The Women Spies of the Civil War, with Karen Abbott

January 20, 2015

This week on Point of inquiry, New York Times bestselling author Karen Abbott talks to Lindsay Beyerstein about her newest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, which tells the true story of four women who served as spies during the U.S. Civil War.

In a time when women had few of the rights they would later win for themselves, the need for espionage turned out to be an early and important step in the
fight for women’s suffrage. These bold women went to extraordinary lengths to fight for their respective sides, taking on various roles to gain
information, even posing as men. The risk of being discovered was as much a concern during a military medical exam as it was when they were simply
attempting to wear men’s pants properly.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, January 20th, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. Production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. My guest today is Karen Abbott, author of Liar Tempters Soldiers Spy for Women Undercover in the Civil War The True Story of Four Women who served as spies during the Civil War. 

Welcome to the program. Hi, thanks so much for having me. 

What motivated you to write a book about the Civil War? 

Well, the short answer to that is, you know, I’m a northern girl. I was born and raised in Philadelphia and moved to Atlanta in 2001. And it was really quite a culture shock. Had to get used to seeing the occasional Confederate flag on the lawns and listening to jokes about the war of Northern Aggression. And the point was really driven home for me one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400 for about two hours behind the pickup truck with a bumper sticker that said, Don’t blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis, who is the president of the Confederacy. And I just got me thinking about the war in general. You know, there had to be something more here in my mind. Always go to Will. What were the women doing? And especially what were the bad women doing? Were the defiant women doing? And I wanted to find four women who really pushed at that society limitations and really there to risk their lives for their cause and both north and south. 

You’ve written several books about bad women historically, is that right? 

Yeah, I guess I guess you could say if you want to call them bad, which they definitely embrace that label and I think probably would have fairly consider themselves bad in their day and age. So, yeah, sure. I think that’s fair to say. 

So when you decided you wanted to explore the civil war in more detail, how did you find out about the women who became the four main figures in your book? 

Well, luckily, there was a lot of volume of information about them. The women kept diaries. Some of them had written memoirs. Some of them who had been pursued by Alan Pinkerton, the famous detective. Their correspondence with these there were libraries in the National Archives and Library Congress. 

And was this a treasure trove of information for historian geek to go through? And I remember finding things like Rose Greenhow, one of the Confederate spies, her cipher. I found her cipher and the little scrap of black silk that she had hidden some of her messages in the National Archives. And here it’s in New York at the New York Public Library, where Elizabeth’s family’s papers are kept. And Lou is a union spy. There was some of the death threats she had received. You know, she lived in the Confederate capital, Richmond, which was a very dangerous place for her to be with her union and her northern sympathies being on display. And she received quite a few death threats. And it was really chilling to sit there even 150 years later and hold these in my hands. 

And I can’t even imagine how she felt reading them back in 1864 for a brief rundown of the four main figures and their contributions. 

