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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

4.3 out of 5 stars 29 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: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #694,226 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: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a terrific book on a figure in American history who deserves more attention. As far as I know, at this point it's the leading, authoritative bio on Elizabeth Van Lew at this point, particularly because it effectively and convincingly dispels myths that have surrounded her for so long--most notably the inaccuracy about Bet being "crazy" or feigning mental illness in order to spy.

The book also provides a great picture of Civil War and post-Civil War Richmond as well as rapidly evolving times after the war, with all the factions, political dynamics, and cultural change bubbling at the time. Given Van Lew's life arc, the story is a classically tragic one--a hero who struggles and is met with disappointment after disappointment in the years following her moment of greatness, the moment of her great contribution to a nation.

One question I would have for author Veron is why she didn't tackle the question of whether Van Lew was abused by her caregiver/relative during her later years.Even if the author disputes that supposition, it would seem to be something to be addressed, given that Van Lew's journal seems to suggest it.

That does not detract from the book's overall effect and importance. It's a must-read for those interested in Richmond history, unsung Civil War heroes (such as women and African Americans), and the complexities of a city and state that--to the surprise of many, I'm sure--were home to a strong pro-Union faction (loyalists). Thanks to Veron for a big contribution.
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