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Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott

February 3, 2015 5 comments

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen AbbottSummary:
Abbott looks at the little discussed role of women in the Civil War by highlighting the lives of four different women spies, two with loyalties to the South and two to the North.  By following their lives through the Civil War, Abbott demonstrates the critical role women played in the Civil War that is too often silenced.

Review:
Doing Dewey’s review of this book landed it on my wishlist, and I was really pleased to receive it for Christmas.  It was everything I’d expected it to be.  A look at the Civil War through a women’s history perspective and told in an easy to follow style with lots of respect for the historical source material.

Abbott notes at the beginning of the book that she only uses quotation marks around information she is directly quoting from source material.  I knew from that second forward I was going to enjoy this work of nonfiction, because too often authors stray either too far toward hearsay and imagining how people felt or too far toward distancing themselves from anything other than the driest facts.  Abbott beautifully switches among the four different women, following the timeline of the Civil War and telling their stories simultaneously.  This lends a clearer perspective on the Civil War than I had before.  It puts a humanizing eye on real events.

So who are the four women highlighted in this book?  On the side of the North, there’s Emma Edmonds, who had already been living as a man to escape a marriage being forced upon her by her family.  Emma enlisted as a Union soldier and soon wound up spying for them — pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman to cross the lines.  There’s also Elizabeth Van Lew and her freed slave Mary Bowser in Richmond who worked together to spy on the Confederate president.  On the side of the South there’s Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a socialite in DC who used her affairs with Northern politicians to spy.  There is also Belle Boyd, a boisterous woman at first more interested in notoriety than in helping any cause but whose loyalty to the South became ever more strong.

This book makes it clear that women made ideal spies thanks to sexism.  The men of the North and South both viewed women as the “delicate sex” that would never actually participate in anything so soiled as war, so when they attempted to cross the lines, they would be let through without being searched.  The more high class a woman, the more protection she was afforded, so even though women were under suspicion, they were always treated better than men under the same suspicion.  For instance, Belle Boyd was caught red-handed as a spy once.  The penalty for a man would be death, but she was sent to prison and then later paroled and sent back to the South, basically with a slap on the wrist and demand she not do that again.  Another example, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew,

For now, at least, her social position and gender served as her most convincing disguise. No one would believe that a frail, pampered spinster was capable of plotting treasonous acts, let alone carrying them out right under the government’s nose. (page 47)

Abbott does a good job of presenting the reality of these women’s lives and their politics matter-of-factly with little judgment from the future.  The women are allowed to basically speak for themselves, and the reader can ultimately decide how they feel about them.  Abbott maintains the historic feel by referring to African-Americans as “Negroes.”  This may bother some readers, and they should be aware to expect it.

The only element of the book that disappointed me was how the author handled Mary Bowser.  First, this woman is not one of the four featured in the book description or the title, and yet she served as a spy inside the Confederacy presidential household.  Mary Bowser was freed from slavery at a young age by Van Lew’s family.  The Van Lew’s sent her North to be educated and kept her on in the household as a free servant.  When Elizabeth heard that Confederate President Davis’s household needed more servants, she talked to Mary about her serving there.  This educated and highly intelligent woman (she was rumored to have a photographic memory) proceeded to pretend to be the stupid, subservient person the Davises were expecting through their racism, and thus was able to do things like dust President Davis’s desk and memorize upcoming troop movements to report later.  It was thanks to her work in conjunction with Elizabeth, who organized how to get the information out of the South to the North, that the Union was able to know so many of the Confederacy moves ahead of time.  Yet, she is not featured as one of the four main women in the book.  She is not listed as one of the women spies. The end of her life after the Civil War is not mentioned, not even to say whether or not Abbott was able to find any information about her.  For a book highlighting the lives of those often erased from history, writing Mary as Elizabeth’s sidekick was quite disappointing.

The book ends by telling the reader what ultimately happened in these women’s lives after the Civil War.  It’s a bit of a sad note, particularly for the Union women who fought for freedom and yet wound up with little of it themselves.

At last Elizabeth retreated, withdrawing entirely from public life. She had no target for her ferocious will. Her one political act was to attach a note of “solemn protest” to her annual tax payment, declaring it unjust to tax someone who was denied the vote. (page 426)

Overall, this book covers the history of the Civil War from the unique women’s history perspective of women spies.  Those looking for an engaging alternate way to learn about Civil War history will enjoy this book and learning about the women who had an impact on history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 14, 2012 9 comments

Mosaic-style art depicting three black women doing laundry.Summary:
Hunter examines the lives of southern black women, particularly southern domestic workers, by narrowing her focus in on the development of the city of Atlanta after the Civil War.  Since many ex-slaves moved to Atlanta and then migrated again north during the Great Migration decades later, this makes for an excellent focal point for the topic.  By examining black women’s lives in Atlanta both in and out of their employer’s homes, she is able to dissect the roles of race, class, and gender in the elite’s attempts to maintain dominance in America.

