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

by Karen Abbott

Paperback, 2015




Harper Perennial (2015), Edition: Reprint, 544 pages


"The never-before-told story of four real-life women who risked everything to take on a life of espionage during the Civil War"--Provided by publisher.

User reviews

LibraryThing member BooksCooksLooks
I have a fascination with the Civil War that came to me somewhat late in life. I really did not like American History when I was in school; I was far more interested in European history. It took a trip to Gettysburg to stir my interest in the war that almost tore this country apart. Since then I have read quite a few books on the various battles and prominent people of the War Between the States.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy details the stories of four women who risked their lives to support their respective side in the War. The book alternates chapters between the four women and I have to note that this was a bit disconcerting as a chapter would end at an emotional moment and it would be three chapters before it would pick up again and I would half forget where I was within each woman's story. It might have been easier on the reader to tell each woman's story in larger pieces before switching to the next one. That being written I did thoroughly enjoy the book. It read like fiction rather than non-fiction but given what these women did truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Each woman was incredibly remarkable in her own right; Belle Boyd was only 17 when she killed a Union soldier while defending a family member's honor. She used her wits to spy for the Confederacy. Elizabeth van Lew was a woman far ahead of her time living in Richmond. She was devastated when the South seceded and she used her personal fortune to help care for Union soldiers held in Confederate prisons and developed a very large spy network - even placing someone in the Davis mansion! Emma Edmonds lived her life as a man going so far as to enlist in the Union army. Rose Greenhow was a widow with friends in high places in Washington and she used them to learn the wheres and whats of the Union army's movements so she could pass it on to her friend, General Beauregard.

It was a confusing time for the country and that confusion allowed for plenty of opportunities for women to use their skills in defense of their side. Little suspected at first because they were just women they did ultimately fall under suspicion and their sex did not keep them safe.

Like the best of fiction, I had a hard time putting this one down and it will join the other books in my Civil War library. Most people expect non fiction to be dry and textbook like but this book is as far from that as you could imagine. It's like a suspense/thriller but of course we all know who wins in the end.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
A interesting story - or rather stories - but not the easiest to listen to in Audiobook form. The book weaves the stories of four women who participated in the US Civil War as spies or soldiers or fancy call girls, or all of those. Each story was interesting but it jumped around a bit too much for my taste; in audio form it was hard to catch the transfers of one story to another so made for difficult listening. The narrator was excellent, it was just the format of the story that was hard. Overall: highly recommend in book form; sorta recommend in audio form… (more)
LibraryThing member wrighton-time
Posted first to Blog Critics as Book Review:'Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott.

Throughout time wars have spawned fanatics, those willing to do anything to make sure their side wins, including collusion and spying. This is true of women as well as men, although we seldom hear of the exploits of the women in history to the extent as we do of the men. The Civil war was no different.

In Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott we are introduced to the lives of four women who had hidden agenda’s in a war that tore family’s apart and damaged the beginning of a nation. From outright spying to enlisting as a man, each of these women helped to make history in their own unique fashion.

You will find their sense of bravado quite courageous regardless of the sides they chose, and the fact that friends and family were also drawn into their exploits was quite daunting. Yet for a belief that they were right and doing what they could in their own way, they helped to shape the history of our nation and beliefs.

Abbott is a strong voice for these women and interspaced throughout are photos of the time. You get in-depth information based off letters, diaries and the news, written about them at the time. The fear and concerns come through, but the bravery stands above it all. Each found a way to make a difference, cementing their place in history.

Written with an eye to suspense, steeped in detail and drudgery, you will find yourself ensconced within the world of civil war history, and behind the scenes viewing the characters.

If you enjoy history, adventure and courage you will find this is just the work for you. If you enjoy interaction between proponents, especially in war, this is the perfect find for your library. Abbott has turned what could be dry historical fact and given it faces and names that you can relate to.
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LibraryThing member bookczuk
I've lived the north and south of the Civil War aftermath: born and raised in the DC area, moved to a border state (home of the Dred-Scott decision for most of my adolescence, and then settled here in the South for the past 40 or so years. There are many aspects, besides the politics of the war, that I find fascinating. The fierce loyalty some folks have for their homeland, for instance, or the burning desire to fight for their personal beliefs. To me, fighting means taking an intellectual stand, not the physical personal risks the four women in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy did. The women, each fully dedicated to their cause, are skillfully depicted by Karen Abbott. I heard her talk about the book on NPR, and the interview fascinated me so much, I immediately sought out the book.

