Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Time Period
1861 to 1876
Media Type
Civil War
Women's History
Karen Abbott

On November 11, 2014, Karen Abbott delivered a Banner Lecture entitled "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War."

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring. Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little-known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

Abbott is a featured contributor to Smithsonian's history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for Disunion, the New York Times series about the Civil War. She is the author of several books, including American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (2010) and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War (2014).

This lecture was cosponsored with the American Civil War Museum.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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