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
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.