The four women are very different in personality and approach to how they helped. Belle Boyd was flamboyant, rambunctious, daring in an overt way, very much an extroverted young woman. I found myself wondering what labels a psychiatrist would slap on her were she to end up on a couch today. I suppose as a kid I sometimes fantasized about passing as a boy so that I could have a more rough and tumble life (I grew up in the late 50's), but I am not sure I would have tried to pass as a male and join the Union army, as Emma Edmonds did. It's interesting, also to note, that there are several books out of late about women disguised as men and fighting in the Civil War. Edmonds experience was spurred not by the desire to be next to her sweetheart, unlike most of these women on other books, but to escape a bad home life and put distance between her present and past. Rose O’Neale Greenhow was the only one of the four women I really knew anything about beforehand, some of which I "knew" being incorrect. A clever and cunning spy, she was able to pass messages and information even when under house arrest by the Yankees. Elizabeth Van Lew, who lived in Richmond, was shunned as an abolitionist, while getting valuable information to the North, and aiding the escape of many Union prisoners and Southern slaves.

Oddly, though, the two people I want to read more about are not these four women, but "Little Rose", the youngest daughter of Greenhow, and Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a freed slave that Van Lew helped place in the southern white house as part of her spy ring. Bowser was both educated and possessed of a photographic memory, thus was able to gain access and recall intimate details of the strategy and plans discussed by Jefferson Davis and his officers.

A long, but interesting read.

Tags: heard-about-it-on-npr, nonfiction, places-i-have-been, read, set-in-my-stomping-grounds, set-in-the-south, taught-me-something, thank-you-charleston-county-library
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Karen Abbott has written a well researched narrative that tells the true story of four courageous women who wanted to serve their President and their country, although some of us may not support the President or side for which they fought. Perhaps the true origin of the Civil War lies in economic issues, but freedom for the slave was a huge part of the ultimate sacrifice and result, and it is the way it is remembered by most Americans.
During that time, women were not afforded the same opportunities they have today, could not participate in the war effort aside from knitting socks or raising money or entertaining the troops, feeding them and occasionally dancing with them. Four women defied protocol and found a way to support the cause they believed in, even when it was frowned upon. They could not enlist to serve their country; they could only listen carefully to the things they heard around them, using the information to try to accomplish success for the side they supported. After proving themselves, they were often then called upon to do more for their side, sometimes placing themselves in great danger. The women were forced to use guile and feminine wiles to accomplish their goals. One woman went so far as to assume a different sex to take on the role of a male soldier, appearing on the battlefield and fighting along with them, engaging the enemy and providing whatever aid she could and whatever duty her commanding officers demanded, as she fooled everyone around her who believed she was just a young man of slight build and carriage.
Two of the women supported the cause of the south and two supported the north. Two were on the side of Jefferson Davis and two on the side of Abraham Lincoln. They were the Presidents of their warring sides, the Confederacy vs. the Union. The Confederate supporters were Belle Boyd, the temptress and Rose O’Neal Greenow, the accomplished liar. The Union supporters were Emma Edmondson, alias Frank Thompson, the soldier, and Elizabeth Van Lew who organized a spy network and Underground Railroad of sorts, hiding some in a secret place in her home. She even engaged the services of her own paid servant, a freed slave, Mary Bowser, who was willing to help her and risked her own life along with Elizabeth.
If you don't allow politics to color your reading of the book, you will find it contains a good piece of history as well as creative storytelling. The women take shape on the page, coming across sharply as they pursue their own politics, in their own particular way. Each was motivated by different values and different backgrounds, each was young and perhaps naïve, but each was motivated by goals they believed were noble. Few suspected a woman of being involved in spying or soldiering so they often got away with their trickery longer than one would suspect, although one woman, impersonating a male soldier, showed her true identity when she became pregnant and delivered a child on the battlefield.

