Are you as obsessed with spies as we are? As we admitted on Sunday, here at W&M we can’t get enough intrigue. To satisfy our curiosity, we’ve teamed up with regular contributor Karen Abbott to access the world of Civil War espionage through the lives of the four female characters in her upcoming book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Today, Abbott opens the dossiers on women of the Union, and at the end, we’re opening up a Giveaway. Read on…
NAME: Elizabeth Van Lew
ALIAS: “My Dear Aunt” or “My Dear Niece” (in espionage correspondence); “Crazy Bet”
BORN: October 15, 1818,Richmond, Virginia
AFFILIATION: Union spymaster
MARITAL STATUS: Single; fiancé died during the yellow fever epidemic in 1841. Known “spinster” who lives with her mother, brother, and Confederate-sympathizing sister-in-law in Church Hill.
A wealthy Southerner with Yankee roots,she grew up under an abolitionist governess. After the death of her father, a businessman and slave owner, she began “hiring out,” a practice in which slaves could keep a percentage of their wages to purchase their freedom. Elizabeth also spent some of her inheritance buying slaves to free them. “From what I have seen of the management of the Negroes of the place,” one neighbor reports, “the family of Van Lews are, I am satisfied, genuine abolitionists.”
SKILLS AND CIRCUMSTANCES
• Operative uses a pin to “prick” letters in books, forming questions that communicate to and are answered similarly by Union prisoners. She also hides correspondence and money in an antique plate warmer.
• Operative is rumored to aid in the escape of Union prisoners, hiding them in a secret room in her mansion until she can arrange to get them to Union lines.
• It is believed that Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler formally recruited her and gave her a cipher and invisible ink, called “S.S. Fluid,” which becomes visible with the application of milk or tannic acid.
• Operative is invariably described as “nervous” and “birdlike,” and, according to one contemporary, “never as pretty as her portrait shows.”
• She sometimes dresses in disguise, wearing a homespun dress, coarse cotton bonnet, and cotton in her cheeks.
NAME: Sarah “Emma” Edmonds
ALIAS: Private Franklin “Frank” Thompson
BORN: December 1841,New Brunswick, Canada
AFFILIATION: Union army, Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry
MARITAL STATUS: Single. Suspected paramours include Private Jerome Robbins, 2nd Michigan Infantry, and Lieutenant James Reid, Seventy-ninth New York Highlanders—the only men who know her true identity.
In 1859, this Union operative fled her family farm in Canada to avoid an arranged marriage. Exchanging her crinoline and bonnet for trousers and a shirt, she became a Bible salesman, migrating to the U.S. A devout Christian, she could not abide slavery and decided to fight for the Union.
SKILLS AND CIRCUMSTANCES
• Operative, who believes she has a “magnetic power” to “soothe the delirium,” initially worked solely as an army nurse.
• Operative is known to excel at subterfuge and disguises including a male slave, an Irish peddler woman, a female slave, and a male Confederate civilian. At the behest of Union General George McClellan, she often infiltrates rebel territory, noting troop numbers and sketching fortifications.
• Operative was interviewed and examined by Union generals in the spring of 1862, and found to have the head of a man, with “largely developed” organs of secretiveness and combativeness.
• Operative contracted malaria during the Peninsula Campaign and is at risk of a relapse. It is believed she would avoid medical treatment rather than risk being discovered.
Titillated? Certainly we are. And we’d love for you to join in discussion about these women’s exploits.
To kick things off, Abbott and W&M are hosting a limited Giveaway of a Civil War Token and 2 Sets of Civil War Playing Cards open to newsletter subscribers. To enter, sign up below for the Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy newsletter. Entry period ends August 5 at 11:00pm EST.
LTSS Subscribers will have access to a fan favorite poll and another exciting giveaway.