Women are conspicuously absent in most Civil War chronicles. With a few notable exceptions—Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, Mary Todd Lincoln—female figures largely appear in the literature as bit players, if they make an appearance at all. Author Karen Abbott seeks a welcome redress to this neglect with Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, an exciting and extremely well-written, if deeply flawed account of some ladies who made a significant contribution to the war effort, north and south.
The concept is sound enough. Abbott focuses on four very different women and relates their respective stories in alternating chapters. There is Belle Boyd, a teenage seductress with a lethal temper who serves as rebel spy and courier; Emma Edmonds, who puts on trousers to masquerade as Frank Thompson and joins the Union army; Rose O’Neal Greenhow, an attractive widow who romances northern politicians to obtain intel for the south; and, Elizabeth Van Lew, a prominent Richmond abolitionist who maintains a sophisticated espionage ring that infiltrates the inner circles of the Confederate government. Each of these is worthy of book-length treatment, but weaving their exploits together is an effective technique that makes for a readable and compelling narrative.
I had never heard of Karen Abbott—the pen name for Abbott Kahler—a journalist and highly acclaimed best-selling author dubbed the “pioneer of sizzle history” by USA Today. She is certainly a gifted writer, and unlike all too many works of history, her prose is fast-moving and engaging. I was swept along by her colorful recounting of the 1861 Battle of Bull Run, with flourishes such as: “Union troops fumbled backward and the Confederates rammed forward, a brutal and uneven dance, with soldiers felled like rotting trees.” I got so carried away I almost made it through the following passage without stumbling:
Some Northern soldiers claimed that every angle, every viewpoint, offered a fresh horror. The rebels slashed throats from ear to ear. They sliced off heads and dropkicked them across the field. They carved off noses and ears and testicles and kept them as souvenirs. They propped the limp bodies of wounded soldiers against trees and practiced aiming for the heart. They wrested muskets and swords from the clenched hands of corpses. They plunged bayonets deep into the backsides of the maimed and the dead. They burned the bodies, collecting “Yankee shin-bones” to whittle into drumsticks, and skulls to use as steins. [p34]
Almost. But I have a master’s degree in history and have spent a lifetime studying the American Civil War, and I have never heard this account of such barbarism at Bull Run. So I paused and flipped to Abbott’s notes for the corresponding page at the back of the book, where with a whiff of insouciance she admits that: “Throughout the war both the North and the South exaggerated the atrocities committed by the enemy, and it’s difficult to determine which incidents were real and which were apocryphal.” [p442] Which is another way of saying that her account is highly sensationalized, if not outright fabrication.
To my mind, Abbott commits an unpardonable sin here. A little research reveals that there were in fact a handful of allegations of brutality in the course of the battle, including the mutilation of corpses, but much of it anecdotal. There were several episodes of Confederate savagery later in the war, principally inflicted upon black soldiers in blue uniforms, but that is another story. How many readers of a popular history would without question take her at her word about what transpired at Bull Run? How many when confronted with stories of testicles taken as souvenirs would think to consult her citations? Lively paragraphs like this may certainly make for “sizzle”—but where’s the history? Historical novels have their place—The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, are among my favorites—but that is not the same thing as history, which must abide by a strict allegiance to fact-based reporting, informed analysis, and documentation. Apparently, this author demonstrates little loyalty to such constraints.
I read on, but with far more skepticism. Abbott’s style is seductive, so it’s easy to keep going. But sins do continue to accumulate. I have a passing familiarity with three of the four main characters, but fact-checking remained essential. Certainly the best known and most consequential was Van Lew, a heroic figure who aided the escape of prisoners of war and provided key intelligence to Union forces in the field. Greenhow is often cited as her counterpart working for the southern cause. Belle Boyd, on the other hand, has become a creature of legend who turns up more frequently in fiction or film than in history texts. I had never heard of Emma Edmonds, but I came to find her story the most fascinating of them all.
It seems that the more documented the subject—such as Van Lew, for example—the closer Abbott’s portrait comes to reliable biography. Beyond that, the imaginative seems to intrude, indeed dominate. The astonishing tale of Emma Edmonds has her not only impersonating a male Union soldier, but also variously posing as an Irish peddler and in blackface disguised as a contraband, engaged in thrilling espionage missions behind enemy lines! It rang of the stuff that Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man was made of. I was suitably sucked in, but also wary. And rightly so: Abbott’s version of Emma Edmonds’ life is based almost entirely on Edmonds’ own memoir, with little that corroborates it, but the author doesn’t bother to reveal that in the narrative. That Edmonds pretended to be a man in order to enlist seems plausible; her spy missions perhaps only fantasy. We simply just don’t know; a true historian would help us draw conclusions. Abbott seems content to let it play out as so much drama to tickle her audience.
But the worst of all is when the time comes to reveal the fate of luckless Confederate spy Greenhow, who drowns when her lifeboat capsizes with Union vessels bearing down on the steamer she abandoned, the moment where the superlative talent of Abbott’s pen collides with her concomitant disloyalty to scholarship:
She was sideways, upside down, somersaulting inside the wet darkness. She screamed noiselessly, the water rushing in. She tried to hold her breath—thirty seconds, sixty, ninety—before her mouth gave way and water filled it again. Tiny streams of bubbles escaped from her nostrils. A burning scythed through her chest. That bag of gold yanked like a noose around her neck. Her hair unspooled and leeched to her skin, twining around her neck. She tried to aim her arms up and her legs down, to push and pull, but every direction seemed the same. No moonlight skimmed along the surface, showing her the way; there was no light at all. [p389]
Entertaining, right? Outstanding writing, correct? Solid history—of course not! Imagining Greenhow’s final agonizing moments of life with a literary flourish may very well enrich the pages of a work of fiction, but it is nothing less than an outrage to a work of history.
This book was a fun read. Were it a novel I would likely give it high marks. But that is not how it is packaged. Emma Edmonds pretended to be a man to save the Union. Karen Abbott pretends to be a historian to sell books. Both make for great stories. But don’t confuse either with reliable history.