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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Week 3

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Welcome to Part 3 of the Reader's Den in July. In Part 2 we showed the two women who spied for the Confederacy in Karen Abbott's book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. In this post we will show two women who spied for the Union, sometimes behind enemy lines. We will be accepting questions for the author to be posted in our wrap up at the end of the month. Please write them in the comments section!

Sarah Edmonds lg sepiaSarah Edmonds, via Wikimedia CommonsEmma Edmonds

Emma Edmonds was born in Canada as Sarah Emma Edmondson. She would change her last name after she fled her native New Brunswick to escape both a bad family situation and an arranged marriage. She became a successful bible salesman in the United States under the guise of “Frank Thompson” and enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She participated in the First Battle of Bull Run, helping to cover retreating soldiers, and as a hospital attendant. She distinguished herself and was promoted to mail carrier and spy, going behind enemy lines disguised as slaves (male and female), and once as an Irish woman.

She broke her leg as a courier at Second Manassas (a permanent injury) and relayed messages at the Battle of Fredericksburg. She deserted the army in early 1863 after contracting malaria, as she did not want to be found out by doctors. She would return as a female nurse in 1863, working at a Washington D.C. hospital until the end of the war. In 1864 she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. She revealed herself years later, in 1886, to get her Army pension and to get her deserter status revoked. In 1897 she was the only women inducted into the Grand Army of the Republic.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew was from a prominent Richmond family, but she had Yankee roots and had been educated in the North, which made her a opponent of both slavery and secession. Van Lew received permission to visit Libby Prison, in Richmond, and through her efforts she freed prisoners of war, smuggled money and other items into the prison, and carried information out. She developed an intricate cipher system, hid messages, created safe houses, and hid escaped prisoners in a secret room in her family mansion. She snuck her servant Mary Elizabeth Bowser, an educated freed slave, into the Confederate White House under the guise of "Ellen Bond." In 1865, Van Lew supplied information about Confederate troop movements, which enabled Grant to win at Five Forks, one of the last major battles of the Civil War. When Richmond fell in 1864, she was the first one to raise the Union Flag.

Many could say she was one of the most important and successful spies during the Civil War, running over a dozen people in her network by 1864. One story even jokes that she could get a morning Richmond paper to the Union lines the same day it came out. Her spying and Union sympathies made her the target of Confederate officials, but she was never captured or put in prison, as they could never find any definitive proof against her. Elizabeth Van Lew became Postmaster in Richmond in 1869, and did much to modernize the postal service in that city. But, she would forever be an outcast for what she did during the war.

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