Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy
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.
A Van Lew relative's review
By Bart Hall - December 27, 2003
. I am the great-great grandson of Elizabeth's brother, discussed extensively in the book. Ms. Varon has admirably fleshed out with documented sources many of the accounts passed down through our family. She has (thankfully) quite thoroughly debunked the 'Crazy Bet' nonsense that always bothered those of us who knew something of the real story. In that respect it is a valuable and enjoyable work. Most satisfying was the evident skill with which the author develops the paradox of northerners, starting with Elizabeth's father who came to Richmond in 1807 from New Jersey at age 17, becoming so thoroughly southern that her brother could marry into some of the bluest blood Virginia ever produced.
The book, however, would have been even better had Ms. Varon taken the time to develop a chapter on Elizabeth's sister-in-law, Mary Carter West. They did /not/ get along, and the Secession Crisis blew the Van Lew marriage apart along some already weak seams.
One keeps expecting the Civil War, that great motherload for historians, finally to have been mined out. Then a book like SOUTHERN LADY, YANKEE SPY comes along, proving that there are still riches to be discovered in that thar war. Elizabeth Van Lew's name will not ring a bell with most Civil War buffs, but Elizabeth Varon's biography ought to remedy that. This woman's courageous story deserves a place in our textbooks.Van Lew, though a member of one of Richmond's most prominent families, was a staunch unionist who led a spy network that fed valuable intelligence to Union Generals Butler and Grant. It is possible that Van Lew even placed a spy among the servants of Jefferson Davis' household. After the war, Van Lew was appointed Postmaster of Richmond by then-President Grant. During her eight-year tenure, she integrated her staff and improved service.Varon, who teaches history at Wellesley College, fits into the framework of Van Lew's life story a good overview of unionist... read more
An American Patriot
By A Customer - June 29, 2004
I'd like to add my voice to the chorus of positive reviews. I found the book to be an excellent addition to the Civil War library. It's consideration of the role and activities of women in this case Elizabeth Van Lew distinguishes this contribution. Often, CW buffs become immersed in battles, generals, and politics of the time. This book is a welcome respite from the male dominated battlefield and offers a perspective of the life and times of the Richmond community. It is an engaging read that will allow many to learn more about this forgotten patriot.I do agree that more maps would have been helpful (I've been to Chimborazo hospital and would have benefited from understanding the proximity of Van Lew to the hospital). An excellent read. Great present for those interested in the role women have played in shaping the country.
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