- Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy
As recent scholarly attention to southern Unionism expands and deepens, we are discovering the extent to which Confederate cities were often strongholds of dissent and subversion. Just as Thomas G. Dyer used the anonymous diary of Cyrena Stone to reveal a significant circle of Unionists in Atlanta in his Secret Yankees (1999), so Elizabeth Varon draws on the life and activity of the far more pro-active and better-known Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900) to shed considerable new light on Richmond's wartime underground movement.
A Richmond native whose parents were among the city's socially prominent slaveholders, Elizabeth, along with her mother, showed some abolitionist tendencies after her father's death in l843. Although they did not sell the family's slaves, they hired them out and allowed them to earn wages for their labor; sold property [End Page 196] to two free black women; and hosted Fredicka Bremer, a Swedish feminist and outspoken critic of slavery, when she visited Richmond in l849. Most intriguing was the special treatment accorded one of their female slaves, who they sent north for an education, and then sent to do mission work, at the age of fourteen, to Liberia. Mary Jane Richards, as she came to be known, eventually returned to Richmond and Van Lew's care, and she would serve as one of Elizabeth's closest allies and compatriots both during the war.
Elizabeth Van Lew, Varon argues, lived a double life: as her antislavery convictions became more pronounced, she remained fully engaged in the social life of the Richmond elite. That status served her well after secession, where her fervent Unionist sentiments became more dangerous, and she was forced to become far more secretive in her pro-Union thoughts and actions. Nursing Federal soldiers in Richmond hospitals in 1861 led to Van Lew's ministering to soldiers incarcerated in Libby and other prisons, which brought her into an emerging network of underground loyalists. She helped plant and coordinate prison escapes, most notably a major Libby Prison break by a hundred Federal officers in February 1864, and her family's mansion on Church Hill often served as an initial hiding place for escapees.
Such fugitives became valuable means of transmitting military intelligence, and by early 1864 Van Lew had become an active agent in smuggling that information first to Benjamin Butler, stationed at nearby Fort Monroe, and later to Ulysses S. Grant when he took charge of eastern theater operations. Using elaborate secret codes and invisible ink to pass on to the Union high command messages gathered from a variety of agents, including fellow Richmond Unionists and several of her own slaves, Van Lew served more as spymaster than spy, Varon notes, in that she was more the conduit than the source of the information smuggled to officials, who found much of it useful in planning their operations in and around the Confederate capital.
Van Lew's postwar career was nearly as remarkable as her wartime activity. She championed black equality and education, and though she failed to obtain a teaching position under the Freedmen's Bureau, she made use of her wartime connections to Grant to win an appointment as postmaster (not postmistress) of Richmond, which she held throughout his presidency. That position threw her into the thick of Virginia's postwar politics, with local opposition to her based as much on her encroaching on the masculine domains of politics and civil service as on her wartime betrayals and postwar pro-black efforts. In her old age, she was demonized as "Crazy Bette" by Richmond society, and counted only on African American support and friendship in the years before her death.
As the author of a masterful study of antebellum Virginia women and politics, We Mean to Be Counted (2001), Varon is particularly sensitive to the gendered implications of Van...