine manage to quiet the tensions between their populations? These situations sit on a knife’s edge; in some cases they have for years. Think then of the levels of tension which must have preceded the American Civil War. Unrest mounted as debates of states rights and the powers of the national government grew increasingly heated. Though the conflict seemed inevitable it must still have come as a shock when the first ineffectual shots rang out over Fort Sumter.

Chances are pretty good that if you are reading this review you learned about the American Civil War as a youth. I grew up in rural southeastern Ohio, so I definitely learned about it. We reviewed the highlights of this conflict every single year to the unfortunate exclusion of other fascinating wars like the War of 1812, the Pig War and the Cold War… maybe we were just meant to know about that last one. We might not have understood the implications of alliances with France but we definitely knew the reason our neighbors had confederate flags draped over their truck mounted rifle racks. Regardless, considering the amount of time we spent flogging this particular horse I am amazed that no mention was made of the subject of the book I have the pleasure of reviewing for you.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is an incredibly well researched and thought out treatment of the war­time careers of four women who took an active role in the happenings of the American Civil War. It profiles the lives of Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Rose Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew. These woman lived and fought in their own ways in some of the hottest and most contested parts of the Civil War especially in areas around Virginia and Washington DC. They influenced events all over the country. Two even travelled overseas to make their case before the governments of Europe

A quick Google search of the name Emma Edmonds should be sufficient to throw you down the same rabbit hole as I found myself when beginning this book. Not only is Emma a fascinating figure, she also did a fabulous job of documenting her own experience. She dressed as a man and enlisted to fight in the bloodiest war on American soil. She defied all expectations of her sex and her station to become a significant player in the fight which decided the course of what is now the United States.

One cannot help but wonder how so many women made such an extraordinary sacrifice and yet were not remembered even as a footnote in the average education on the war. She was in several significant battles and many more which were little more than skirmishes. She travelled through many territories and wore the uniforms of both sides of the war. Emma even disguised herself as a black woman to break through the lines and gather information in the confederate camps. Emma showed her versatility and her ability to wear many disguises and hide in plain sight almost anywhere. She has been the subject of several books already (including her own) and mentioned in many others. She is a fascinating figure all by herself.

Further digging will reveal that Emma also serves as an example of type. She was just one of innumerable of women who served under arms in defiance of the law.

If Emma Edmonds is only one of several women soldiers then in light of characters like Rose Greenhow, Belle Boyd and Elizabeth Van Lew one can only begin to think how many female spies must have employed their somewhat privileged positions in society and their under­appreciated minds to the art of espionage. These women hid documents in the voluminous clothes of the day. They used the perceptions men had of them to gain access to prisoners of war and they created shadowy reconaissance networks to help their side of the war in whatever manner they could.

I must be honest and say that I found some of the actions of these women to be questionable. Especially bad is the overdone Belle Boyd. She seems to have known that what she did would be remembered and decided to live the life of a badly written romance novel heroine. She made a big scene wherever she could. She acted in cold defiance frequently to the benefit of no one. All that being the case even she managed to get some pieces of information across enemy lines and probably threw investigators off the trail of more subtle spies into the bargain. It’s hard looking back not to wonder at some of the actions undertaken.

The mindset of the 1860’s is so removed from the strides toward equality which have been made today that occasionally these accounts read as far­fetched or even anti­feminist. Abbott herself acknowledges on a few occasions that some of the claims being made seem to strain credulity but that they are presented as written in the diaries and letters of the subjects.

Credit must be given then to Karen Abbott for not inserting her modern morality and sensibilities into the narrative. It would be easy to cast these events in a different light which would make these women fit more easily into the mold of a modern feminist ideology. They weren’t fighting for equality. They didn’t hope that one day women would be regularly allowed into the positions they were filling. They wanted to do their jobs and get back to life as it had been. It calls to mind the quote from World War II in which Captain Mildred McAfee Horton (who bears googling herself) said “All we women wanted was to get the war over with and get back to our other lives.”

I cannot recommend enough that you read this fabulous book. Karen Abbott will deepen your awareness of the people at the heart of the American Civil War. At least, I hope so. She certainly opened my eyes. When studying war it can be easy to lose oneself in the main narratives of combat and tactics. History is made by people and Abbott has shown that she knows those people.


Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: The Lives of Four Women Undercover in the Civil War


Karen Abbott


(1st) edition September 2nd, 2014 

528 pages