Review:
I’ve said throughout the project that the nonfiction books have come up a bit short for me.  Although they’ve contained valuable information, they haven’t been the most readable.  Nonfiction can tell a story too, and Hunter does exactly that.  She explores so much more than just the women’s lives in relation to their employers.  Atlanta truly comes to life as we see the women commute to work via bicycle so as to avoid racist trolley lines and kick up their heels on the interracial Decatur Street after dark.  We also get to see the empowering role of secret societies in black women’s lives, as well as reclamation of performing in black face and the terrifying resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.  It is impossible not to be moved and outraged by the tale of these women’s struggles.  The book addresses three issues: classism, racism, and sexism.

In spite of Americans being told repeatedly that the American Dream is available to all if you work hard enough, Hunter quickly shows how the poor are fighting a losing battle and on top of it are demonized by the wealthy.  For instance, the use of debt to keep the poor enslaved:

Poor women often borrowed money in meager amounts, less than one dollar at a time, amassed running accounts for several months or years, and repaid ever-accumulating interest in small installments. Many moneylenders were usurious. It was common for borrowers to pay 250 to 3500 percent interest on small sums, which exacerbated poverty with interminable debt. Fannie Holman, a washerwoman, borrowed between $60 and $90 over a two- or three-year period. Though she would repay over $1,000, the creditor applied it to defray the interest but not the principal of the loan. (page 134)

Similarly, upper class employers’ attempts to control every aspect of their employee’s lives, claiming a right over their bodies:

Dance halls were a menace, declared Proctor, because “the servant class tried to work all day and dance all night.” He warned employers that household laborers would not perform well if they used their leisure unproductively—dancing instead of resting in preparation for the next day of work.  (page 179)

Hunter via maps and clear explanations demonstrates how the wealthy acquired the highest land in Atlanta most conveniently near shopping and such, while the poor and blacks were forced into the lowest land that, in addition, sewage was dumped into.  These conditions combined with the poor housing provided by slumlords made a perfect scenario for disease, and yet the poor were blamed for the outbreak of tuberculosis in the city and even accused of exposing wealthy whites to it:

  Tuberculosis signified more than a purely physiological condition. The disease became a medium for “framing” tensions in labor and race relations, with the rhetoric cloaked in scientific and medical legitimacy. (page 187)

Of course, the fact that black workers were poor was no coincidence.  The entire city conspired since the Civil War to make black Americans poor and keep them that way.  The wealthy whites, and in a lot of cases the poor whites, wanted black people out of sight and out of mind unless they were actively in service to them

Jim Crow and domestic labor thus represented contradictory desires among urban whites striving to distance themselves from an “inferior race,” but dependent on the very same people they despised to perform the most intimate labor in their homes. (page 105)

Segregation was not a system imposed entirely from above; it also helped to advance the interests of white workers, who were able to gain status from their position in the social hierarchy above all blacks. (page 119)

Jim Crow parks were designed not simply to put white urbanites closer to nature, but also to give them moments of reprieve and distance from blacks in order to channel racial friction in “wholesome” directions. (page 147)

Of course, on top of having their fight for the right over their own bodies and lives depicted by the ruling white class as them being uppity servants and uppity blacks, women had the additional injustice of having their femininity and womanhood called into question.

Like the defiant women in Galveston, strikers in Atlanta showed little attachment to prevailing middle-class conventions of femininity. As they did on other occasions, working-class women used street fights to settle disputes that jeopardized their unity and engaged in militant resistance. (page 89)

The moral implications of women consuming intoxicating substances troubled many middle-class blacks and whites. Women not only evaded laws prohibiting them from entering saloons, they frequented bar room “annexes,” they drank alcohol in alleys and streets, and they sold beer from their homes. (page 165)

I usually don’t quote this much, but the whole book is just so good.  The three-way injustices faced by black working class women is palpable throughout.  Facing one alone would be daunting enough, but facing three feels terrifyingly insurmountable even just reading about it, let alone living it.  And yet some black domestic workers did pull through in spite of the odds and do great things.  Women like Carrie Steele.

Former slave Carrie Steele, a stewardess and cook at the train station, volunteered her time as a probation officer for children in trouble with the law. This experience and her childhood as an orphan inspired her to start an orphanage in 1890. She believed that many of the children she came in contact with had fallen on hard times because they had no families to take care of them. Steele raised money to purchase four acres of land and the orphans’ first home by selling her own house, writing and selling her autobiography, and soliciting funds from generous individuals, black and white. By 1898 the Steele orphanage consisted of a brick building, hospital, and schoolhouse, and more than two hundred children had passed through its portals since its founding. (page 142)

Inspirational. Humbling. Awe-inspiring.  Words that describe both Carrie Steele’s life and the book as a whole. Read it.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Decatur Street was allowed to continue in spite of being the only known location in Atlanta where the races mingled?
  • Hunter values the dance halls for the role of letting off steam and embracing black culture they played in black Americans’ lives.  How do you feel about them?
  • In spite of viewing black Americans as “unclean,” white Atlantans persisted in sending their laundry out to black homes to be washed.  Why do you think people were able to hold onto such illogical dichotomies?
  • Given the depiction of of everything stacked against them, do you view drug dealers, bootleggers, prostitutes, etc… differently now than you did before?