- Published: 11 November 2015 11 November 2015
When I think about war in all its bravado and all its wreckage, I think about the forest floor. I’m a native Californian, now an Oregonian, and we Far West children grow up being vigilant about forest fire. We are always and forever on a first-name basis with Smokey the Bear.
But here’s the deeper story about forest fires — sometimes they’re good, even essential. From the wreckage grows renewal. Terrible as a forest fire can be, new growth emerges — often with spectacular speed and beauty. Consider the aspens or green rabbit brush or squirreltail — from different geographies, but all early symbols of a recovering forest.
Which brings us back to war, specifically, the Civil War. It was America’s cruelest and bloodiest war. More than a million people were wounded or maimed; 620,000 lost their lives. But there is a forest floor aspect to the Civil War as well. Wreckage loosens strictures. It creates opportunities.
The Civil War liberated four million human beings from slavery. And surprisingly, the Civil War also created opportunities for women. They were nurses, hospital matrons, soldiers, and spies— all jobs that offered far more interest and compensation than had been possible before the war.
While there have been women in espionage as long as there has been intelligence to gather, during the Civil War, there was an extraordinary explosion of women who found their calling in hunting and foraging for intelligence. Belle Boyd, Harriet Tubman, Rose Greenhow, Pauline Cushman — these were women who brought distinctly different backgrounds and gifts to espionage. All were effective. Boyd and Greenhow worked for the Confederacy, with a passion for the cause that blinded them to everything else. At age 17 Boyd, impetuous and fearless, shot and killed an inebriated Union soldier who was disrespectful to her mother.
Greenhow used her legendary charm and leadership skills to worm information out of her gentlemen callers and build an entire network of spies.
On the Union side, spies were just as fervent. Tubman escaped from slavery, and found her calling in the Underground Railroad. As a conductor, she is credited with spiriting more than 300 people to freedom. When war broke out, she became a spy for the Union. Cushman, already an actress, used her thespian skills to deceive Confederate leaders and gather critical information.
The Spy on the Tennessee Walker came about because I could not tear myself away from the stories in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Who were these 19th-century women? Where did they find the courage and ingenuity to take such risks? How did they learn to cipher and code?
It turns out that loosening strictures on women’s opportunity leads to even more straying off the straight and narrow. For example, despite the fact that miscegenation laws were on the books up until 1967, and in many states, remained “codified” until 2000, people went right ahead and fell in love anyway.
When danger and risk are everyday occurrences, human beings reach out to each other for comfort, and sometimes, for love. The romance in The Spy on the Tennessee Walker was certainly outside the mores of conventional behavior in the 19th century — but stubborn, persistent love finds a way. No matter the circumstances, love appears to be a renewable resource.
I have always been fascinated by unlikely romances. My parents met during World War II; my mother was five years older than my father and as he often observed, since she was already a Captain in the Army Nurse Corps, she outranked him. She was a Baptist farmer’s daughter from Mississippi. He was the son of a Romanian immigrant and Orthodox Jew. They married right after the war and together, created a bullet-proof, storybook marriage.
Apparently the cliché — opposites attract — continues to have traction in real life. Something draws us to those who are different than we are. The real seduction may be developing the courage to take risks for love. In mysteries, we’re typically looking for whodunit. But to paraphrase a line from Edward Kleban’s lyrics for Chorus Line, the true mystery is “What we did — and will do — for love.” The answer is: anything and everything.
In this sesquicentennial year of the end of the Civil War, The Spy on the Tennessee Walker celebrates the unquantifiable alchemy of love and courage, and how much we owe those who went before us. The forest floor stirs with new life.
Linda Lee Peterson, author of The Spy on the Tennessee Walker, Edited to Death, The Devil’s Interval