Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

Title:                      Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

Author:                 Karen Abbott

Abbott, Karen (2014). Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. New York: Harper

LCCN:    2014013602

E608 .A25 2014


  • Splendid and Silent Suns (A Note) — [1] 1861 — The Fastest Girl in Virginia (or anywhere else for that matter) — Our Woman — A Shaft In Her Quiver — As If They Were Chased By Demons — Never As Pretty As Her Portrait Shows — Little Rebel Heart On Fire — Admirable Self-Denial — The Birds of the Air — The Secret Room — Stakeout — Hard to Name — Crinoline and Quinine — Dark and Gloomy Perils — Unmasked — The Defenseless Sex — [2] 1862 — Not Your Ideal of a Beautiful Soldier — She Will Fool You Out of Your Eyes — Rebel Vixens of the Slave States — Wise As Serpents and Harmless As Doves — A Woman Usually Tells All She Knows — A Slave Called “Ned” — Perfectly Insane On the Subject of Men — The Other Side of the River — My Love to All the Dear Boys — One Grain of Manhood — The Madam Looks Much Changed — The Secesh Cleopatra — The Bright Rush of Life, The Hurry of Death — She Breathes, She Burns — The Still, Small Voice — Richmond Underground — Playing Dead — [3] 1863 — When You Think He May Be Killed Tomorrow — Bread Or Blood — A Wean That’s Born To Be Hung — Forgive You All the Same — No One Ignorant of the Danger — La Belle Rebelle — Women Make War Upon Each Other — Please Give Us Some of Your Blood — [4] 1864 — That Unhappy Country — Despicable Remedies — The Sanctuary of a Modest Girl — You Are Very Poor Company — Be Prudent And Never Come Again — Goodbye, Mrs. Greenhow — This Verdict of Lunacy — The Delicacy of the Situation — Not At All Changed By Death — The Sweet Little Man — Like Most of Her Sex — [5] 1865 — The Way A Child Loves Its Mother — As This Mighty Work Was Done — Epilogue.


Date Posted:      September 17, 2015

Compiled and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

The four undercover women in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy will not be new to readers of Civil War history. Three have written memoirs: Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhaw, and Sarah Edmonds. The story of the fourth, Elizabeth Van Lew, is based on solid secondary sources. Deciding which heroine fits which appellation in the title is not straightforward. Boyd, Greenhaw, and Edmonds each greatly embellished their memoirs and each was a temptress. Boyd and Greenhaw both claimed to be successful spies, but the evidence shows otherwise. Greenhow was recruited in Washington at the start of the war to pass along what she could using a crude cipher. She did so before the First Battle of Bull Run, but there is nothing—except her memoirs—to indicate it made any difference whatsoever. She was soon arrested by Pinkerton (whose own memoirs are also grossly inflated), ending her career.

Boyd claims to have passed along valuable order-of-battle data to the Confederates and to have person-ally warned Stonewall Jackson of an impending attack. All accounts present Boyd as employing all means to elicit information and to get her name in the press, which she frequently accomplished. Only Edmonds was a soldier. She enlisted as Frank Thompson—and later became a nurse—but no records have been found, to date, that document her claims to have been a spy. The only one of the four to become a successful spy or Union agent was Elizabeth Van Lew, who risked her life in Richmond sending valuable intelligence to General Grant.

Journalist Karen Abbott indicates in an introductory note that she is aware of the historical hazards associated with using her subjects’ memoirs and that she has taken those hazards into account. But she relies much too heavily on their accounts—especially that of Edmonds—and leaves the impression that their contribution to the war greater that it was.

For readers unfamiliar with these events, Abbott tells their stories wonderfully. She interlaces their roles, often indicating what each knew about the others as events proceeded. And she follows each heroine until her death.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy will serve as an easy-reading introduction to these well-known episodes of the Civil War. But, except for the Van Lew account, for those wondering which details are accurate, further research will be necessary.

[1] Hayden Peake, “Intelligence Officer Bookshelf,” The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Stuidies (21, 2, Spring/Summer 2015, p. 123)Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of his reviews cited have appeared in recent unclassified editions of ClA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

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