Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War - Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

By Karen Abbott


I made it over halfway, but enough is enough.

To me, the most important aspect of nonfiction is that it be nonfiction. Unfortunately, writers of pop nonfiction usually go for the most sensational versions of the truth that they can find.

To my mind, this book falls into that trap. Abbott's book is clearly well-researched, but she tends to present as fact information from such dubious sources as the women's own memoirs or stories from Harper's Weekly. Since many of the women parleyed their life stories into various careers, it was in their own interests to make them as sensational as possible.

I also felt that Abbott doesn't carefully delineate from her own embroidering and her sources. She doesn't tend to attribute her "facts" to any particular source, even when they come from such dubious places as Belle Boyd's romanticized versions of events. She also repeats stories from Sarah Emma Edmonds' memoir, though even Abbott can't quite swallow some of the ones that are provably false. Like Boyd, Edmonds sold her memoir and thus had reason to make it as dramatic as possible. I don't really believe, for example, that she visited home in her male disguise and that her mother broke down in tears because "Frank" reminded her of her lost daughter and that she dramatically uncovered her true identity to the rejoicing of her mother and sister. Abbott swallows it hook, line, and sinker.

I dispute many of Abbott's facts, such as her inclusion of such tall tales as the soldier at Bull Run who was saved by a Bible in his pocket (his name was William Preston Magnum, and while there's no real evidence that the bullet was deflected by his Bible, it is an indisputable fact that he died from his wounds a week later and was buried at Manassas.)

The overwritten, purple-prosy style didn't do much for me either. If I wanted to read Victorian over-sensationalism, I'd go pick up the ladies' memoirs. To be clear, I do think that Abbott has sources for all of the stories she tells. I just don't believe the veracity of her sources.

I think these women were incredible and fascinating. I believe they deserve to have their true stories told, not the hyperbolic and romanticized versions that their lives inspired.