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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Week 2

Welcome to the second week of July's Reader's Den. In keeping with this year's theme of Superheroes, we're taking on a different approach: seeing a 'hero' from multiple perspectives. There is a saying that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." What one person sees as a hero, another sees as a villain. Two women in Karen Abbott's Civil War novel, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, fit this category very nicely: Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow, both of whom worked for the Confederacy. To the Union, they were considered spies and traitors, but to the Confederates, these women were lauded as heroes.

Belle Boyd Courtesy of Library of Congress
Belle Boyd: Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Belle Boyd

Maria Isabella "Belle" Boyd was born to a prosperous Southern family in Martinsburg, Virginia (now in West Virginia) in 1844. She began her spying career at 17, when she shot a Union Soldier who had drunkenly harrassed both her and her mother using “language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.”  By 1862, she had become well known to Northern authorities and was quite open about her activities, which included  serving as a courier, stealing weapons from Union troops, and acquiring quinine for malaria. She once secretly observed a Northern general's war council and transmitted the details to Stonewall Jackson's headquarters. (She also developed affections for him, which he did not reciprocate.)

Though Belle was captured many times, she was only imprisoned twice. While in prison, she devised a unique way to communicate with the outside involving a  compatriat, rubber ball, and bow and arrow. She wound up fleeing to  England until the war was over, after being part of prisoner exchanges. While in England, she became an actress. After the war, she returned to America and wrote her biography, Belle Boyd in Camp and PrisonShe died in 1900.

Rose Greenhow O Neal and Her Daughter Rose at Old Capital Prison: Photo Courtesy of Wikicommons

Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a wealthy  Washington, D.C. widow,  who was originally from Maryland. She moved in important political circles and cultivated ties with high-ranking military and political personnel and used  these relationships to pass along key military information to the Confederacy at the beginning of the war. In early 1861, she took over control of a pro-Southern spy network in Washington, D.C. that had been run by Thomas Jordan. She learned how to send codes using Ciphers,  window shades, hand fans, and her own needlework. She won a major coup by supplying intelligence on Union troop movements that is said to have helped the Confederate army win the First Bull Run in July 1861. Had the Confederacy lost this battle,  the war would have been over.

Greenhow continued spying until she was captured by the Pinkertons and thrown into Old Capital Prison, which had been a relative’s boarding house in her youth. Her daughter was allowed to stay with her. She continued to send messages until she was banished to Richmond in 1862 and spent the remainder of the war in Europe trying to get French and British Support for the Confederacy. She penned her memoir, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington in London. In 1864, while returning to America, her boat sank, and she drowned. She was later buried with military honors in Oakdale Cemetary in Wilmington, North Carolina.


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