Tag Archives: History

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, A Book Note

30 Apr

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot

Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it.    karen-abbott-photoThe topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.


Belle Boyd (Credit: Library of Congress)

I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”  Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.


Emma Edmondson as Frank Thompson (image credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.


Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy, with her daughter, Little Rose (Smithsonian Magazine, The Granger Collection, NYC)

Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.


Elizabeth Van Lew (credit: Smithsonian Magazine, (The Granger Collection, NYC))

It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union  as for her heroic actions.

Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional)  caused by the war and its aftermath.

As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….

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Living in the Cradle of the United States on April 19

19 Apr

I grew up in Livingston, NJ, a sleepy suburb of New York City. There were no historic landmarks, no national registry buildings that I knew of.  Certainly there were historical sites near by where George Washington slept and where Thomas Alva Edison invented or perfected lightbulbs, phonographs, and film.  But, the sense of history is was not woven into my daily path.

By contrast, in Boston I am constantly aware of history. Not just because I can walk the Freedom Trail, or because I pass Bunker Hill on the way to pick up Culture Husband from work. When I leave my hundred-year old house to walk into Arlington Center, I pass at least 6 homes on the historic registry. En route to the coffee shop, I pass the site of at least two revolutionary battles, marked by stones engraved with key names and dates. We ride the Minuteman Bikeway to get to school each day.

The third Monday of April is a state holiday in Massachusetts. Many people believe it is a day off to clear the city for the marathon. With even Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Museum of Science wearing a race number (65,000,000), that’s not surprising.

Minutemen line up for the march to Lexington

In reality, it is Patriot’s Day, a commemoration of the ride of Paul Revere and the first battles of the American Revolution, fought by the brave militiamen and farmers in Lexington and Concord MA. The weekend is marked by battle reenactments all over the 16-mile stretch of Battle Road, culminating with a dawn reenactment of the Battle of Lexington on Monday morning (which we did not attend!). We went to the Minuteman National Park where we watched, “The Road to Revolution,” a multimedia show about the day’s events. While we missed the reenactments (because we were lunching in historic Lexington), we saw many reenactors. Their passion for the history of this country is infectious.

John Russell House, Arlington MA. Corner of Pleasant Street and Massachusetts Avenue

This morning, I’ll pass the John Russell House and Smith Museum, site of the Battle of Menotomy, fought 237 years ago today. Many skirmishes occurred on Massachusetts Avenue, the main artery that takes us to school each morning.

Seeing the reenactors, watching “Road to Revolution,” and knowing that I walk daily where men (and women and children) fought for independence has given me a different sence of American history. Of course I learned this history in school. But, there is something different about reading the names of battle dead from a 200-year-old marker when I’m stopped at a traffic light.  To know that we share this space with their spirits imbues a sort of patriotism and love of country (or at least history) that I can’t quite describe.

This is a map depiction the outbound routes ta...

This is a map depiction the outbound routes taken by Patriot riders and British troops in the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The footpath through Minuteman National Park is quiet now. As the breeze softly rustles the trees and birds chirp, we can only imagine the cries in the dark, “The Regulars are coming. To arms.” We can only imagine the sound of horses hooves pounding up the road, hands banging on farmhouse doors, lanterns swaying in the dark.  Our reenactors show us the bayonets, the hand-to-hand combat, the fear on both sides of the battle, and, eventually, the ousting of the British.  We know that those same foes are now among our country’s staunchest allies, past wars forgotten, brotherhood remembered. The contrast with the way wars are fought today, the number of casualties, the changed nature of surprise attack is evident, not just because we see reeanctors shooting photos with digital cameras, talking on cell phones, and climbing into school buses to get to the next stop.

Our Founding Fathers and the people who engaged battle on behalf of freedom were brave and forward-thinking men and women. We may not always agree on how they would interpret their dreams in our modern world, but we can certainly agree that the “shot heard ’round the world” on April 19, 1776–whether fired intentionally or by a nervous trigger finger–is one to be remembered, commemorated, and celebrated. Happy April 19th from Menotomy (now known as Arlington.)

Minuteman give an interview to cable television.

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