I listened to an audiobook and believe a print copy would be better since they stories switched back and forth from character to character and often the segue did not seem smooth. Also, sometimes the stories seemed repetitive as the same time frame existed for each of the characters as events were described. Although the reader was very good, it was sometimes hard to keep the several threads of the story straight.

The book brought the Civil War to life through the experiences of these women, and the author followed their lives until their deaths. It was really a good read and was very informative about an important piece of history. More women were involved than one would have expected and they showed bravery in the face of grave danger, often facing arrest and imprisonment, often being wounded in battle and even making the ultimate sacrifice, dying in the pursuit of their assignments.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
I liked this book, The timeline seemed to flow with the characters. Interesting to see how disorganized things were and they still managed to fight a war.
LibraryThing member FictionZeal
As a woman, what would make you go to war in 1861? To be beside your husband? Pure loyalty to the cause? Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy delves into the history of four courageous women who took part in the Civil War. High spirited seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd began packing a Colt 1849 pistol. When early in the war, Union soldiers invaded their home and were beginning to stronghold her mother, she shot and killed one. They then turned their attention to her. “She heard herself speak before she had a chance to contemplate her words: ‘Only those who are cowards shoot women,’ she said, and spread open her arms. ‘Now shoot!’” Belle (Siren of the Shenandoah) was best known for her work as a Confederate Spy providing valuable information to Stonewall Jackson.

Emma Edmondson is of real interest to me as I had many years ago been surprised that as many as 300 – 400 women went to battle for both sides – Union and Confederate. She became Frank Thompson, a Union soldier serving as a private for Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry and began serving in the nation’s capital. His comrades knew that “despite his slight stature and oddly smooth face he had enjoyed a reputation as a ladies’ man before the outbreak of the war, squiring them around town in the finest horse and buggy …” Emma served for two years without being detected. She also served as a spy and was very clever with her disguises.

The other two women to which this novel focuses is Rose O’Neale Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew. Rose O’Neale, a Washington, DC socialite, became a Confederate spy using the friendships she’d attained with generals, senators, and high-ranking military officers to send encoded messages about the Union’s movements. Elizabeth Van Lew had requested and been given permission to bring items of comfort – books, food, and clothing — to the Union prisoners of war being held in Richmond, VA. She would later help prisoners to escape.

The novel details each year (1861 – 1865); the battles of the war; and the generals that led them. However, it is primarily a story of these women. It is told as a story, yet per the author’s note, any of the quoted script was taken directly from “a book, diary, letter, archival note, or transcript …” There is no “invented dialogue.” It is quite comprehensive (433 pages). There are actual pictures of these women and additional images throughout the novel. Even though it was told in story format, at times it felt a bit stiff like reading a textbook instead of fiction. I loved how these women became very creative about hiding messages. They’d sew ciphered notes in the hems of their skirts, or roll them within their hair. Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
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LibraryThing member KEFeeney
A thoroughly accessible history of four women active in the Civil War. Intertwined with their histories is the larger story of the war and the aftermath for each women. Engrossing, fast-paced and very readable.
LibraryThing member jwood652
Fantastic book! The true stories of these four women is as compelling a read as any work of fiction. It is very easy to forget that these women really did risk everything to champion their cause during the American Civil War. Both sides of the conflict are represented two times. The heroines used many tools including disguise, complex codes, intricate spy networks, seduction and in one case posing as a man in order to enlist. The fact that they were women helped hide their activities because contemporary reasoning was that women did not do such things. This amazing book was copiously researched and includes an extensive list of notes, bibliography and index. The notes are by page number, not interupting the text with reference numbers. I am historically inclined, but I believe this book would be a great read for fans of fiction as well as nonfiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookchickdi
Karen Abbott shows us a unique perspective of the American Civil War through the fascinating stories of four women. Two of them supported the cause of the Confederacy and two of them worked to keep the Union together.

