As part of Bas Bleu’s 2015 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus materials to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In this month’s Book a Month selection—Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War—author Karen Abbott guides readers through a pivotal period of American history, chronicling the lives of four inimitable women whose extraordinary choices helped to shape our nation’s bloodiest conflict. This week, Karen stopped by Bas Bleu’s Bluestocking Salon to talk about her proclivity for writing about rule-breaking women, paying homage to “soldiers” who fought in the shadows, and even to offer us a few book suggestions.
Bas Bleu: Tell us about the genesis of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Was it planned around the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, which culminated this year? Or was the timing simply fortuitous?
Karen Abbott: I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and never gave much thought to the Civil War until I spent six years living in Atlanta. It was quite a culture shock, as you can imagine; I had to get used to seeing the occasional Confederate flag on the lawn, and hearing the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression,” and it was obvious that the Civil War seeps into daily life and conversation in a way it never does up North. That point was really driven home one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400. For two hours I idled behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: “Don’t blame me: I voted for Jefferson Davis.” I was already working on American Rose, my book about Gypsy Rose Lee, but I began reading about the Civil War and looking for its forgotten heroines. By the time I could devote myself to the proposal for Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, it was 2010, and I then realized that the book would most likely be published during the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. But I was happy to take advantage of the timing, and to get a chance to witness some really elaborate sesquicentennial reenactments.
BB: Previously you’ve written about 1920s stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and brothels in turn-of-the-century Chicago. In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, you write about women who either disguised their femininity or leveraged it for power. Do we detect a pattern? Or is it coincidence that the women worth writing about chose non-traditional paths in life?
KA: I think there are worthwhile and intriguing ways to write about women who did take traditional paths, by either choice or by default (see, for example, Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages) but I’ve always been particularly drawn to women who risked breaking the rules, who were revolutionary in some way. I’d blame at least part of this interest on my Catholic school education, which—at least in my experience—elevated subversive and taboo topics by refusing to discuss them. Of course I wanted to prod and poke and examine the things that were kept just out of reach.
Civil War-era women rebelled in ways both small and significant, and it was interesting to research the reverberations of their behavior. In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers, and beaus, Southern women (namely white Southern women) discovered a newfound freedom. The women took unchaperoned trips to Confederate campgrounds, going on horseback rides and picnics, allowing uniformed men to serenade them and plant lingering kisses on their hands—all activities once restricted to engaged couples. Even their style of banter changed, turning aggressive and overtly political, a rebellion against their old identities as genteel Southern ladies. Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of “she-rebels” who spat at them and emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads.
The war eventually claimed one in five white Southern men of military age, leaving behind more than 70,000 widows, and one in thirteen soldiers returned home missing limbs. Women began working outside the home in unprecedented numbers to support their families, and many widows decided not to remarry at all—the stigma of “spinsterhood” be damned. One of my favorite examples of women’s post-war boldness: Whenever Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew paid her property taxes, she included a note of protest because she didn’t have the vote. I think that the war and its aftermath enabled women to expand their roles in society, and laid the groundwork for the fight for suffrage in the early twentieth century.
BB: Neverhome, Laird Hunt’s novel about a woman who disguises herself as a Union soldier, is our October Book a Month selection. In your book, Emma Edmonds does the same thing, albeit for different reasons. She was one of an estimated 400 women who fought the war in the guise of men. Why do you think their stories have remained largely unknown for so long?
KA: Obviously, history is mainly written about men, by men, and for men. Despite numerous stories of women’s service coming to light after the war, the United States government, as late as the mid-1880s, still denied that women enlisted and fought for the Union army. There’s a long tradition of shoving women’s narratives and experiences out of sight, of discounting them as unimportant, insignificant, or false, and I think that Civil War literature is a prime example of that neglect.
For me, personally, every time I’d read a historical account—of reform efforts, of the evolution of entertainment, of war, of anything—I’d immediately ask: What were the women doing? And not just any women—what were the “bad” women doing? The defiant, revolutionary women? In the case of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I wanted to find four women who lied, seduced, wheedled, plundered, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the war. Of course these women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no say in how the battles were waged, so I wanted to spotlight the ways they were able to change the course of the war—and, in the process, their own lives.
BB: The conclusion of Elizabeth Van Lew’s story is heartbreaking, especially when you consider how progressive she was. As a journalist, your job is to report the facts, but do you also feel an obligation to champion these women’s memories?
KA: I wouldn’t use the word “obligation,” but I spent five years with these women, and you can’t help but become very personally invested in their lives and legacies—even in the case of someone like Rose Greenhow, whose politics I found abhorrent. But as a narrative historian, it’s not my job to judge, but to provide the facts and details of these women’s lives, warts and all, and let readers draw their own conclusions. I am not ashamed to say I wept during several points in their stories, especially when I typed the last line; I was reluctant to let them go. It’s one of the reasons I love talking to book clubs—I get to resurrect the women for a bit and visit with them. And Belle Boyd still makes me laugh every time I think of her; she was all ego, with no filter, and very overt with both her opinions and her sexually. I like to say that if Sarah Palin and Miley Cyrus had a nineteenth century baby, it would’ve been Belle Boyd.
