16-44 Segment 1: Women in the Civil War

woman in civil war reenactment

 

We’ve heard a lot about the famous generals and other heroes of the Civil War, but very little has been written about the women who fought as hard as the men for their beliefs. We talk to an author who researched these women, about the jobs they did, how they risked their lives to find and carry intelligence from the enemy to their generals, and even how they used their “feminine wiles” to get the information they needed to gain advantage in the war.

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Guest:

  • Karen Abbott, author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four women undercover in the Civil War

Links for more info:

Women fighting in the Civil War

Gary Price: The American Civil War is memorialized all over the country with battlefields, statues and museums telling the tale of the struggle to keep the country together and abolish slavery.  Hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate fighters died or were wounded in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of our nation. There were also plenty of men on both sides who distinguished themselves during the war – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Abraham Lincoln — and we remember their names and their contributions to this day.  There are a number of patriots from the North and the South who fought just as hard and were every bit as cunning as the men we remember, but who are all but forgotten in the history of that war.  Hundreds of women – yes women – from both sides risked their lives fighting for their beliefs, but none is memorialized by name. Karen Abbott decided it was time to remember the heroic women of the Civil War.  Her new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, tells the stories of four of them – two Union and two Confederate – who used strength, imagination and intellect to help their side.  But why has it taken so long to bring them to the public’s attention?  Where was Ken Burns in all this?

Karen Abbott: Actually, to be fair to Ken Burns, he does mention one of them in his epic Civil War documentary, Rose O’Neal Greenhow who, of course, is a famous Confederate spy. But I think the answer to that is, you know, women weren’t the ones writing the history books and the history was written by men and about men. You know it was fun and a pleasure to try and give the women the credit they deserve now.

Price: Abbott mentioned Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a widow who spied for the South despite her personal loss, sadness – and anger…

Abbott: She was in a very interesting and difficult position when the war broke out. In the years leading up to the war she had lost five children in four years, she had lost her husband in a freak accident and she had lost her access to the White House. This was somebody who had had for 20 years very close relationships with many Democratic politicians. She was even an advisor to President James Buchanan. So she lost all of this when Lincoln was elected and Republicans came into power. And she was desperate to get this back. So when this Confederate captain approaches her in the spring of 1861 and asks her to operate and form a Confederate spy ring in the Washington, D.C., the Union capital, she disregards the danger of that and jumps at the chance and goes on to get a cipher and deliver some very important information to the Confederate army and makes quite a name for herself.

Price: Not only was Greenhow a spy, she was what we would call today a “spy master”…

Abbott: One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run, she summons one of her couriers – and she had assembled quite a team of couriers – and one of them is a 16-year-old girl by the name of Betty Duvall and she ties up a secret dispatch in Betty’s hair and rolls it up into a bun and tells her just to go across the lines and right to Confederate headquarters and deliver this message. And Betty does exactly that and lets down her hair in this romantic, tyrannic fashion and hands over this note and the note, of course, contains important information for the Confederates on the First Battle of Bull Run. And Rose, you know, assembled her team and kept on spying after that.

Price: Greenhow, a Confederate spy living in the federal capital, had a counterpart – Elizabeth van Lew — for the Union…

Abbott: She was very shrewd. I think she was probably the smartest and most effective spy of all of them. She was sort of the direct opposite of Rose Greenhow. Rose was, of course, a Confederate spy living in the federal capital, and Elizabeth was a Union spy living in the Confederate capital and whereas Rose was brazen and outspoken and very bold about what she was doing, Elizabeth was quiet and deft and very discreet. And I think her biggest accomplishment was placing a former family slave in the Confederate White House.

Price: And Abbott says that it was the stereotyping of slaves as illiterate and unsophisticated that helped Van Lew insert her maid into the heart of the Confederacy and steal some very important secrets…

Abbott: Vereena Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, made an announcement that she needed help. She needed to staff the Confederate White House and does anybody have suitable servants she could borrow? So Elizabeth hears this and pays a social call to Vereena and says, “Well, I have somebody for you. I have a girl. You know she’s not too bright and she stumbles in the kitchen, but she should serve your purposes fine.” So she sends over a former family slave by the name of Mary Jane Bowser and, of course, nobody knows that Mary Jane Bowser is not only literate, but highly educated and gifted with a photographic memory. So while she’s dusting Jefferson Davis’s desk and cleaning up the children’s toys, she’s also managing to sneak peeks at maps and fortifications and letters on his desk and eavesdropping on confidential conversations and, of course, reporting all this back to Elizabeth.

