Truth is Stranger than Fiction in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Nonfiction November

This post is part of Nonfiction November hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Becca at I’m Lost in Books, and Leslie at Regular Rumination

Nonfiction – WarLiar Temptress Soldier Spy, Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, nonfiction, Karen Abbott
Released September, 2014
533 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:

The true story of four women who spied during the Civil War: a Martinsburg, Virginia socialite (Belle Boyd), a Richmond, Virginia abolitionist (Elizabeth Van Lew), a widowed Washington, DC secessionist (Rose Greenhow), and Midwestern farmer’s daughter who pretended to be a man to fight for the Union (Emma Edmondson / Frank Thompson).

My Thoughts on Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:

I’m a huge fan of readable books that teach me about history in an entertaining way…and Karen Abbott absolutely delivered for me with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Though this book is about the Civil War, it’s not an X’s and O’s type war book. Thankfully (for me at least!), it’s much more of an espionage and intrigue book. The military aspect of the Civil War merely serves as a backdrop for these women’s exploits.

When the book opened with a chapter titled “The Fastest Woman in Virginia” (i.e. Belle Boyd), I knew this would be entertaining. And, no sooner had I met Belle, than she was followed up with the DC-based Confederate spy, “Wild Rose” (i.e. Rose Greenhow, who seduced powerful men to get information), the girl who dressed as a boy to serve as a nurse and spy for the Union (Emma / Frank), and the abolitionist society matron living in the capital of the Confederacy (Elizabeth Van Lew). That’s quite a cast of characters!

For me, this book was all about the “truth is stranger than fiction” anecdotes that seemed to be regular occurrences during this time in history and in these four women’s lives in particular. So, I’m going to whet your appetites a bit with some of my favorites:

  • Washington, DC (officially part of the Union) was actually a culturally Southern city with a third of the residents hailing from the slave holding states of Virginia and Maryland.
  • Much of the spying was done by women and women ran many of the Richmond Underground’s (a Union spy network) safe houses.

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 to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies”.

  • Rose Greenhow used the window blinds in her house on the Union side of the Potomac River to communicate in Morse Code across to the Confederate side.
  • As many as 400 women were thought to have posed as men to fight in the war. One couple even enlisted together on their honeymoon.
  • One female soldier posing as a man actually gave birth to a baby boy while on picket duty (obviously, she had also concealed her pregnancy).
  • Members of a New York Infantry division arrived for war with sandwiches from Delmonico’s and velvet covered camp stools, thus earning the nickname “the silk stocking regiment”.
  • Stonewall Jackson was a legendary hypochondriac. If he felt he was off balance (even in the middle of battle), he would raise one arm to reestablish his equilibrium.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy provides a unique look at totally eccentric elements of the Civil War and you do not have to be a war buff to enjoy this one! It’s going on my Book Club Recommendations List and will also be included in my upcoming 2014 Holiday Gift List (click here for last year’s list).

You May Also Like:
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


  1. Heather wrote:

    I enjoyed this book too. I had read The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini which is a historical fiction look at Elizabeth vanLeow too.

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  2. Holly wrote:

    I just got this from the library, and I’m planning to hear the author speak next week! I am super excited to start reading.

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Lucky you! Enjoy!

      Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  3. I’ve seen quite a bit of buzz around this book, all of it very positive. I’ve already planned to read it, but your mention of truth being stranger than fiction has convinced me to read it sooner rather than later.

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  4. It’s interesting to me that women fighting in or involved with the Civil War emerged as a hot topic in books this year . .. I haven’t read this, but I did read (and love) Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhome about a woman solider in the Union Army.

    The story about the woman soldier giving birth during picket duty . . . um, wow! I’m guessing that blew her cover?

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Ha – yes…the cover was blown! But, apparently the soldiers were wonderful to the baby! I agree about this being a running theme this year – also Erin Lindsay McCabe’s I Will Be Near to You (or something like that).
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  5. I found this very readable too! I love nonfiction which includes a lot of fun facts like the ones you shared 🙂

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  6. I’m glad to see you ended up liking it! I loved all of the little bits and pieces I picked up while reading this, too – it totally makes for the best kind of nonfiction (I tell my husband if I fell like I could take a whole category in Jeopardy I know it was a good book).

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I love that criteria! Liar, Temptress definitely was chock full of stuff like that. And – Without You, There Is No Us was too! Working on my review of that one now.

      Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  7. Lisa wrote:

    I almost purchased this book last night! I love Karen Abbott, her subjects, and her style of writing. Sin in the Second City is still one of my favorites! Can’t wait to read this!

    Posted 11.5.14 Reply
  8. Holy cow! I never knew where the “silk stocking regiment” came from – that is hilarious! This definitely sounds like one I’m going to have to read; thanks, Sarah! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

    Posted 11.6.14 Reply
  9. JaneGS wrote:

    I am so excited to read this book. I love history, Civil War stuff, women doing interesting things, and “oh wow, I didn’t know that” tidbits. Sounds like this book fits the bill in all categories! And, it sounds very readable. Glad to hear you liked it.

    Posted 11.7.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Yes – if you like all things, then I think you’ll definitely like this book!
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted 11.7.14 Reply
  10. Lu wrote:

    I’m so excited to read this book! I put it on hold at the library, but I don’t think it’s going to come in before November is over, unfortunately. I’m so glad you liked this one. Thank you for joining in Nonfiction November this month!

    Posted 11.9.14 Reply
  11. susan wrote:

    Love the history tidbits you list in the review. You sold me on this one. Sounds very interesting

    Posted 11.9.14 Reply
  12. I LOVE the book’s title. 🙂

    The book sounds very interesting. I love history also.

    ENJOY your reading week.

    Posted 11.11.14 Reply
  13. Greetings! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using
    for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because
    I’ve had problems with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform.
    I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

    Posted 7.11.15 Reply

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Join our mailing list to receive all new blog posts in one weekly email. Plus, news of special updates and offers!

You have Successfully Subscribed!