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The American Civil War is not the only war in which women played an active role, but that doesn’t make the stories of these brave women any less interesting.  These women are to be admired for their courage and their willingness to put their lives on the line for their beliefs, regardless of which side they took in the fighting.  In Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War, Peggy Caravantes tells the stories of three Confederate spies and three Union spies, six ordinary women whose lives were forever changed by war.  These women were young and old, married and unmarried, mothers, actresses, nurses, from both prominent and unknown families.

Elizabeth Van Lew lived in the most stately mansion in Richmond and was the daughter of a slave owner, but her views changed after attending school in Philadelphia.  She hid Union soldiers in her attic and carried letters to and from Union prisoners in food trays.  When her father died, she freed her family’s slaves, purchased their children, and freed them as well.  Many of these former slaves acted as her agents.

Sarah Emma Edmonds ran away from her abusive father and eventually became a Federal field nurse.  Her body was muscled from working the family farm, and she was manly in appearance, which made it possible for her to become “Frank Thompson” and gather information from the rebels that she passed on to the Union.  She put her life on the line many times, even disguising herself as a slave and having to perform back-breaking work until she could escape.

Belle Boyd was a determined, fearless young woman who spied for the Confederacy.  When she was 17 years old, the Yankees began looting houses in her town, and they made their way to the Boyd home because it was known that she hung rebel flags in her room.  When her mother was roughed up by a Yankee sergeant for resisting the raising of the Union flag over their home, Belle shot and killed the sergeant.  She was arrested and imprisoned several times, and she supported herself and her children after the war by transforming her memoirs into a stage act.

Caravantes brings these women to life in Petticoat Spies.  The book is comprised of six chapters, giving each woman their own chapter and making it easier for readers to follow their stories.  She provides a lot of information about each woman, from their childhood before the war to how they fared after their spying careers ended.  Caravantes enables readers to really get to know these women as people and as spies.  Not every woman had a happy ending, of course.  Some did not live to see the end of the war, some were recognized and honored for their service, and some found themselves penniless.

The Girl (age 11) and I both enjoyed Petticoat Spies.  Caravantes provides historical details in an interesting fashion, and The Girl listened attentively while I read the book aloud.  These women sacrificed a lot to smuggle information; one was abandoned by the man she loved, one was sentenced to death and fell into a depression after narrowly escaping the gallows, and many were separated from their families.  But these women were brave through it all, not letting fear and the prospect of capture deter them.  The Girl and I talked about whether we would have done what they did in their circumstances, and we’re not so sure.  Petticoat Spies is a short exploration of how some women endured the war and fought on their own terms, and it gets you thinking about the many other women who were just as brave but whose stories have been lost over the years.

Disclosure: We borrowed Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War from our local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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