Southern Lady, Yankee Spy

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

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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.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 336 pages
  • 152.4 x 228.6 x 25.4mm | 453.6g
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 2 maps, 27 halftones
  • 0195179897
  • 9780195179897
  • 1,409,613

Review quote

Few women risked as much to assist the Union effort during the Civil War as Elizabeth Van Lew. A member of Richmond's elite, Van Lew orchestrated an effort in the Confederate capital that conveyed useful information to United States military forces, embraced emancipation, and supported Radical Republican policies during Reconstruction. Elizabeth Varon's biography draws on substantial research to offer a long-overdue, and compelling, portrait of a complex and
important figure. * Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia, author of The Confederate War * Elizabeth Varon's Southern Lady, Yankee Spy is a well-researched, well-written tale that illuminates a fascinating southern dissenter and forges a sensible path toward bringing women into the military narrative of the Civil War. * William W. Freehling, author of The Road to Disunion and The South vs. The South * 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 * Popular Civil War literature is filled with romantic and sensational stories of female spies, many of them made up out of whole cloth. But the story told in Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, is eminently true. A member of the social elite in Richmond, Elizabeth Van Lew nevertheless loved the Union and disliked slavery. She built a Unionist underground in the Confederate capital that helped escaping prisoners of war and provided General Grant with valuable
intelligence. Based on thorough research and written with grace and style, this account of Van Lew's contribution to Northern victory is a valuable addition to Civil War scholarship. * James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam * A thoughtful, meticulously researched biography. * Washington Times * A solid job of ferreting out facts and discarding fiction.... What is presented here is the fullest scholarly treatment we are likely to have, and if Varon finds her subject to be one who loved and served her country to the end, the fascinating record speaks for itself. * Roanoke Times * 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.... This highly readable book contributes to our understanding of important issues related to the Civil War, including the importance of Unionist activity in the South, the ways in which women responded to the demands of war and the role of espionage in the Union war effort. * Civil War Book Review * Detailed, astute and convincing. * Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post * Groundbreaking and altogether remarkable...the first full account of a figure recorded until now in legends and anecdotes.... A classic 'forgotten woman' accessible to the lay reader as a novel. A wide variety of students of the Civil War will find it invaluable, and readers who savor biographies of remarkable human beings can enjoy it too. * Publishers Weekly (starred 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 *
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About Elizabeth R. Varon

Elizabeth Varon is Professor of History at Temple University. She is the author of We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia.
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Rating details

148 ratings
3.84 out of 5 stars
5 27% (40)
4 40% (59)
3 24% (36)
2 8% (12)
1 1% (1)
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