Sure. Well, I kick things off with Bellboy, too. Who was this 17 year old girl living in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, when the war broke out? And Bill, it a really interesting debate. She was all in. She had no filter. And she was really incredibly overt with both her opinions and her sexuality for the time period, especially being this a teenage girl. I like to say that if Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus had a 19th century baby, I would have been Beaufoy. And she kicked things off in the beginning by shooting a union soldier who invades her home and threatens to raise a federal flag over her home. And she gets away with it because they spy and carrier for the Confederate Army. And second, there is an element to disguise herself as a man. They call herself Private Frank Tom Flynn and enlisted with the Union Army in the spring of 1861. And she’s a nurse and a carrier and a spy for the union army. And I is in and some of the bloodiest battles of the war. And, of course, also has to worry about being found out. You know, if her gender were discovered, she could be arrested to be charged with prostitution and she would most certainly have been kicked out of the war, which, of course, would have been the most, I think, devastating thing for her. She was really an adventurous sort and wanted to participate, wanted to fight for our country. So she was sort of wary and all sides and had to worry about various aspects of what was going on. Third is worth Greenhill. She is a Confederate’s by living in the federal capital, Washington, D.C., and her whole life had fallen apart in the years leading up to the war. She had lost five kids in four years. She had lost her husband in a freak accident. And he had lost track of the White House. She had been friends with high ranking Democratic politicians for years leading up to the war and lost all of that when Lincoln and Republicans came into office and was desperate to get it back. So in the spring of 1861, would a Confederate captain approached her and asked her to run a Confederate firing in Washington, D.C., purely jump at the chance and began cultivating sources by cultivating I really mean to do things she could do several high ranking Republicans in order to get information for the Confederates. And actually was instrumental in winning the first major land battle, the war for the Confederates, which was a battle of bull run Manassas in July of 1861. So you could make the argument that without Rose Greenhow, the war would’ve been over in 90 days, pretty much before it even began if it weren’t for her contributions. And the final spy is Elizabeth Fallow, who is a unions by living in the Confederate capital of Richmond. And who had northern sympathies? She was a Richmond native, but had been sent north to Philadelphia to be educated and had been under care of an abolitionist governess and brought these opinions back with her. When she returned to Richmond and it was very dangerous for her to have these opinions at that time. And nevertheless, she decided to run a union spiring in the Confederate capital of Richmond and even went too far as to place a former family slave in a Confederate White House as a spy. This really remarkable woman by the name of Mary Jane Bouser. And nobody knew that Mary Kate Bouser was not only literate, but highly educated and gifted with a photographic memory. So while Jefferson Davis is leading his papers out on his desk and having confidential conversations with his advisers, Mary Kate Bowzer is listening to all of this and reporting all of it. Back to Elizabeth Venlo. 

So as with Ben Lou and Grows, Greenhow weren’t just spies. They were actually spy masters running other people. 

Exactly. They were in charge of recruiting large numbers of spies and vetting them and making sure they were loyal and sort of organizing information and delivering it in a proper fashion at Elizabeth. By the end of the war was actually Ulysses S. Grant. Most important spy. 

And I was sort of surprised when I read the book about how official one of the spying was. I mean, some of it was unofficial. But for whatever reason, both sides seemed to be comfortable with having women as spies when they weren’t comfortable as having women in any other role, whether it was civilian jobs or in the military. 

Yeah, it’s a good point and a good question. I think that is something that evolved during the war. You know, when it first came to light that Rose Greenhow was possibly aiding the Confederacy in espionage and operating as a spy. The union official for shocked this is something they had never considered. Women’s loyalty was assume loyalty was an attribute of femininity itself. You know, women were victims of war. They weren’t perpetrators of war. And suddenly they had to grapple with evidence. Not only are women capable of treasonous activity, but they were capable of executing it more definitely than men. And there was a great quote from a one Lincoln official who, you know, pondered all of this and said, quote, What are we going to do with these fashionable women spies? And it was something they really had to grapple with throughout the war. And at some point, Man Pinkerton himself said that women make better spies and men. Do you think that’s true? I think in some ways it is. And it will especially and back in that time period, because women were either above suspicion or below suspicion, especially in the case of many African-Americans who worked for the union as spies and brilliant spies. You know, Elizabeth Family was a high class white woman who was pretty much above suspicion. And if she were ever accused, her standard for spies was, how dare you? How dare you accuse me a proper society lady, abridgment of engaging in such activity. But, of course, spies, especially African-American women, former slaves or servants, they were below suspicion and nobody even suspected that they could read or communicate effectively. And so in that regard, those women were just as important. 

And in fact, despisers as anybody else, Bell is kind of a fascinating character because she seems like pretty much the only celebrity spy I’ve ever heard. 

Well, I think so. 