Emma Edmonds ran away from her family, cut off her hair, and enlisted as a Union soldier. She became Frank and ended up working first as a medic, carrying injured soldiers off the battlefield and assisting the doctors in their care. It was brutal and bloody.

Her next job was as a postmaster, but she eventually came to the attention of the Secret Service, run by Allen Pinkerton. He had Emma, whom he believed to be a man, pose as an Irish peddler and as a black slave and infiltrate the Confederate lines to get information. She was a woman posing as a man posing as a woman- crazy!

Pinkerton also became involved with Rose, a Washington DC widow who used her feminine charms to seduce prominent Union politicians to get information to send to the Confederacy. Pinkerton worked hard to get evidence against her and eventually arrested her for espionage.

I was shocked that not only did Rose use her eight-year-old daughter to pass information to her spies, but when Rose was arrested, her daughter was held in jail with her. The conditions were horrible, and to subject a young child to that was unfair.

Elizabeth Van Lewis was from a prominent Richmond, Virginia family. She supported the Union, not a popular thing to do in Richmond. She used her superior intellect to organize a spy network through her work assisting Union prisoners held in a Richmond compound.

She was able to recruit many spies, hide prisoners and send them back North, and get information to Union generals about Confederate troop movements. Jennifer Chiaverini wrote a historical fiction about Van Lew last year, titled Spymistress, that told Van Lew's story more in depth.

Belle Boyd was a young, headstrong teen when she shot and killed a Union soldier who was in her family's home. She loved the spotlight, and after escaping punishment for her crime, she became further emboldened and began to spy for the Confederacy.

She thought nothing of riding behind enemy lines to get the information to pass onto General Stonewall Jackson, who she had romantic feelings for.

I found it interesting that Rose and Belle both traveled to Great Britain in their quest to get England to aide the Confederacy. It was also fascinating to note that Pope Pius IX was the only world leader to recognize the Confederacy.

These women were brave and clever, using every feminine wile and intellect they had to advance the cause they held dear to them. Whether sewing secret messages in Jefferson Davis' wife's dresses or creating fake documents to fool the opposition, these women were remarkable and Abbott tells their stories with breathtaking interest.

Like many soldiers, the end of the war was difficult for them. The excitement was over, and it was difficult to return to their old lives. It was sad to find out how their lives ended.

Abbott brings these exciting women to life on the page, and I found their stories thrilling. Although this is a big book, I read it quickly, waiting to see what these brave women would do next. This is a book any history buff, but especially women, will enjoy.
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LibraryThing member jwood652
Fantastic book! The true stories of these four women is as compelling a read as any work of fiction. It is very easy to forget that these women really did risk everything to champion their cause during the American Civil War. Both sides of the conflict are represented two times. The heroines used many tools including disguise, complex codes, intricate spy networks, seduction and in one case posing as a man in order to enlist. The fact that they were women helped hide their activities because contemporary reasoning was that women did not do such things. This amazing book was copiously researched and includes an extensive list of notes, bibliography and index. The notes are by page number, not interupting the text with reference numbers. I am historically inclined, but I believe this book would be a great read for fans of fiction as well as nonfiction.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookworm12
I really enjoyed this nonfiction read. My one big compliant is that the four women's stories blended together for me. I kept confusing them. Still I would definitely recommend this for anyone who enjoys the Civil War, historical nonfiction, or stories about strong women.
LibraryThing member KEFeeney
A thoroughly accessible history of four women active in the Civil War. Intertwined with their histories is the larger story of the war and the aftermath for each women. Engrossing, fast-paced and very readable.
LibraryThing member KEFeeney
A thoroughly accessible history of four women active in the Civil War. Intertwined with their histories is the larger story of the war and the aftermath for each women. Engrossing, fast-paced and very readable.
LibraryThing member bell7
This fascinating account tells the tales of four women: Belle Boyd, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew. Two were spies for the Confederacy and two for the Union, but all four had passionate ideals, high intelligence, and strong convictions.

