Raven Haired Girl is thrilled to welcome Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier, Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and which was optioned by Sony for a miniseries. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City, where she’s at work on her next book.
Find out more about Karen at her website.
When I decided to write about the Civil War, I immediately wondered what the women were doing during those four bloody years—especially the “bad” women, the defiant women, the women who would go to any length to serve their cause. Forget darning socks or sewing uniforms; I wanted to find four heroines who lied, seduced wheeled, plundered, plotted, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the war. Here’s a primer on the women of LIAR, TEMPTRESS, SOLDIER, SPY (and maybe a hint or two—no spoilers!) about some of my favorite scenes in the book.
Confederate spy Belle Boyd was a 17-year-old girl living in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia when the war broke out. Belle was all id, and had no filter whatsoever. As a young girl, she once protested her exclusion at her parents’ dinner party by riding her horse into the dining room. In July 1861, Union forces marched into Belle’s hometown of Martinsburg and terrorized the residents, looting stores and stealing liquor and ransacking homes. When they reached Belle’s doorstep and threatened to raise a Union flag over her home, she shot one of them dead—and her career as a Southern spy was born.
She was a notorious seductress who targeted Union and Confederate men alike. One of her reported paramours—and forgive my sophomoric humor—was a Union gentleman by the name of Major Dick Long (this is why I love nonfiction; you can’t make this stuff up). She grew obsessed with Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, telling reporters she wanted to “occupy his tent and share his dangers” (which, if I were Stonewall, would’ve frightened me more than any potential attacks by the Union army). Belle was pure comic relief, a character unlike any I’d ever met, in fiction or in history—a sort of 19th century amalgamation of Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus. I was always eager to see what she’d do or say next.
Union spy Emma Edmonds was 19 years old and living as a man named Frank Thompson when she enlisted as a private with the 2nd Michigan. She was one of an estimated 400 women who disguised themselves as men and fought for the Union or Confederate armies, and it was fascinating to research how these women got away with it. The primary reason, in my opinion: no one had any idea what a woman would look like wearing pants; the very concept was so unfathomable that they just couldn’t see it. Emma, who served as a courier, nurse, and spy, witnessed some of the bloodiest battles of the war and risked her life on several occasions. Meanwhile, she constantly feared that her sex might be discovered, which had potentially serious ramifications: arrest, charges of prostitution, and certain expulsion from the army—which for Emma, who desperately wanted to fight, would’ve been the worst fate of all.
She was an incredibly complex mix of strength and vulnerability; even under the harrowing conditions of war, she allowed herself to fall in love with a fellow Union solider named Jerome Robbins. I found Jerome’s diary at the University of Michigan, and it contained some very interesting entries about his “friend Frank Thompson”; Jerome had his suspicions about Emma from the very beginning: “I revere as a blessing the society of a friend so pleasant as Frank,” Jerome wrote, “though foolish as it may seem, a mystery appears to be connected with him which it is impossible for me to fathom.” The evolution of their rich, complicated relationship became one of my favorite storylines in the book.
Confederate spy Rose Greenhow was a grand dame of Washington DC society, and her entire life had fallen apart in the years leading up to the war. She had lost five children within four years, she lost her husband in a freak accident, and she lost her access to the White House; she had been close friends with numerous high-ranking Democratic politicians, even serving as an advisor to former president James Buchanan. She was desperate to regain her status as a Washington poker broker, so when a Confederate captain asked her to form an espionage ring in the Union capital, she immediately agreed. She began cultivating sources—and by “cultivating” I mean sleeping with—including many prominent Union politicians.
Rose had a quick and facile mind, and was always the smartest person in the room. When Union officials interrogated her, she was able to put them on the defensive in a few deft sentences. They didn’t know quite how to handle Rose: punish her and she’d become a Confederate martyr; treat her with leniency and she’d do considerable damage to the Union army. One flummoxed Lincoln official, speaking for the entire Union, asked, “What are we doing to do with these fashionable female spies?” They grappled with this question throughout the war, and Rose took full advantage of their timidity.
And the last, Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew, was the antithesis of Rose Greenhow. She was an abolitionist and Union sympathizer living in the Confederate capital of Richmond, and as discreet and cautious as Rose was brazen. And whereas Rose was a celebrated beauty, Elizabeth, according to a neighbor, “was never as pretty as her portrait showed.” She was a brilliant and astonishingly brave woman, someone whose contribution to the Union cause rivaled that of Ulysses S. Grant. Her greatest coup was placing a former family slave, Mary Jane Bowser, as a servant—and spy—in the Confederate White House. Of course no one knew that Mary Jane was highly educated and gifted with an eidetic memory, capable of memorizing images in a single glance, and recalling entire conversations word for word.
As the war progressed, Elizabeth’s spy ring—including Mary Jane and a host of other African-American operatives—delivered three dispatches a week to the Union army. Confederate detectives trailed Elizabeth wherever she went, and she often received terrifying death threats; one, written in red pencil, requested “some of your blood to write with” and was signed with a crude rendering of a skull and crossbones. As her spy ring grew, she had to be wary of whom to trust; every professed ally could be a Confederate operative eager to turn her in.
About Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.
After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.
Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
Thrilled to be included in the tour for Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Be sure to click on the TLC banner to check out the entire tour schedule. Thank you TLC!