You know, I keep reminding myself, you know, this is a 17 year old girl. It was sort of like civil war, girls gone wild. And she, you know, here this celebrity was definitely a draw for her. She was one of those people who, like, peaked in high school, you know, and just really, I think was as enamored with the idea of people knowing about her FBI activity as if she was with the espionage activity itself, which seems to be contradictory. You know, if you’re going to be an effective fight, you would most likely want to be discreet and exercise some sort of restraint in terms of publicizing your activities. But Bell did not adhere to any of that. And the more people knew about it, the better. At the same time, she was on to something in terms of strategy. Part of her disguise was to go to these union camps and say, I am a Confederate sympathizer. My loyalty is with the South. That really how dangerous can I possibly be if I’m standing here telling you that I’m a Confederate spy? How dangerous. Could I be? So she sort of disarmed them in that way. 

But even if I thought she was dangerous, why would they give her information? Wouldn’t they just dislike her because she was a Confederate sympathizer and not want to have anything to do with her? 

Well, I mean, if you think about who these are, men who are marching and probably you haven’t seen their wives and girlfriends in some time. And here’s a woman who is kind of loose and fast and fun and outgoing to reportedly was very charismatic and had a nice body. And you know, what harm was there in flirting with her and chatting with her? 

I guess some of them thought disguised herself as a man to fight for the union. How common was that? 

Well, was about 400 women for both north and south. You disguise themselves as men and enlisted. And it was really one of those fascinating parts of my research to figure out exactly how they got away with this. And of course, first they had to pass medical exams and the doctors across the country were required to conduct medical examinations, but they all flouted these rules. They really you know, they had bodies to get out there. They included facil they needed to move quickly. And so they really only cared if you had a fingers to pull a trigger, if you had enough pizza report powder cartridges, if you had feet to march. That’s really the bare minimum. They cared about before they passed you into the army. And so M.A was able to pass the medical examination fairly easily and make it into the army. But then, of course, he had to not arouse suspicion of her fellow comrades, of the men that she was living in such close quarters with. And I came to the conclusion that these women mostly got away with it because nobody knew what a woman would look like wearing pants. People were safe, forcing women’s bodies pushed and pulled into these exaggerated shapes with corsets and crinolines. Did a very I gave a woman wearing pants, let alone an entire army uniform, was so unfathomable that people just couldn’t see it. Even if she were right in front of them. 

There was one woman you mentioned in the book who got caught because she had a massive pants fail. I just remember this scene in the book. You mentioned the woman get caught because she forgot how to put on pants. 

Yes. I mean, some of the ways they got caught were hilarious. The woman who forgot, she tried to pull her pants on over her head. We’ve all been. Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s it’s something that could happen to anyone. But of course, also the captain who threw an apple at the woman and she tried to grab it with the hem of her nonexistent apron. And my personal favorite is the New Jersey corporal who was on picket duty, who suddenly went into labor. You know, the jig was up. You’re covering the labor. People are gonna know you’re a woman. 

They were surprisingly happy about that, too. I mean, do you think it was because she produced a boy? They were just going to let it slide? 

You know, I I’m guessing that was pretty late in the war. From what I recall, I think it was 1864. So I’m guessing at that point, people were so weary by the loss of life that any sort of life affirming event was welcome. But this was something that was unusual and life affirming and probably a comrade with whom they’ve been suffering for quite some time and had genuine affection for him, suppressed her sexuality and even her gender identity. 

But a lot of the other spies really use their femininity and their sexuality to their advantage. Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

Oh, sure. Well, Belle Boyd was a notorious seductress. She didn’t discriminate either. And I think some of her most her proudest conquests were union officials. One of my favorites. And, you know, I filed this under you can’t make this up for one of her reported paramours with names, Major Dick Long. 

Then, of course, there was a union General James Shields, who won author and reporter wrote that she was, quote, closeted for four hours with him and subsequently wrapped a rebel flag around his head to celebrate this conquest. But of course, it was also Bell’s flirtatious manner that eventually got her in trouble when she flirted with the wrong union person. And Rose Greenhow was also a bit of a seductress. I think her most important source and lover, reputed lover was Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, who is not only abolitionist Republicans but Lincoln’s chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and reportedly wrote her very steamy love letters, which ended up in Pinkerton’s files eventually and incriminated Bruce. 