Belle Boyd, sassy and determined to make a name for herself, shot a Yankee soldier (at least apparently in self defense) early in the war. Rose O'Neal Greenhow, a widow, used her skills to become friendly with high ranked officials and send the info to Confederate higher ups. Emma Edmonds of Michigan had been masquerading as a man a couple of years before the war, and joined up as "Frank," keeping her secret from the men with which she served. And Elizabeth Van Lew defied her Richmond neighbors and society with her outspoken support for abolition and helping Union soldiers captured during the war. Their stories intertwine in this account, roughly in chronological order. Actually, I could have done with a more clear timeline because I often became confused just when things were occurring, except for a few days that I knew off the top of my head. Still, this is a fascinating account of four women who had a huge impact on the American Civil War in a time when women didn't yet have the right to vote. The writing is accessible and clearly well-researched; I just wish there were a bibliography with a list of books to read next.… (more)
LibraryThing member KEFeeney
A thoroughly accessible history of four women active in the Civil War. Intertwined with their histories is the larger story of the war and the aftermath for each women. Engrossing, fast-paced and very readable.
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
No matter what men might think, women have always been and will always be the driving force behind any major victory – military or otherwise. In Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, Karen Abbott highlights four examples of this fact. These women range in age from seventeen to forty-something and come from varying walks of life. Yet they all distinguish themselves with their courage and willingness to ignore social expectations of its females.

These four women did not necessarily do anything totally extraordinary during a time of war. What makes their efforts so impressive is that they did so during a time when women were considered to be completely inferior and therefore totally incapable of things like spying or setting up one of the largest espionage rings in the Confederacy. This society never dreamed that women would want to fight for their country outside of their homes and therefore could not fathom women soldiers. Women were to be trusted and never duplicitous, making it a bit too easy for Belle and Rose to use seduction to elicit secrets that would help their cause. It is a thought process that does not seem as unfathomable today as it perhaps should.

Ms. Abbott has obviously done her homework on her four subjects because she presents their stories with many primary sources, incorporating them seamlessly into the narrative. The trend of fictionalized nonfiction works particularly well in this scenario when the scenes and the expectations for women are so entirely foreign to modern readers. Ms. Abbott is able to make her point without having long expository sections as she is able to incorporate any necessary explanations directly into the ladies’ story lines. As such, the book reads like a good fiction novel, complete with heroes and villains while the primary source material confirms the validity of the stories.

What struck me the most about the four women is how much things have changed. While women continue to struggle with equal pay and equal rights when it comes to things like healthcare and justice, it is always a good thing to remember how things used to be for women. This is important not to convince women to stop the fight but to motivate them to continue to push for equality. Stories like the ones in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy reiterate how capable women are of accomplishing everything men can. These stories even show that women may have more weapons at their fingertips in order to meet their goals. If one gets tired of the constant barrage of headlines about the lack of justice for rape victims or unequal pay for equal work, reading something like Liar Temptress Soldier Spy is a perfect anecdote.
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LibraryThing member debs4jc
The stories of four women who were involved in spying or soldiering during the US Civil War are told - in a narrative non-fiction format. The book switches from woman to woman as it follows their stories chronologically. At first this made it a bi hard for me to follow and I would think "now which one is this?" when it switched to someone new. But after a while I got to know them pretty well and had no problems telling them apart. Abbott's style of narrating their actions and words (often direct quotations from journals and diaries) as if she's writing a story instead of dry history made the story very interesting and the women seem like people I could relate to, not far off figures in history. The bravery of keeping secrets and trying to aid "the enemy" while your neighbors are watching your every move really came to life for me. The pathos of having to care for a child while in prison, the desperate circumstances that would cause you to don men's clothing and join the army, and the desire to make your name known by boldly defying the enemy all came across quite vividly.
Parts of the book I read in print, and parts I listened to on audio. The book is quite lengthy, and after an hour or so of reading the print version I would get a bit tired of it. But the audiobook narrator (Karen White) did an remarkable job of dramatizing the dialog and I found it very enjoyable to listen to her performance. Aside from it's length, I found this an intriguing look at the lengths women went to in serving their countries, the cause, or their own ends during a brutal war. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history, especially from the female point of view.
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LibraryThing member KamGeb
An interesting book about women who assisted in the Civil War. It was full of information I never heard about. Never knew women who assisted in the Civil War wrote books that were best sellers. There was a lot of information in the book and sometimes I felt like the book would be better if it were shorter. In addition, the book is about four different women. The chapters change from one story to the next. Sometimes I got two stories confused. (But that just be my not paying close enough attention and not the fault of the writer.) Overall, it was a really interesting book.