Price: Belle Boyd was a Confederate spy who is credited with supplying important information to Stonewall Jackson during the war.  Abbott says Boyd was bolder than most “southern belles” at the time, and wasn’t afraid to shoot first, and ask questions later…

Abbott: Belle was so interesting to me. First of all, she was only 17 years old when the war broke out and she’s all id. You know she had no filter and she was really incredibly overt with both her opinions and her sexuality for the time period and for only being 17 years old. I like to say if Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus had a 19th century baby, it would have been Belle Boyd. You know she was just really out there on all fronts. And she kicks things off in July of 1861. She’s living in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia and Union forces are marching down and they’re planning on having a big Fourth of July parade in her hometown, and Belle is waiting for them, and she’s waiting for them with a pistol by her side. So when one of these Union soldiers threatens to raise a flag, a federal flag, she objects to this and decides to shoot this fellow dead and she gets away with it and goes on to become a courier and spy for the Confederate army and has quite a few adventures in the war.

Price: Finally, Abbott profiles a real female soldier, Emma Edmonds.  She joined the Union army after escaping from an oppressive life in Canada…

Abbott: She had grown up in Canada with an abusive father and he was going to arrange a marriage for her with an elderly neighbor and she had seen what this sort of arranged marriage had done to her sisters, sort of sapping all their spirit and she wanted something different for herself. She wanted a life of adventure. So she cuts her hair and binds her breasts and trades her dress for a man’s suit and begins calling herself Frank Thompson and living as a man. And she migrates to the United States right before the war and starts hearing about the abolitionist John Brown and all the events leading up to the war and decides she wants a piece of this. She wants to enlist in the Union army. And it’s quite surprising how all of these women – there are about 400 of them – were able to disguise themselves as men and enlist in the armies, both North and South. And, of course she too goes on to have quite a few harrowing adventures during the war.

Price: But how could a woman pass herself off as a man when living in close quarters with soldiers and enduring the required medical exams?

Abbott: So they just sort of had these cursory physical exams. They only cared if you had fingers to pull a trigger, if you had enough teeth to pull off powder cartridges and if you had feet to march. That was pretty much it. So the doctor merely shook Emma Edmonds’ hand and said, “You’re okay. You’re acceptable” and she was in as Private Frank Thompson. And then, of course, you know, how did she pass among her comrades? Here she’s sleeping next to them and in close quarters with them all day long and marching beside them. And I came to the conclusion that it was mostly because people had no idea what a woman would look like wearing pants.

Price: And not only did Edmonds and other women pass themselves off as men, Abbott says they used other disguises to work their way into enemy territory and steal intelligence…

Abbott: There was a report once by faked epileptic fits; somebody else used to remove their glass eye; somebody else would fake a stutter. And, of course, they did disguise themselves as slaves and I think the same idea applied here: Nobody expected a woman to disguise herself as a man, and likewise, nobody expected anyone to disguise themselves as a slave. So just sort of was a natural disguise. And they would apply silver nitrate to their skin. Of course the problem with that is that if it starts raining or becomes excessively hot and you start sweating, you skin color starts running which is, of course, exactly the position Emma Edmonds finds herself in and has to make a quick getaway.

Price: She says that there were plenty of “Mata Hari’s” in the ranks as well – women who used their wiles to pry sensitive information from the other side…

Abbott: Belle Boyd was a notorious seductress. Her main paramour was a Union general by the name of James Shields. And it was reported that she was, “closeted for four hours with him during one rendezvous and that she subsequently wrapped a rebel flag around his head in celebration.” And Rose Greenhow was an equally talented seductress, I guess I should say, and would consort with both northern and southern generals but really focused on high-ranking, northern politicians because, of course, they were the ones who were going to provide valuable information that she could pass along to the Confederate army. And her main reported paramour and source was a man by the name of Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts who was not only an abolitionist Republican, but also the chairman of Lincoln’s committee on military affairs. So you can imagine that they had some rather interesting pillow talk.

Price: How good were these women at going undercover to help their causes? So good that one famous security expert of the time sang their praises…

Abbott: Alan Pinkerton, who was the Union detective, he was hired to do secret service work for the Union, and actually one of his first missions was to conduct a stakeout of Rose Greenhow, the Confederate spy, he often said that women made better spies than men. They knew what to say in certain situations and knew what not to say in certain situations and, I think, were more generally more intuitive as he said. And some of his best spies were actually women. And it was also interesting that Pinkerton and the other northern officials – and eventually the southern officials when they got wind of Elizabeth and what she was doing in Richmond – they just did not know how to deal with them. So even if they suspected these women, they didn’t quite know how to handle them. Women were always the victims of war, not its perpetrators and it was sort of unthinkable that women would be capable of this sort of activity. You know not only are they capable of treasonous activity, but capable of executing it more deftly than men.

Price: Abbott says that not only did women spies and soldiers help in the war effort on both sides; they also helped change the way women were perceived after the war. With so many war widows and few single men to marry, the ladies of the mid-1800s had to learn to support themselves in farming, business and entrepreneurial endeavors.  You can find out about the adventures of four of these brave women who changed the face of the Civil War in Karen Abbott’s book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, available now.  Abbott also invites listeners to visit her website at karenabbott.net.  You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net.  I’m Gary Price.

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