I mean, though, seducing all these guys throughout the war, she didn’t get pregnant. Did the birth control in those days? 

They did. I mean, the other thing is, too, we don’t know how far Bell was going. I mean, we don’t know she was physically if she was actually having intercourse. 

You know, women, Southern women were actually I did quite a bit of research on the fact that women did work free or sexually during the war, especially with all the men. Their chaperons were gone and they sort of had a little bit of a role in the spring and went a little bit wild. But they never wrote about that in the diaries. You know, they they would write about flirting and that’s all that they would admit to. So there is no, you know, concrete admission that Bell was actually having intercourse. But, of course, there was birth control back then. There were condoms and those sorts of things. But hospitals full of men with venereal disease, you know, prostitutes were rampant during the civil war. They would visit the camps. And, of course, there were actually federal hospitals that cater just to these prostitutes. 

So it really strange that women who were caught dressing up as men to fight would be charged as prostitutes. 

You know, I think that’s because they didn’t really know what else to charge them with. And it was sort of left up to the discretion of whatever generals in charge of that regiment. It was there was no hard and fast rule because nobody wanted to admit that women were actually doing this even well after the war when female soldiers were rightfully fighting for pensions. The United States government did not want admit that women had fought and enlisted as men during the civil war. So there were really no hard and fast rules about what they would be charged with. But I included that because there were a few cases on the record where women who were discovered were charging prostitutes. 

And did they ultimately get pensions? The women who tried to apply? 

Well, the evidence is there was a pioneer in that regard and eventually did get a pension. 

Thankfully, you had a former CIA code breaker review the ciphers that you examined for this book. How did that come about? 

Well, he had written several articles on espionage during the Civil War. And I read a bunch of his articles and tracked him down and wanted him to just go through and make sure that the espionage language I used and the way that I described their process made sense and. Contain any errors, and he was really generous with his time and knowledge about that. 

You describe one of the great military disasters of the civil war was Fredericksburg, where the union was trying to scale a wall under Ford’s frontal attack. That happened. 

How did that happen? Well, I think Burnside had just been in charge. And despite the advice of his several advisers, one of the Confederates even said, you know, a chicken can run across my field without getting killed or something to that effect. It was basically suicide to send these men across the open field and up the hill where Confederates had the vantage point. But Burnside was under pressure. You know, Lincoln had fired McClellan. The North wanted action. People were clamoring for something to happen. People were impatient. Lincoln was a patient and Burnside against the better judgment of several of his advisers. I decided to go through with this plan. And, of course, I’d also felt Diem for Burnside. 

Kind of interesting. Well, one of the famous case studies of military incompetence, you’ve got a general who’s surrounded by. Yes. Men who are telling him that everything he’s doing is great and sensible. But in this case, the general was surrounded by a bunch of people who are telling him, no, this is suicide, don’t do it. 

Yeah, yeah. You would think, you know, I just I mean, I could sympathize with the position Burnside within, but, my God, when you’re the only person you think something is a good idea, it’s probably not a good idea. 

How do you think General McClellan stacks up in terms of the union generals in the war as a whole? He kind of figures largely in the book. 

Yeah, he was a fascinating character to me. I loved his arrogance and, you know, his claims about being able to let the 250 pound man over its head and be able to bend a quarter between a son and forefinger. And I love that his men were so loyal to him and of course, has been were loyal to him because he was reluctant to send them into battle. Well, you know, of course, here men are going to love you and you don’t want to get them killed and you actively avoid sending them into situations where they might get killed. And the fact that Emma, he was M.S. general. So it really gave a more of a personal connection to the story. And I thought he should be featured prominently because he was her commander and she wrote about him quite often. 

On the other side, Bo had quite a close relationship with Stonewall Jackson. 

