Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy

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Northern sympathizer in the Confederate capital, daring spymaster, postwar politician: Elizabeth Van Lew was one of the most remarkable figures in American history, a woman who defied the conventions of the nineteenth-century South. In Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, historian Elizabeth Varon provides a gripping, richly researched account of the woman who led what one historian called "the most productive espionage operation of the Civil War." Under the nose of the Confederate government, Van Lew ran a spy ring that gathered intelligence, hampered the Southern war effort, and helped scores of Union soldiers to escape from Richmond prisons.

Varon describes a woman who was very much a product of her time and place, yet continually took controversial stands -- from her early efforts to free her family's slaves, to her daring wartime activities and beyond. Varon's powerful biography brings Van Lew to life, showing how she used the stereotypes of the day to confound Confederate authorities (who suspected her, but could not believe a proper Southern lady could be a spy), even as she brought together Union sympathizers at all levels of society, from slaves to slaveholders. After the war, a grateful President Ulysses S. Grant named her postmaster of Richmond -- a remarkable break with custom for this politically influential post. But her Unionism, Republican politics, and outspoken support of racial justice earned her a lifetime of scorn in the former Confederate capital.

Even today, Elizabeth Van Lew remains a controversial figure in her beloved Richmond, remembered as the "Crazy Bet" of Lost Cause propaganda. Elizabeth Varon's account rescues her from both derision and oblivion, depicting an intelligent, resourceful, highly principled woman who remained, as she saw it, true to her country to the end.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The case that Varon makes for this interpretation of Van Lew is detailed, astute and convincing. A professor of history at Wellesley College, she is somewhat susceptible to viewing the past through the lens of the present -- from time to time the language and viewpoints of early 21st-century feminism creep into her prose -- but for the most part she lets the facts speak for themselves. She has plenty of them, for she has unearthed a lot of material that eluded previous students of Van Lew's remarkable career. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
The title of this groundbreaking and altogether remarkable biography effectively summarizes it. Varon, professor of history at Wellesley, gives the first full account of a figure recorded until now in legends and anecdotes. The formidable Miss Van Lew (1818-1900) was born to a wealthy slave-owning Richmond family of Northern background. From her early 20s she led the family in efforts to achieve peaceful emancipation, starting with the family's own slaves. With the outbreak of war and the secession of Virginia, which she saw as a crime and a disaster, her Unionist sentiments and efforts became more systematic. Beginning with providing comforts for Union prisoners, she went on to help them escape and ended by running a very modern-style intelligence network, through which intelligence flowed to the Union Army from couriers black and white, free and slave, but all Unionist and all risking their lives. Frequently under suspicion, she escaped, Varon shows, not by feigning insanity (as the legend of "Crazy Bet" would have it) but because gender and regional prejudices told the authorities that a Southern lady could not do such a thing. While she was publicly rewarded for her work after the war by an appointment as Richmond's postmaster, gender and political prejudice eventually led to her dismissal after Reconstruction, and she died poverty-stricken and unsung-until this book. This is not only a classic "forgotten woman" study, it is free of jargon, anachronism, prejudice and condescension, and as accessible to the lay reader as a novel. A wide variety of students of the Civil War will find it invaluable, and readers who just savor biographies of remarkable human beings can enjoy it, too. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Sadly, by the end of her life Van Lew had more friends in Boston than in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, where she had become a social outcast. Born into a prominent family, Elizabeth and her mother Eliza owned slaves but treated their servants with dignity and compassion. When the Civil War broke out, Van Lew visited Richmond prisons to bring comfort to Union soldiers held there. Because of her gender and her social standing, she was allowed easy access and was able to run a successful network of Union sympathizers and spies. Although not a spy herself, she was a capable spymaster, recruited by Benjamin "the Beast" Butler himself in 1864. She was instrumental in helping with the famous breakout at the Libby Prison, when 109 men tunneled their way to freedom. In 1869, President Grant appointed her postmaster of Richmond, an act that angered Southerners. A local newspaper wrote, "We regard the selection of a Federal Spy to manage our post-office as a deliberate insult to our people." As time went on and the mythology of the "Lost Cause" grew in the South, Van Lew became a recluse, shunned by her neighbors. She was supported in her last years by donations from influential Bostonians. After her death, the myth of "Crazy Bet" sprang up: she was pictured as a mad old woman who wore odd clothes and had no friends. This seminal biography dispels that myth. Varon's Elizabeth Van Lew is fleshed out as she was, a complicated woman dedicated to her principles. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2003, Oxford, 317p. illus. notes. index., Ages 17 to adult.
—Janet Julian
Library Journal
Though one of the most productive secret agents of the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew never disclosed the full story of her wartime activities and destroyed documents that would have assisted historians in doing so. Varon (history, Wellesley; We Mean To Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia) separates fact from fiction in this first scholarly biography of the mysterious woman who provided Union commanders from Butler to Grant with a fairly continuous stream of intelligence in the latter part of the war. Although a proper Southern lady on the outside, Van Lew was an activist at heart, taking steps to free her family's slaves and organizing Union sympathizers of all walks of life in Richmond, VA. Though articles, an edited diary, works of fiction, and a number of children's books have been published on Van Lew's life, this extensively researched and readable work is recommended for larger public and academic libraries, even those that already own A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew, edited by David D. Ryan.-Theresa R. McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Detailed, astute and convincing."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"A thrilling detective story filled with clandestine meetings, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, disguises, surveillance and undercover work. While such well-known Civil War women spies as Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow remain shrouded in partisan mythology, Varon has unearthed hard evidence that establishes Van Lew as a genuine heroine of the Civil War era."—Raleigh News & Observer

