One-Minute Book Reviews

February 5, 2016

Female Spies in the Civil War — Beyond Notes in the Fruitcake

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:11 pm
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When knitting with a Morse code–based pattern was women’s work

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. By Karen Abbott. HarperCollins, 513 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

A hoop skirt can hide a lot of secrets, not all of them sexual. Female spies for both the North and South made unique contributions to the Civil War by taking advantage of the voluminous clothing and other encumbrances of their sex, including the belief that they would pursue activities no riskier than rolling bandages or mending uniforms.

61r9btq72rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Karen Abbott tells the stories of four of these women and their accomplices, who operated mainly in Virginia and Washington, D.C, from 1861–1865. Their strategies included seducing enemy officers, knitting tapestries in a pattern based on Morse code, and arranging for the delivery of a fruitcake that had a secret letter baked into it instead of apples and raisins. One woman disguised herself as a man to enlist in the Union army. Not surprisingly, she impersonated a female peddler with aplomb as she sneaked past Rebel lines in an attempt to gather facts for Gen. George McClellan about the strength of Confederate forces in Richmond.

These spies’ stories make for such lively reading that you wish you could believe every word of them. Abbott says that she hasn’t invented dialogue but has “extrapolated” her characters’ thoughts from sources such as their letters or diaries or others’ books. In other words, she’s guessed.

Abbott also makes the dubious assertion that her subjects were “the war’s unsung heroes.” That description certainly fits the abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who used her Richmond mansion as a base for daring efforts to support the Union. To a lesser degree the label applies to Emma Edmondson, who masqueraded as a man in the 2d Michigan Infantry before she deserted. But what of the Confederate spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow, who spent their formidable energy and courage on an unjust cause? Even ardent feminists may have trouble finding an “unsung hero” in Greenhow, who wrote, while in Bermuda on her way to London on a mission for Jefferson Davis: “The negroes are lazy, vicious, and insubordinate.” It’s much easier to admire Van Lew, whose spy ring proved so effective that Ulysses Grant thanked her in a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Best line: Elizabeth Van Lew lent her servant Mary Jane Bowser to the wife of Jefferson Davis so that the Union would have a spy in the house of the Confederate president. When Mary Jane had gathered vital information, “she hung a red shirt on the laundry line” as a signal for Elizabeth to collect it. The book abounds with such memorable details.

Worst line: An echo of Seinfeld in a book about the Civil War: A Union soldier gave Belle Boyd a pistol that she “planned to regift to Stonewall Jackson.” Liar Temptress Soldier Spy also descends at times overwrought prose, such as: “All the breath rushed out of her and she felt turned inside out, whipped like laundry on a line.” Obviously, if all the breath “rushed out of her,” she couldn’t “feel turned inside out,” because she’d be dead.

About the author: Karen Abbott is a journalist who wrote Sin in the Second City and American Rose.

Second opinion: Jonathan Yardley reviewed Liar Temptress Soldier Spy for the Washington Post.

Published: 2014

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

© 2016 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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