Cover image for Southern lady, Yankee spy : the true story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union agent in the heart of the Confederacy
Southern lady, Yankee spy : the true story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union agent in the heart of the Confederacy
Varon, Elizabeth R., 1963-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Oxford University Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xi, 317 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1520 Lexile.
Electronic Access:
Table of contents
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E608.V34 V37 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E608.V34 V37 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E608.V34 V37 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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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.

Author Notes

Elizabeth Varon is a professor of history at Wellesley College.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Until 1996 and David Ryan's edition of A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew, few outside of her native Richmond had ever heard of Elizabeth Van Lew. Born into a high-status Richmond family (but of northern extraction), Van Lew became a secret opponent of slavery before the Civil War, a union agent in Richmond during the war, and a patronage-wielding politician (as the local postmaster) during Ulysses S. Grant's administration. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton admired her, but the Richmond elite dismissed her as poor old "crazy Bet." Disturbed by the implication that Van Lew was simply eccentric, Varon (Wellesley College) seeks to create a "new public image" of Van Lew as "a heroine who deserves to be remembered, first and foremost as a patriot." Drawing on the work of social and women's historians, she places Van Lew into a broader social framework and mines primary sources for confirmation of what she actually did and how contemporaries perceived those actions. An important corrective, this book belongs in academic libraries collecting in Virginia history and the Civil War. ^BSumming Up:` Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above. P. F. Field Ohio University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Map of Central Virginiap. xii
Map of Richmondp. xiii
Prologuep. 3
1 "An Awful Responsibility" The Making of a Dissenter, 1818-1860p. 9
2 "My Country! Oh My Country!" Virginia Leaves the Unionp. 35
3 "Our Flag Was Gone" The War's First Yearp. 52
4 "The Bright Rush of Life" The Making of the Richmond Undergroundp. 77
5 Elizabeth and "The Beast" Butler Finds His Spyp. 107
6 "This Precious Dust" The Clandestine Reburial of Colonel Ulric Dahlgrenp. 135
7 "The Smoke of Battle" Grant Moves on Richmondp. 153
8 "A Flaming Altar" The Fall of Richmond and Its Aftermathp. 185
9 "A Fiery Ordeal" The Trials of a Female Politicianp. 216
10 The Myth of "Crazy Bet"p. 242
Epilogue: Van Lew's Ghostp. 257
List of Abbreviationsp. 263
Notesp. 265
Indexp. 305