The Ones You Don't Suspect

Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy by Karen Abbott

Release Date: September 2, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins | Harper
Pages: 544 pages
Source & Format: Publisher at BEA; ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
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.

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. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it. 

Thoughts on Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
I've always enjoyed reading books set during the Civil War, but my love for Erin Lindsey McCabe's I Shall Be Near to You only made it stronger. I read the book earlier this year, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. It's the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight alongside her husband during the war, and it was so fascinating! Although the story itself is fictional, it was based on real women who fought as men during the Civil War.

After finishing it, I began searching for other books about the Civil War. Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy immediately caught my eye, especially because it focuses four women undercover during the Civil War. I was thrilled at the thought of learning more about the real women that had inspired McCabe. You can imagine my delight when I then discovered that Karen Abbott was going to be signing copies of the book during BEA. Seriously, y'all, I was the first person in line!

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is my favorite kind of non-fiction because it covers a significant time period but describes it through a smaller lens by focusing on the lives of four women during those years. The four women you'll meet in its pages are:
  • Belle Boyd: Southern spitfire who spied for the Confederate army and acted as a courier
  • Emma Edmonds: Disguised herself as a man and fought for the Union
  • Rose O'Neale Greenhow: Seduced valuable information out of politicians in order to help the South
  • Elizabeth Van Lew: Wealthy abolitionist who created an espionage ring
The book is divided into parts based on the years of the war, and each chapter focuses on a single woman (for the most part). It rotates between all their different stories, and I loved that two were on the Union's side and two were for the Confederacy. The women were not connected, but Abbott does a great job weaving their stories into a cohesive and compelling book.

One of the themes, and the common thread between the women, is captured by this quote early in the book:
"Their gender provided them with both a psychological and physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women's proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men."
The book doesn't really delve into all the intricacies of the war, but I felt like I saw a completely new side of it because of these women. Abbott's writing makes this read like a novel for the most part, which I loved. If you're looking for a more scholarly examination of the Civil War, this might not be right for you. But I think most readers will really appreciate the way Abbott makes history come alive!

I made myself read this one a little more slowly so that I could fully appreciate all the details, but it's overall a fast-paced read. I was so caught up in it and was glad Abbott included an epilogue that provided more information about what happened to the women once life went back to "normal." I learned so much while reading this book, but it was also so entertaining. I was shocked at some of the things that took place - and what these women accomplished and endured.

If you're interested in the Civil War or in women in history, I definitely recommend this book. And I think this is the kind of non-fiction that would be perfect for readers who primarily read fiction. Abbott has written an engaging and informative book that was right up my alley, and I'm so glad I got to read it!

So Quotable
"War, like politics, was men's work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women's loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself, but now there was a question - one that would persist throughout the war - of what do with what a Lincoln official called 'fashionable women spies.'"
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.


  1. I'm THRILLED you enjoyed this one so much, Hannah!! When I originally saw you were reading it, I was instantly intrigued and now that I know it's a good one, I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it - I'm sure it's totally just a coincidence that it comes out right before my birthday!

  2. I remember you discussing and looking forward to this book a great deal before you began reading it, so I'm really happy to see that you ended up enjoying it :) There's nothing quite so disappointing as unrealized expectations! I must admit, after reading your review I couldn't be more excited to read this book myself. I love the idea of approaching the Civil War from an entirely new perspective, particularly one more minute and specific in scope, and I appreciate the fact that these womens' gender, the very thing which would otherwise hold them back because of attitudes during the period, actually made these daring feats possible because this behaviour would never have been expected of them. I don't read nearly as much non-fiction as I used to prior to beginning my blog, but I can promise that this book will be at the very top of my list when I do!

  3. Such a good review, and I'm very glad to hear this is a good one, as I have been looking forward to it. I really enjoy books about The Civil War (and WWII), so I'm quite sure I'll like this.

  4. I've been so curious about this ever since I first saw you post about it. I just love books about women who kick major butt. It's definitely staying on my to read list after reading your review, but I think perhaps I should start with something a little more basic first. I am ashamed to say I really don't know much of anything about the Civil War - but I am Canadian so perhaps that's a good excuse? Are there any Civil War books you would recommend that give a better overall view of the events and causes?

  5. I somehow missed this at BEA, but I NEED to get my hands on a copy! I haven't read anything about the Civil War yet, but a book about lady spies making a difference when women were supposed to stay home and tend house rings ALL of my bells.

  6. Seriously, after reading your review of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I really want to read it! I always find it fascinating when an author manages to take aspects of history (especially stories of historical figures) and work it into a novel that feels cohesive and interesting. I'm so pleased that you were caught up in this story, and that you enjoyed it as much as you did. I'll definitely be checking this one out when the opportunity presents itself!


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