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Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195179897
ISBN-10: 0195179897
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Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review


"An accomplished and engaging biography of a remarkably resourceful and determined woman, whose story shed considerable light on the role of southern Unionism in undermining the Confederate war effort, military and otherwise, and on the women who embodied and actively sustained that cause." --Civil War History


"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


"A rich account of a complex and important figure in wartime Richmond.... Highly readable."--Civil War Book Review


"Groundbreaking and altogether remarkable.... A classic 'forgotten woman' study...as accessible to the lay reader as a novel."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)


"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


"Detailed, astute and convincing."--Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (March 24, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195179897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195179897
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 0.8 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #124,891 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bart Hall on December 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
.
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.

Mary was directly descended from four of the most important families in Virginia -- the Carters, Harrisons, Randolphs, and Wests. Robert E Lee's mother was a Carter cousin. President Harrison was a great-uncle. Mary's brother Thomas enlisted with the 27th Virginia Infantry less than a month after Fort Sumter was shelled, and was one of a handful of original enlistees still alive to surrender at Appomatox. The battle of Malvern Hill (1862) was literally in the West family's front yard.

In fairness to Ms. Varon I should note that she did mention Mary's departure from the family (family lore says that Elizabeth drove her out of the house) and subsequent (1864) testimony intended to finger the Van Lews as traitors.
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Format: Hardcover
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 sentiment in Virginia prior to the war and its ineffectual leadership during the succession crisis. She thoroughly rebuts the "Crazy Bet" myth, which was Van Lew's image for much of the 20th century -- even among historians. The book's greatest accomplishment,though, is showing Van Lew as a three-dimensional person, constantly changing and evolving in response to the world around her.
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By A Customer on June 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What a brave and commendable lady! She did so much for the Union side in helping prisoners, gathering information, and in so many other ways at great risk to herself. I loved the story of the recovery of Ulric Dahlgren's body, the placing of spies, and the help her servants provided. Luckily, Grant appreciated her and did for her what he could at the close of the war, giving her money, and making her postmaster of Richmond during his two presidential terms. Otherwise, despite the fact that she was hated in Richmond and had beggared herself, the Federal Government treated her shabbily.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Interesting. She was a very brave and dedicated woman. She did not get enough recognition and thanks. I Han never even heard of her or woman like her before from history books. She risked her life and gave up so much.
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Varon gives us a great history of a women who gave all for her country. I was impressed by the scholarship she showed in writing the book book although I, at times, found myself questioning the purpose. This purpose is revealed near the end and I won't spoil it for you here. As a historian Varon does great justice not only to the story of Van Lew but also to others within the Richmond Underground within context of the overall war. Great pains were taken to give context of the battles, campaigns, and politics which puts everything in perspective. I would definitely consider this a VERY pro-Union text as the South is bashed repeatedly, but given Van Lew's views it is understandable. We are essentially seeing the War through HER eyes. As a gendered approach this text ranks high on my Civil War reading list and is a must have for anyone who is interested in the subject of women during the war and after. I would very much like to see more texts that put the "Crazy Bet" rumors to rest along with other misconceptions about the War.
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