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January 2018: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy (Abbott)

posted Feb 3, 2018, 1:19 PM by East Bay Smith Club

On Tuesday, January 9th, ten of us gathered at the home of Linda Grayman in Oakland to kick off another year of literary adventures.  Our topic was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:  Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.  This work of non-fiction describes the actions and adventures of four women who engaged in espionage during the Civil War, two for the North and two for the South.   The bravery and daring of these women was truly amazing, and the complexities of their characters were well depicted.   It was easy to get caught up in the action and to admire their courage and determination.  This could be somewhat unsettling in the case of the two women who fought for the South, as their racist views and comfort with the Southern cause is so evident.  We kept finding ourselves torn between respect for their ingenuity and boldness and disapproval for the values they embraced.  


It was fascinating to see how the gender conventions of the day shaped the ways the women participated in the war.    One of the women, Emma Edmonds, directly defied these conventions by disguising herself as a man in order to enlist in the Union Army (as did dozens of other women).  Though frustrated by the constraints that their gender placed upon them, the other three found ways to exploit their position as women in order to conduct their undercover activities, build their networks of smugglers and informers, and avoid serious punishment for their crimes.  For example, at the beginning of the war the seventeen-year-old rebel Belle Boyd shoots and kills a Union officer in the front parlor of her home.  She claims she was defending the honor of mother, and the act is forgiven. In fact, she is considered harmless enough (at least initially) to socialize and flirt with the occupying troops.  In this way, she gathers information about troop movements and obtains passes that allow her to cross enemy lines to deliver this information in person.   Though all of the women ended up paying a high price for their involvement in the war, it was frequently amazing what they could get away with as a result of the protections granted to upper class, white women.


Everyone seemed to enjoy the book.  Some felt bogged down in the details about particular battles and/or information about the general progress of the war.  However, rather than cutting down on this background material, we thought it might have helped merely to provide more maps and diagrams to help us keep track of the information and to better follow the paths of the four central figures within these larger events.   Still, the book is most engaging when it directly describes the actions, thoughts and emotions of the four central figures.  In fact, the internal lives of the characters were described with such detail that we wondered whether the book should be billed as a historical fiction, rather than as work of non-fiction.  How could Abbott know what people were thinking and feeling in such detail?   The work is extensively researched and footnoted, however, and presumably one of the reasons that Abbott choose her four main subjects out of the hundreds of women who fought in the Civil War is because their actions and attitudes were so well documented.   In fact, three of the four women wrote their own memoirs, and the exploits of all four women were quite well known after the war.  This fame faded as time progressed, however, and so we commend Abbott for bringing them back into the national consciousness with this New York Times bestselling book.

-Karen B