THE BLOG
09/29/2014 08:33 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

The Forgotten Heroines Of The Civil War

I hadn't given much thought to the Civil War until one summer day in 2002 when I found myself stuck on traffic on Route 400 outside Atlanta, idling for hours behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON'T BLAME ME -- I VOTED FOR JEFF DAVIS. As a native Philadelphian newly transplanted to the Deep South, I was struck by the idea that Civil War personalities and politics lived on, in ways both frivolous and sincere, nearly a century and a half after the last body was buried and the final sacrifice made.

I began thinking about women's roles during the Civil War. They had to adjust quickly to the sudden absence of fathers and husbands and sons, to the idea that things would never be as they had been. They had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no influence in how the battles were waged. Some -- privately or publicly, with shrewd caution or gleeful abandon -- chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war. I found four such women; each, in her own was, was a liar, a temptress, a soldier, and a spy, often all at once.

When the war began, Belle Boyd was a 17-year old girl living in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, and an ardent Confederate sympathizer. On July 4, 1861, Union forces occupied her hometown of Martinsburg, celebrating the holiday by stealing liquor, looting stores, and terrorizing residents. When one soldier broke down Belle's door and threatened to raise a Union flag over her home, she fired one fatal shot. Union authorities, reluctant to turn the teenager into a Confederate martyr, agreed that she acted in self-defense. Belle was emboldened, and convinced her relatives in the Confederate army to secure her a position as a courier and spy.

Belle was all id, and incredibly overt with both her opinions and her sexuality, a sort of 19th century amalgamation of Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus. She seduced Union and Confederate soldiers alike. One Northern journalist reported that she was "closeted four hours" with Union general James Shields and subsequently wrapped a rebel flag around his head. She developed a particular obsession with Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, telling reporters that she wanted to "occupy his tent and share his dangers." She was both a seductress who employed her wiles to manipulate men, and an occasional cross-dresser who blended in by impersonating them.

By the onset of the war, Emma Edmonds had been living as a man for two years, and enlisted in the Union army as Private "Frank Thompson." Official protocol of the US War Department dictated that all recruits strip and undergo a thorough physical examination, but doctors across the country flouted these rules. They had quotas to fill and needed bodies, quickly. It didn't matter if a recruit was prone to convulsions or deaf in one ear or suffering from diphtheria. He merely required the strength to carry a gun, a trigger finger, and enough teeth with which to tear open powder cartridges. In Emma's case, the doctor only shook her hand before pronouncing her fit enough to serve. She witnessed the bloodiest battles of the war and occasionally served as a spy, laying a temporary disguise over her permanent one, hoping no one discovered what she was.

Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow lived in Washington, DC, where she spent hours watching Union soldiers -- Emma included -- conduct drills on Capitol Hill. Rose had endured numerous hardships in the years leading up to the war, including the deaths of five children and her husband, who had been a long-time employee of the State Department. Over two decades she had become a greedy prospector of the powerful, befriending Democratic politicians and even serving as a confidante to former president James Buchanan. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, Rose also lost her access to the White House, and she longed for the security and prestige of her old life. In the spring of 1861, when a Confederate captain asked her to organize and oversee an espionage ring, Rose immediately agreed. She cultivated (and seduced) sources, including high-ranking Northern politicians, assembled a team of "scouts," and began sending dispatches to the rebel army -- even as famed detective Allan Pinkerton watched her every move.

Elizabeth Van Lew was the antithesis of Rose Greenhow, as discreet and cautious as the rebel spy was brazen. A Richmond native, Elizabeth had been educated in Philadelphia and returned to the South a staunch abolitionist -- a viewpoint that, after the onset of the war, had potentially dangerous consequences. Nevertheless, when she heard that Varina Davis, the Confederate first lady, needed servants, Elizabeth volunteered the services of a former family slave, Mary Jane Bowser. No one, least of all the Davis family, knew that Mary Jane was highly educated and gifted with an eidetic memory, capable of memorizing images in a glance, and recalling entire conversations word for word.

I spent five years researching these long-forgotten women, visiting archives across the country to piece together their lives. I found Rose's cipher and the diaries of Emma's comrades. I spoke to the great-grandson of Elizabeth's niece, who shared never-before-published insights about the spy's incredible operation. Beneath the gore of battle and the daring escapades on and off the fields, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is about the war's unsung heroines--the people whose "determin'd voice," as Walt Whitman wrote, "launch'd forth again and again," until at last they were heard.

Karen Abbott is the author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.