This was Jackson was another interesting character. Probably one of the boats, peculiar characters of the war, especially with all of his hypochondria and illnesses, either real or perceived. And he was sort of a rock star to civil war. And there was a great story. One of my favorite stories in the book, actually, where Samuel Jackson is in a hotel lobby in Shenandoah Valley and he is being swarmed by people. You know, people flock to him. People surrounded him. Women were pulling at him. They were trying to grab buttons off his clothes and keep them for souvenirs. And he stepped back and he has a very cool line. And he says, Ladies, ladies, this is the very first time I’ve been surrounded by the enemy. 

And of course, Bellboy is obsessed with him. And she actually tells people she wants to, quote, occupy the tent and share his dangers, which if I were Phil Jackson, I think would have frightened me more than anything the Union Army had in store for me. 

But the fact that Belle wanted to sleep in my tent with me would’ve been terrifying. But yeah, he was a great character and sort of an interesting counterpart to McClellan. 

He worried that he was possessed. Yeah. What did you think he was possessed by? 

Well, he was a very religious man, you know, and believed that everything he did was God’s will. You know, I guess a lot of these animals were religious. McClellan believed that God himself had sent him to save the union. So they were all all of these men were imbued with the spirit of God and had died guiding them in everything they did. But Stonewall Jackson, I think, believed he was possessed by the devil and sort of prayed daily to try to ward this off. 

He also has the odd distinction of being one of the few people in American history to be buried in two places. I say I love you. 

I love that. I actually, you know, a line somewhere. Right, about civil worry and actors going to a Halloween party. One is terrible. Jackson is another one of General Jackson’s arm. 

That’s a great, interesting thing that you talk about in the book, is the role that Rose played in diplomacy on behalf of the South and how she was sort of a groundbreaking figure in terms of women going to represent their countries overseas. 

Yeah. It’s really an unprecedented move. You know, Jefferson Davis had been since the beginning of the war, pretty early in the war, trying to gain diplomatic recognition from Europe, particularly England and France, for the Confederacy, recognizing the South as its own separate entity, its own government. And he had sent over two men may suicidal early on, and they hadn’t really accomplished much in terms of this and yet made some connections, but weren’t able to get the rulers of England and France to get on board with the idea of a Confederacy with its own legitimate country. And he thought Rose Greenhow might be able to do the job or these men had failed. He was fairly fluent French. He was knowledgeable about American politics, particularly knowledgeable about the South, obviously, and was quite charming and obviously beautiful and seductive and. She gave it a rough shot. 

How did she do? Well, you know, I think that she was in a tough position and a win in France, even though there were some people over there sympathizing with the South. 

We’re really reluctant. Sign on to the idea of eccentrically as a legitimate government without them proving might on the battlefield. So the more the Confederacy lost on the battlefield, the less likely it became for England and France to get onboard. 

In addition to the secret about the battle of Bull Run at the very beginning of the war, what other military contributions to the spies make? 

Well, bellboy. Big shining moment came in the spring of 1862 during the Shenandoah Valley campaign, particularly during the battle for Front Royal in May of 1862. And Jackson and his men were marching down the said no valley and union forces were getting ready to converge. And Bell had this information and realized that if they all converged at once, they’d be able to capture Stonewall. But if he moves quickly, he would be able to get the town and prevent that from happening. And, you know, one of my favorite scenes, she literally places her ear to the floor. And you shot that union war council and leans its information and prepares to deliver to Stonewall Jackson and actually risks her life in the profits. 

So the idea was that the union forces were going to converge and she was able to give that information to Stonewall Jackson and then he preempted them from converging. Yes. And my movie, I was meaning to ask you about the Canadian contribution to the war. Emma was born in Canada. Was that also a common thing for Canadian soldiers to be coming to the U.S. to fight for the union? 

There were a mix of Canadians. I actually haven’t done much reading on the Canadian contribution to the war. I know that there were Canadian Confederate fighters, in fact, or the large contingency of exiled Confederate spies up Canada. So I don’t think that it would be fair to say that it was either rightly on their union or Confederate side as a country. 

Women integrate back into mainstream society after the war. 