"Groundbreaking and altogether remarkable...the first full account of a figure recorded until now in legends and anecdotes.... A classic 'forgotten woman' accessible to the lay reader as a novel. A wide variety of students of the Civil War will find it invaluable, and readers who savor biographies of remarkable human beings can enjoy it too." —Publisher's Weekly (starred review)

"A rich account of a complex and important figure in wartime Richmond.... This highly readable book contributes to our understanding of important issues related to the Civil War, including the importance of Unionist activity in the South, the ways in which women responded to the demands of war and the role of espionage in the Union war effort."—Civil War Book Review

"A solid job of ferreting out facts and discarding fiction.... What is presented here is the fullest scholarly treatment we are likely to have, and if Varon finds her subject to be one who loved and served her country to the end, the fascinating record speaks for itself."—Roanoke Times

"Popular Civil War literature is filled with romantic and sensational stories of female spies, many of them made up out of whole cloth. But the story told in Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, is eminently true. A member of the social elite in Richmond, Elizabeth Van Lew nevertheless loved the Union and disliked slavery. She built a Unionist underground in the Confederate capital that helped escaping prisoners of war and provided General Grant with valuable intelligence. Based on thorough research and written with grace and style, this account of Van Lew's contribution to Northern victory is a valuable addition to Civil War scholarship." —James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam

"This is a wonderfully readable and engaging book. Varon brings Van Lew out of the realm of myth and into the much more interesting domain of history, offering us a woman who as spy, abolitionist and woman's rights advocate was at once larger than life and at the center of her time." —Drew Gilpin Faust, Director of the Radcliffe Institute, author of Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

"Elizabeth Varon's Southern Lady, Yankee Spy is a well-researched, well-written tale that illuminates a fascinating southern dissenter and forges a sensible path toward bringing women into the military narrative of the Civil War." —William W. Freehling, author of The Road to Disunion and The South vs. The South

"Few women risked as much to assist the Union effort during the Civil War as Elizabeth Van Lew. A member of Richmond's elite, Van Lew orchestrated an effort in the Confederate capital that conveyed useful information to United States military forces, embraced emancipation, and supported Radical Republican policies during Reconstruction. Elizabeth Varon's biography draws on substantial research to offer a long-overdue, and compelling, portrait of a complex and important figure." —Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia, author of The Confederate War

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195179897
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 3/24/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,435,371
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Varon is Professor of History at Temple University. She is the author of We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia.

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Table of Contents

Map of Central Virginia
Map of Richmond
Prologue 3
1 "An Awful Responsibility": The Making of a Dissenter, 1818-1860 9
2 "My Country! Oh My Country!": Virginia Leaves the Union 35
3 "Our Flag Was Gone": The War's First Year 52
4 "The Bright Rush of Life": The Making of the Richmond Underground 77
5 Elizabeth and "The Beast": Butler Finds His Spy 107
6 "This Precious Dust": The Clandestine Reburial of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren 135
7 "The Smoke of Battle": Grant Moves on Richmond 153
8 "A Flaming Altar": The Fall of Richmond and Its Aftermath 185
9 "A Fiery Ordeal": The Trials of a Female Politician 216
10 The Myth of "Crazy Bet" 242
Epilogue: Van Lew's Ghost 257
List of Abbreviations 263
Notes 265
Index 305
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2005


    Un sung hero of the American Civil War. Fascinating true story about one women that defied the stats quo of what a true southern women should be. Great insight into southern and victorian culture during the mid 19th centuary.

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