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.