Well, the war sort of upended women’s lives across the board right before it touched upon earlier or the fact that they had this newfound freedom. No. For the first time there, their chaperons were gone, their brothers or cousins, their fathers. All these men who used to accompany them wherever they went were suddenly gone. And women had a sort of take charge of their lives, go out and work the fields, work the farm, get jobs, especially in the south. About 60000 women were left widowed. And so, of course, had to forge new lives after the war. And a lot of them also, you know, when their husbands did come home, if they came home for amputees and unable to work. So sort of shifted the entire family dynamic and women had to feel comfortable with becoming the breadwinner. And they had a family. And it sort of paved the way, I think, for fight for for women’s suffrage and libraries that came later on in the 19th century and early 20th century. 

Bill eventually got married. How did she just to going from being completely free and running all over the continent to being a wife and mother? 

Well, not well, as you know, I think as evidence that Bill was married three times and and sort of had volatile divorces the first two times anyway, and told people actually that her first husband, whom she divorced, had actually died, which was a lie. And I think, you know, Bill, more than settling down and becoming a wife and a mother, that big adjustment for Bill was to let go of the war. You know, the war was sort of her first love, and I think it was her true love. And just when the war was over, she did want to let it go. And I think that really spurred her career as somebody who was probably one of the first war reenactments and went around reenacting her own contributions. 

Of course, Elizabeth adjusted pretty well immediately after the war. Did she receive a really high ranking civil service post? 

He was appointed just postmaster of Richmond and was really it was a pretty high ranking position for a woman to be holding at that time. And she was very progressive in appointing several women, several African-Americans. Not surprisingly, that she was progressive in doing this, that it caused her hardship. You know, that to the people of Richmond, did not appreciate finding out that their neighbor, this longtime native Richmond, or hadn’t betrayed them and was a traitor in their eyes, despite the fact that she had accomplished so much during the war. And personally, how with so much after the war in terms of this post, I was not a not a happy postwar life for her and she was ultimately removed by it. 

Van Buren was that because she’d been a vocal sympathizer for the union or because she was a woman or both? 

I think part of it was that, you know, during reconstruction, you know, immediately after the war and, you know, there was sort of a backlash and she witnessed. At some point, I write toward the end about the Richmond officials erecting an enormous statue of Robert De and people, throngs of people surrounding the statue and screaming and ecstasy at the sight of Robert de Lee. And it just made her native city all the more strange to her again. She felt like there had been no progress at all. And I think that her removal was part of this backlash against the progress that was made during the war and immediately postwar reconstruction here. 

I must just slipped out of the army and went back to living as a woman when it became clear that she couldn’t keep this ruse up anymore. What did she do for the rest of her life? 

Well, Edmund became married. She got married and had children and had some hardships, their children, some deaths of her children. And, you know, I think I was slightly disappointed in herself for having such prosaic ending and. Terms of marrying a man, she actually made a notation just to this effect, sort of like, oh, well, that’s just the way the story ends, is that it was pretty disappointed in that. 

But she did really like it. She kept falling in love with men. 

She did. She did. I think she was you know, that was a pattern. I’m not saying she did have a legitimate feeling for the moment she fell in love with. But I also think that she was stuck in her time. 

You know, here’s somebody who was, you know, I mean, I guess if you if you do like men, this was the only socially acceptable way to openly break one. Right, exactly. 

So so she I mean, what else could she do? And I think then she sort of gained her fight back in terms of going after her pension and finally feeling free and confident and I guess acceptable that it was finally acceptable for her to admit that she had posed as a man for all those years, which I imagine was something really difficult for her to do. 

Does she talk at all about how her general community responded to her disclosure? 

There were mentions of the kids pointing at her and whispering about her and talking about her being a spy and sort of poking fun at the fact that she still misses Seeley as she had been married to a Lionel of. You know, Mrs. Tulley, where it friends close. Look at her boots. Look at her trousers. So she never really settled into the stereotypical idea of what a woman should look like or act like. And in that time period, I’m sure of her neighbors make note about epithets all the time we have for today. 

Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s a fascinating book. 

Thanks so much and thanks for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.