The role of women on both sides of the Civil War has generally received scant attention in conventional histories of the conflict, but a few women did considerably more than make bandages and tend the home fires. “War, like politics, was men’s work,” Karen Abbott writes, “and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself, but now there was a question — one that would persist throughout the war — of what to do with what one Lincoln official called ‘fashionable women spies.’ Their gender provided them with both a psychological and a physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.”

In “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy,” Abbott claims that “as many as four hundred women, in both North and South, were posing and fighting as men.” One of these was Emma Edmondson, who put on a soldier’s uniform, changed her name to Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, Second Michigan Infantry. Of the four women whose stories Abbott tells, she was the only one who managed to pass as a man and to join a fighting unit, though she served primarily on the medical staff or as a mail carrier before doing a stint as a spy. She had had a difficult childhood that included “the ‘severity’ of her father” and an “impending arranged marriage to a vulgar old neighbor”; putting on a uniform and disappearing into the vast ranks of the Union army seemed preferable to anything else the future seemed to hold for her.

Of the three other women who appear in these pages, Rose O’Neal Greenow is by far the best known. She was a widow with a young daughter and, in her late 40s as the war began, still attractive enough to lure men into the tender trap she employed on behalf of the Confederacy. She lived in Washington and was “a greedy prospector of the powerful.” One of those whom she courted was John C. Calhoun, the former vice president and an ardent defender of slavery; she called him “ ‘the best and wisest man of this country,’ and let his politics shape her own.” She learned how to encode messages in a rudimentary cipher and began to send variously useful information to Richmond. She was situated in just the right place:

“She understood that the Confederate espionage system had certain advantages, circumstances she could exploit to gather intelligence. Washington, DC, was a Southern city in both character and origin; a third of its residents had been born in the slaveholding states of Virginia or Maryland. . . . Nearly every member of the Confederate government had once been a Federal official and, as such, possessed intimate knowledge of government operations. Jefferson Davis himself had served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce. Even the city’s mayor, James G. Berret, was said to ‘smack of sympathy with secession.’ ’’

It was another woman, though, whom secessionists so admired that they called her the “Secesh Cleopatra.” This was Belle Boyd, 17 years old as the conflict began, who wasn’t all that much to look at but who had sublime self-confidence: “My form is beautiful,” she told a cousin. “My eyes are of a dark blue and so expressive. My hair of a rich brown and I think I tie it up nicely. My neck and arms are beautiful & my foot is perfect.” She “wanted to be a courier and spy for the rebel army” and succeeded on both counts. She had a fierce crush on Stonewall Jackson (it was not reciprocated) and on one occasion managed to get information on how Union generals planned to lure him into a trap in the Shenandoah Valley. She was flirtatious and bold, if not downright impetuous, and even when she was captured and imprisoned by the Yankees she “filled her days with flirting and spying, the two being interdependent in her mind.”

‘Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War’ by Karen Abbott (Harper)

The fourth of these women, Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, is in some ways the most interesting: “Richmond society had always tolerated her, partly because of her father’s legacy as a prominent businessman and slave owner and partly because she was perceived as a benign oddity, an eccentric old spinster destined to die alone in her house on the hill. She was forty-three, had never married, and lived with her mother. . . . Although a native of Richmond and one of its wealthiest citizens, she had Yankee roots, a pedigree that prevented her from achieving the standing that came with birth into the right families.” She had been educated in Philadelphia “under the care of an abolitionist governess” who seems to have been the most influential person in her life. The abolitionism she learned from this woman became the driving force in Van Lew’s adult life, and when Richmond went to war she went undercover, helping captured Northern soldiers escape and becoming such a skilled spy that Ulysses Grant sent her a personal note: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Abbott, whose previous books are “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul” (2007) and “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” (2010), obviously has a strong interest in women who decline to accept the roles society tries to force them into. At its best her prose is vivid, especially when she writes about battles and the terrible costs they exact, while at its less-than-best it seems (dare I say it?) to have been borrowed from the pages of a women’s magazine. In her introduction she is at pains to say that “this is a work of nonfiction, with no invented dialogue,” but this leaves unanswered the question of sources for her descriptive passages. Here is only one among many:

“One January morning Belle donned her green riding dress, accessorized with a lieutenant colonel’s pair of shoulder straps and a wool felt hat, a feather pinned to its crown. She saddled Fleeter and, riding astride, began galloping through the streets, defying both social convention and Martinsburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter. Confederate soldiers, currently in control of the town, were busy building earthworks fortifications along its perimeter, stabbing at the frozen earth with shovels and picks and piling woven bundles of brush. Waving, she continued, crossing the arched stone bridge over Opequon Creek and plunging into the valley.”

Maybe that’s actually how it happened, but maybe not. Abbott’s notes refer only to “Martinsburg’s law against traveling faster than at a canter” and “busy building earthwork fortifications along its perimeter”; the sources for the rest of that very specific description are not identified. If there were only one or two such passages the reader could grant Abbott poetic license and let the matter pass, but there are so many of them that the line between fact and invention is exceedingly difficult to discern. There is, too, another little matter that leaves me wondering about the book’s credibility. She refers to rebel soldiers being ferried across the Potomac River, “some of them conducted by nine-year-old Robert Fitzgerald, who would become the father of the future writer.” Leaving aside the awkwardness of “the future writer,” it remains that Scott Fitzgerald’s father, who did indeed engage in such activities at such an early age, was named Edward.


Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

By Karen Abbott

Harper. 513 pp. $27.99