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~History Professor Writes About a Southern Lady, Yankee Spy~

For immediate release:
Sept. 19, 2003

Arlie Corday,

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- If you have never heard of Elizabeth Van Lew, another Elizabeth --Varon, that is, professor of history at Wellesley College--wants to change all that. Varon has written a book about Van Lew, who has been called one of the most remarkable figures in American history. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, October 2003) is the story of a woman who defied the conventions of the 19-century South.

Varon provides a gripping, richly researched account of Van Lew, 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 prisons.

"When Virginia's moderate leaders were marginalized by the swift ascendance of secession in the spring of 1861, Van Lew cast her lot with the Lincoln administration and the Union army," Varon said. "Like Grant and Lincoln she embraced the cause of emancipation during the war, and came to see African-Americans as vital partners in the struggle to restore the Union."

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. The powerful biography brings Van Lew to life, showing how she used the social and female 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 Van Lew 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.

Varon, raised in northern Virginia, has been a Civil War buff all her life. "I was always fascinated, living as I did on the border between the two regions, by the issue of sectional differences between the North and South, and by the question of how people shaped their regional identities," she said. "I first learned about Van Lew while living in Richmond and researching my first book on elite white women's political activities in antebellum Virginia. I wrote Southern Lady, Yankee Spy in part because I was frustrated by the fact that the existing treatments of Van Lew were poorly documented and trafficked in unsubstantiated stories; I set out to write a rigorously researched and documented book of record."

Reviews of the book have given it high praise for its in-depth research and appeal to a wide variety of readers. "Popular Civil War literature is filled with romantic and sensational stories of female spies, many of them made up out of whole cloth," writes James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and Crossroads of Freedom. "But the story told in Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, is eminently true. 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."

Publishers Weekly calls the book "groundbreaking" and "remarkable," noting, "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 savor biographies of remarkable human beings can enjoy it too."

The story seems destined to find an appreciative and wide audience; among other appearances, Varon is scheduled to speak at the Southern Festival of Books, which C-Span's Book-TV plans to air.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.


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