You can get away with quite a lot if no one takes you very seriously. Like carrying military intelligence about the Union army through enemy lines to deliver it to the Confederates. Or hiding Union POW escapees in your attic while Confederate officers are boarding downstairs at your home. 

You get the picture: Women were largely dismissed as flighty, inferior creatures in Victorian times. That attitude helped several become some of the most effective spies of the Civil War. Again and again, the women who are the focus of Karen Abbott’s exciting Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War came close to discovery or death, only to be saved by their enemies’ sexism.

Not that Belle Boyd, Rose Greenhow, Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew were ordinary women. They were all strong-minded, daring and difficult. Edmonds was perhaps the most astonishing: Escaping an abusive father in Canada, she masqueraded as a young man and joined the Union army. She kept up the game so well that she became an army scout, “cross-dressed” as a woman.

Confederates Greenhow and Boyd were flamboyant women who used sexual attraction in the service of their cause and were too indiscreet to retain their effectiveness. Pro-Union Van Lew, however, was a wealthy, circumspect middle-aged spinster. She carefully built a large, lasting spy and prisoner-escape network in Richmond, even infiltrating an African-American secret agent into Jefferson Davis’ house as a servant.

This is compelling material, and Abbott, best-selling author of Sin in the Second City, cross-cuts among the stories to produce dramatic cliff-hangers. Her depiction of Greenhow’s tragic end will move any reader, whatever one may think of the Confederate cause.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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