I must say that I did not particularly like some of the women who were portrayed in the book. But the women were definitely interesting.
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LibraryThing member MichaelC.Oliveira
The stories of several women that spied for the Union and Confederate causes during the U.S. Civil war. Well written with a compelling narrative utilizing archival records.
LibraryThing member konastories
Joy's review: Abbott draws on the journals, memoirs, other historical accounts to tell the story of four incredible women during the civil war; two Northern and two Southern partisans. Regardless of their political opinions, all were brave, courageous, and daring. True stories that read like a novel; just goes to show that you can't make this stuff up. For me, almost the best part is that this book got me to re-watch the Ken Burns Civil War series. This book and the series pare well together to present the sweeping narrative of this violent history and how "everyday people" coped with the war.… (more)
LibraryThing member bookworm2bookworm
What attracted me to this story was its intriguing subject matter. I wanted to know about these women that were strong and had convictions. What I got is ... well, I'm still sorting that one out.

If I read this as a fiction, then I'm on board with the story. However, this was not written as such, and because it was presented to me as non-fiction and part of American history, I was hoping for the content to be as historically accurate as possible.

In the end, I'll say this. This was a well written, albeit not as well documented story and I'll leave it at that.

Melanie for b2b

Complimentary copy provided by the publisher
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Solid 4 stars. I really enjoyed the tales of Elizabeth and Emma as they were exceedingly smart and brave (and on the right side of history). Belle was am empty-headed ninny who cared more about who she hooked up with than the war and Rose was a big ole racist so it was hard for me to care too much about her fate, but Emma's stint as a soldier and Elizabeth's prowess as a spy were fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott is a fascinating story about four women, patriots to their own beliefs, who took a stand during the Civil War. Two were loyal Confederates and two were for the North. By using diaries, eyewitness accounts, contemporary news articles and official records the story of these four women gives us a glimpse of how women overcame the rigid roles there cast into and managed to influence the War in many ways.

I admit to having a favourite among these women. Canadian Emma Edmondson, disguised herself as a man and calling herself Frank Thompson joined the Union Army as a private for Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry. Frank eventually found herself donning disguises and crossing military lines to spy on the Confederates. All of these women, Emma (Frank), Belle, Elizabeth and Rose, sacrificed something of themselves in order to serve their respective countries and this up-close and personal look at them made for an engrossing read.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a portrait of four strong women who became ground-breakers and helped to pave the way for others to appreciate women’s abilities. The book is well researched and gives the reader a good overview of both the political and military viewpoints of the day.
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LibraryThing member DoingDewey
I can tell you right now that this book is going to be one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books of the year (or that I've read ever). The author did an incredible job doing her research and bringing the stories to life. She includes descriptions of weather, scenery, and fascinating details of daily life during the civil war. She also did a fantastic job choosing her subjects. The four women in this book were incredibly impressive people and I loved reading about their adventures. Elizabeth Van Lew was by far my favorite, for her willingness to risk her own life and reputation to end slavery and for the huge impact she had on the war, but all of the women described were incredible.

I expected this book to share the four women's' stories one after the other, but instead the author moved forward chronologically and switched between stories as necessary. This format really worked for me. It meant the author didn't repeat information in each story, but she did cover the same time period from multiple perspectives, giving me more chances to learn about the progress of the Civil War. I loved that the author made it clear when she was believed that the four women had exaggerated their own contributions. I also loved the number of direct quotes the author seamlessly worked into the narrative. This is some of the best narrative nonfiction I've read and one of the most interesting stories. Highly recommended!This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey.
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544 p.; 5.31 inches


0062092901 / 9780062092908
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