BB: In an interview with Alexis Coe, you said, “The idea of female traitors had been unthinkable before the war began. War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators.” What benefits—and dangers—did that assumption afford the women of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, including former slave Mary Jane Bowser?
KA: That was one of my favorite subjects to research—the ways women brilliantly exploited society’s preconceived notions about the “weaker sex.” Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself. But after Confederate spy Rose Greenhow was arrested, there arose a question—one that would persist throughout the war—of what to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies.” 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 proved that they were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.
I think the women’s risks varied greatly according to their circumstances. White, upper-class women like Rose Greenhow or Elizabeth Van Lew enjoyed a level of protection not afforded to a former slave like Mary Jane Bowser. If authorities questioned Elizabeth about hiding escaped Union prisoners in her home or spying for the Yankees, she could—and occasionally did—bat her eyelashes and say, in her sweetest southern accent, “How dare you suggest me of such treasonous activity! I am a defenseless woman!” And, astoundingly, she got away with it; her accusers were chastened and left her alone, at least temporarily. And when Rose was arrested and jailed, she became a Confederate martyr, a worldwide symbol of the North’s barbarism and depravity. If Mary Jane Bowser were in a similar predicament, it’s hard to imagine that the Confederates would’ve spared her life. Then again, Mary Jane had one distinct advantage: No one had any idea she was literate, let alone highly educated. She was the least likely member of society to be suspected as a spy, which was partly why she was so damn good at it.
BB: We assume that in the course of your research you came across other compelling women’s stories from the Civil War. Were there any in particular you wished you could write about?
KA: There were two “leftover” spies who really captured my imagination. One was Pauline Cushman, an actress who was recruited as a Union spy in the spring of 1863—just as another of my spies was making her exit. She was caught and sentenced to death, but was rescued by Union troops just days before she was to be hanged. It was tempting to shoehorn her story into my narrative, but her activity and service lasted only a few months, so I really couldn’t justify it. She was a fascinating lady, nonetheless.
The other was actually a male spy by the name of Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, who worked for Confederate General J.E.B Stuart. Stringfellow had blond hair, blue eyes, and reportedly weighed 94 pounds—“with a waist like a woman’s,” according to one of his comrades. During his missions, Stringfellow dressed in elaborate gowns and went to Union military balls, gleaning information about Ulysses S. Grant from his dance partners. It just goes to prove that women weren’t the only ones with a penchant for cross-dressing during the war.
BB: So much of Civil War history focuses on bloodshed and the ground lost or gained on the battlefields. It’s easy for us to be ignorant of how much of the war was fought in the shadows—not just by couriers and spies, but by financiers, foreign allies, and countless other civilians. How does the revelation of these details complicate or enrich our understanding of war?
KA: In terms of foreign allies, I thought Rose Greenhow’s overseas mission was one of the most fascinating parts of her story. When Jefferson Davis decided to send her to Europe on behalf of the Confederacy, hoping she could lobby foreign officials to recognize the South as its own legitimate, separate nation, it was an unconventional—even unprecedented—move. The wives of US officials had occasionally joined their husbands on foreign assignments, but never before had an American president sent a woman abroad to represent her government. Davis considered her the ideal candidate for the job: She was articulate, fairly fluent in French, and as imperious as any royal. Also, her imprisonment in a Union “Bastille” had stirred sympathy among Europe’s leading citizens.
Civilians contributed to the war in numerous and often subversive ways. For example, one of Elizabeth’s friends operated a distillery in Richmond. He was doing such a robust business with Confederate soldiers—$5,000 per day, by one account—that Richmond newspapers called for his execution. One opined that he had, by means of his whiskey, killed more Confederate men and done more to disorganize the rebel army than “all the balance of the Yankee nation put together.”
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
KA: My reading habits are all over the place. I spent the past five years digging into hefty Civil War tomes, and although many of them were excellent, it’s been good to reintroduce different genres into the mix. I’m really excited about Sara Gruen’s forthcoming At the Water’s Edge, and I devoured Joshilyn Jackson’s most recent novel, Someone Else’s Love Story, and Ariel Lawhon’s debut, The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress. On my bedside table I have Greer Macallister’s The Magician’s Lie [Editor’s note: Look for this title in our upcoming Spring catalog!] and Jamie Mason’s Monday’s Lie. As for nonfiction, I’d recommend Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, and I can’t wait to get my hands on Erik Larson’s Dead Wake. And there are writers—both fiction and nonfiction—I reread again and again; right now I’m back into Gary Smith’s magazine writing, and mourning his retirement.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to from you?
KA: My next project is a novel, based on a real-life Gilded Age con artist. The historical record is too insufficient for a work of nonfiction, so I’m trying my hand at fiction. It’s challenging me in different ways; now I actually have to call upon my imagination to invent, to put flesh on the historical bones. The one frustration about history is that dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to, and I’m looking forward to having more control over that.
BB: Our thanks to Karen Abbott for writing such an enlightening book and for sharing her insight with us today!