If you know me past a few superficial conversations, you learn pretty quickly that I’m a Civil War buff. I lived in Georgia at the end of high school and for college, but it wasn’t until I left the South for a few years that I developed a thirst for learning about the Civil War (I think this was how my homesickness manifested itself. I truly love it down here). In particular, I have an affinity for anything involving the women of the time period. So when this book came along, it was on my radar with a quickness.
The author Karen Abbott has made a name for herself writing popular history books on interesting women (previously she wrote about Gypsy Rose Lee and the infamous Everleigh Sisters – not to everyone’s taste, but well-written titles regardless), and continues the trend with this hefty but engaging history of the Civil War through the lives and adventures of four women, two Confederate and two Federal: Belle Boyd, Emma Edmonds, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and Elizabeth Van Lew. You might have heard of at least one of these women in passing in a high school history class or college course, but getting them grouped together like this really gets you curious for all the other women’s stories that don’t get the same clout or attention as so many male personalities of the time.
The stories of these four women are told over the course of the conflict, and Abbott seems to have a lot of fun with the narrative, leaving you on a cliffhanger with one story and picking up with another, and before you know it you’re engrossed in the book and not realizing how long you’ve been reading. It’s like an adventure story where the four main characters don’t actually interact but have parallel story lines.
All of these women had at least some small brush with espionage, so if you’re into spy stories mixed with American history, this is one to try out. Emma Edmonds dressed as a man to fight in the war, and was one of at least 200 documented cases at the time of women doing so. (Honestly, the stories of Civil War era women impersonating men for a variety of reasons will never cease to amaze and impress me.) Rose Greenhow spent time in prison for her exploits, along with her young daughter, and still managed to get information out of the Yankees and to the Rebels. While one might be hesitant to herald these women as role models necessarily, there’s no denying they all showed a great deal of courage and can be admired for their stealth, wit, fierceness of beliefs, and mettle. Plus, as a woman, I like reading about other women. Women are pretty amazing.
There are a certain number of books on the Civil War that I think are necessary to read if you get into the subject, and this one was definitely added to that list. No dry history tome here – this fast-paced collection of stories will keep you invested until the end.