Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
The title of Elizabeth R. Varon’s book Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy, describes perfectly what this work is about. Varon unearths each and every secret of the notorious Northern sympathizer and spymaster, Elizabeth Van Lew. Every mold that a traditional nineteenth-century Southern lady is known for is broken by this infamous figure. Van Lew ran a spy ring that gathered intelligence that helped many Union soldiers escape from Richmond prisons.
Varon describes Van Lew’s first strike against convention, where she worked to free her family’s slaves, and on through to her audacious wartime actions. Van Lew used the stereotype associated with all Southern ladies of the day to misdirect the Confederate government away from suspecting her. Varon manages a clear, precise accounting of this famous lady, depicting an intelligent and resourceful woman. There is little doubt, after finishing this book, that there was a great deal more to Elizabeth Van Lew than that of her “Crazy Bet” persona.
Elizabeth R. Varon is an American historian who graduated from Swarthmore College with a Ph.D. from Yale University. She is a lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and was a co-director of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Varon has written several books surrounding the American Civil War, including We Mean to be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, which was the first volume in the Littlefield History of the Civil War Era series, and most recently, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.
Southern Lady, Yankee Spy was named one of the five best books on the “Civil War away from the battlefield” in the Wall Street Journal in 2008, in 2004 it was awarded the Lillian Smith Award by Southern Regional Council and in the same year, was the People’s Choice Award of Library of Virginia and the Richard Slatten Prize for Excellence in Virginia Biography by the Virginia Historical Society. Varon is also the author of numerous journal articles, selected conference papers, and scholarly presentations.
Varon writes in the prologue that she composed this book in “an effort to answer Van Lew’s questions about her own legacy, and to shape a new public image of her.” (p. 7) She begins with Van Lew’s early life as the much-loved daughter of Whig, John Van Lew, who was originally from the North, but now a prominent man in Richmond and a slaveholder. His daughter Elizabeth was an ardent supporter of the Union, with her time spent in a prestigious Philadelphia school helping to set the course in which she would travel. Her mother Eliza, with very similar ideas regarding slavery, helped her daughter after her husband’s death to educate their slaves.
Elizabeth and Eliza not only educated their current slaves but began hiring out new slaves to educate, with the intention of setting them free when they could. Van Lew loved the South, even though she so strongly disagreed with some of the practices and prejudices. Van Lew was sickened by Virginia’s secession from the Union in 1861, and wrote, “Think of a community rushing gladly, unrestrainedly, eagerly, into a bloody civil war.” (p. 35) She knew that with the secession her political viewpoint would no longer have a voice or be represented by like-minded, moderate politicians. The author writes that the secession crisis began with John Brown’s raid in 1859, leading to Virginia joining the Confederacy in 1861, which “brought about the end of representative government in her native state—the end of reasoned deliberation and the foreclosing of real debate.” (p. 35) Van Lew decided then, that she would fight against this travesty, against the Confederacy and their army.
Van Lew considered herself a patriot, above all else, and had little use for the moniker of a spy. Her new career path initiated because of her opposition to antebellum slavery. Van Lew learned the art of deflection through her years of working against slavery prior to the outbreak of war and continued on in this same way. She still worked within the bounds of her station so that her work for the Union would go unnoticed. The Van Lew women had to walk such a fine line, like a high-wire circus act, one false move and the consequences would have been dire. Varon writes that this double life went on for four years and that “Van Lew would make a series of public displays intended to divert Confederate suspicion while she prayed, hoped, and worked for the Union.” (p. 54)
Van Lew showed the Confederates of Richmond what a dutiful Christian woman she was by visiting the injured soldiers at the hospitals while simultaneously hiding escaped prisoners from Libby Prison. Amazingly, her comfort of Union soldiers instead of Confederate did not give her away, but it did garner some unwanted attention. The authorities could not believe that this genteel, southern lady could understand, let alone have an opinion of, politics.
Being a lady helped Van Lew in countless ways. She would prepare custard and hide secret messages in the tin that would then be handed out to prisoners. Varon does not focus on the Van Lew’s alone but includes accounts from other brave souls who worked tirelessly and at great risk to themselves to help the Union. To say Elizabeth Van Lew had nerve does not remotely do her justice. The woman was a lioness dressed in Southern belle clothing.
Varon details Van Lew’s escapades, which read with unique fascination and at times with a type of Dan Brown suspense. Of all the prisoners that escaped, hidden in the Van Lew’s house, the authorities were never the wiser. When she was involved in getting Union colonel Ulfric Dahlgren’s body out of its current resting place in the city’s cemetery to a Unionist farm so that he could be taken back to his family, Van Lew was never implicated. Once she and William Rowley were officially recruited as Federal agents in January 1864, she became Benjamin Butler’s chief correspondent and as the head of his spy network in the rebel capital. The square of paper, a cipher that Van Lew used to encrypt her messages, was found among her papers. According to Elizabeth’s niece, Annie, she “always carried the key in the case of her watch,” and the dispatches “were written with a colorless liquid which was kept in a small bottle and looked like water but which with the application of milk came out perfectly black.” (p. 113) Van Lew managed all of these courageous acts against the Confederacy without ever getting caught. She might not have been enamored by the spy moniker, but she was a very good one nonetheless.
On March 17, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Elizabeth as postmaster of Richmond, which was one of the highest federal offices a woman could hold. Varon discusses the three things that worked against her while at this post; her Unionist sentiments, her Republicanism, and her gender. Van Lew lost her position after the end of Reconstruction even though she had overhauled the post system and increased its efficiency dramatically. Colonel William W. Forbes replaced Van Lew but Elizabeth was gratified that Forbes chose to keep Mrs. Mera and the three African Americans that she had hired, James Bowser, Josiah Crump, and Peter Roane.
Varon overcame the challenge of ferreting out information on Van Lew, who as a Union spy was very careful to leave little evidence of her doings. Taking her job and her safety seriously, Van Lew would bribe people to keep quiet and threaten those who might choose to be indiscreet. The author does not discredit the very important role of African Americans who fought a very dangerous underground war in Richmond. Varon used widely dispersed sources to paint this vivid picture of a lady whom we now know was no doddering woman of indeterminate intelligence. Varon set out to right the wrong done to Elizabeth Van Lew’s public image and to make sure that future generations interested in the American Civil War, and its many players, would have the clearest and accurate portrait of this amazing lady. Contrary to her ‘Crazy Bet’ image, Van Lew always saw herself as saner than those around her and “the central theme running through her writings is the conviction that she was a pillar of reason in a world gone mad.” (p. 261) The author ends with words that are very true and explain so eloquently why she chose her subject matter. Varon tells the reader that they should listen to the real Elizabeth Van Lew, “a woman whom we should remember not only for her ability to conceal the truth but for her ability to tell it.” (p. 261) This book easily appeals to students, professional historians and should even intrigue the general public.
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