- - Monday, September 15, 2014


By Karen Abbott
HarperCollins, $27.99, 513 pages

The title tells all, almost. In “Liar Temptress Soldier Spy,” Karen Abbott stitches together a patchwork narrative as complex as a pieced quilt, combining the colorful, unrelated tales of four women who fought in the Civil War as surely as Lee and Grant, albeit in sub rosa roles.

Two of her protagonistas are sworn secessionists, and two of them damn-proud Yankees. Belle Boyd, a diva adolescent, doesn’t hesitate to shoot a Union interloper in her parents’ hall, then becomes a courier who worships Confederate generals. Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Capitol Hill tart and provocateur, flirts her way to fame or infamy (depending on one’s sectional sympathies).

Emma Edmondson enlists in the Michigan infantry as “Frank Thompson,” then plays many roles as a man-among-men from hospital orderly to faux-black slave behind enemy lines. Richmond spinster and abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew undoes the Confederacy from her Grace Street mansion where she organizes a spy ring and runs an underground railway within walking distance of Dixie’s Capitol.

The author glories in the ways these Victorian ladies twist the rules of gentility to their advantage. The two Southern women shamelessly (by modern standards) claim the privileges of their sex whenever it suits their clandestine purposes. They scream “Shame!” when looked at cross-eyed by a male, but weave “arsenals through the steel coils of their hoop skirts.” As Ms. Abbott writes, they “were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.”

Ms. Abbott’s high achievement lies in her Augean compilation of published and archival material; her 13-page bibliography embraces the entire conflict. She scanned everything from Emma Edmondson’s pension file to Shelby Foote’s three-volume classic, “The Civil War,” touching every base in passing and gleaning at least a grain from every field.

Her few-hundred sources include Drew Gilpin Faust’s landmark “This Republic of Suffering” (reviewed here in 2008), summarizing just one of its theses in a single paragraph and never citing it again. Her gift for adaptation is clear in her title, a steal of John le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which she apes down to its lack of serial punctuation. (Library of Congress catalogers added commas in the copyright information.)

Borrowing a wealth of material from disparate works is not plagiarism, especially when weaving a new composite as compelling as this and as aptly aimed at today’s audience. Ms. Abbott cast her research net wide to compose an original narrative (four of them, really). In this, she proves the basic purpose of history, which is to illuminate the past for one’s time, a process that properly plows well-tilled ground anew when needed.

The head of the American Historical Association made that point recently, recalling Victorian apologists who deemed slavery benign and reprising Hiawathan eulogies about the myth of the “vanishing indian” [sic] — this in response to some public officials’ complaints that the College Board revised its syllabus for exams. James R. Grossman replied the “essential process of reconsideration and re-evaluation takes place in all disciplines.” Example: the physician who ignores “‘revisionist’ medical research” has fools for patients, maybe dead fools.

In this volume, the publisher, HarperCollins, deserves kudos for going the extra mile. Designer Michael P. Correy’s typefaces and design resonate the antique period. Aptly chosen illustrations placed throughout the text show relevant people, places and things, such as the daring ladies’ cipher charts.

The most interesting character is Edmondson-Thompson, who joins the army to flee a Simon Legree father and hardscrabble farm. Passing as a slightly-built lad, “Frank” becomes a humane and clever soldier and, Ms. Abbott reveals, one of hundreds of women (in both armies) who successfully passed as male. (One was only discovered when she delivered a baby.)

“Frank” performs several perilous missions, eventually burns out, goes AWOL and gets listed as a deserter, a dubious claim given that “he” was a fiction from the start. After the war, Emma writes a popular memoir, earns exoneration and wins honored celebrity with a soldier’s pension.

The grand dame Elizabeth Van Lew seems the most coldly courageous of the author’s quartet. She visits Richmond’s prison pretending only to nurse wounded Yankees as her Christian duty, then smuggles them out to a secret room in her palatial home, which she has made a safe house. She places one of her maids — whom she has freed and educated — in Jefferson Davis’ household; there Mary Jane Bowser reads dispatches while dusting the president’s desk, eavesdrops and sends intel to her mistress.

Belle Boyd deserves a prize for her performance on behalf of her beloved Confederacy, a Scarlett O’Hara without the guile. Belle will make a modest post-war living sashaying around the vaudeville circuit in Dixie gray, flashing a saber. But Rose Greenhow wins the deepest laurels, a martyr who suffers prison in Washington with her infant daughter, who sets sail in blockade runners on diplomatic missions, who chances escape in a lifeboat, her hoopskirts sewn with a nation’s ransom in gold coins.

With women like that, how could Dixie lose? Because bullion weighs more than honeysuckle and crinolines ain’t water wings no matter how prettily they’re embroidered.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes on American culture and history.

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