Goodreads: A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew
Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist and self-proclaimed loyalist, operated as a spy out of Richmond for the duration of the war, providing care and comfort to Union prisoners and passing valuable information through the lines. During this time she kept a journal–one written hastily and under the constant threat of discovery–that David D. Ryan has reconstructed, along with some of the letters she passed and received.
Elizabeth Van Lew’s diary provides an intriguing look at the Civil War South through the eyes of a woman who remained a staunch Union supporter. Her views, always strongly expressed and obviously not without bias, anticipate many of the arguments still waged over questions of the war–addressing the nature of chivalry, the cause of the war, and more. Though hastily written and incomplete due to the ravages of time, Van Lew’s record is not any less important, or less interesting.
Casual readers, I suspect, will find themselves drawn to a journal such as this due to its aura of romance and danger. Van Lew operated for the duration of the war as a spy out of Richmond, passing articles and information through the lines to Union generals and providing comfort and care to Union prisoners. Her fellow citizens seemed aware of her political views, sometimes writing against her and her mother in the newspapers and even proposing their arrest. To divert suspicion from herself, Van Lew began dressing oddly and talking to herself in the streets.
Still, the nature of her work meant that Van Lew did not record her exploits in any great detail. Furthermore, after the war, the people of Richmond displayed so much animosity toward Van Lew for her actions that she begged for her spy correspondence to be returned to her so she could destroy it. Much of the biographical information provided in the book comes from David D. Ryan’s notes, rather than from Van Lew. He also provides what correspondence he could find, though often it comes only in the forms of notes passed to Van Lew and not in any she herself wrote.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of Van Lew’s diaries (after the enticingly vague notes on her work) are her observations and views on the South. Van Lew writes of the bloodthirsty mobs crying for war, the men who betray their closest friends due to politics, and her conviction that slavery and not states’ rights was the cause of the war. She also writes feelingly of the suffering of the people of Richmond, the women begging for bread in the streets, and her own difficulties finding enough food. This is the Civil War come alive–and it is less romantic than one would think from much of the fiction written about it.
Van Lew’s piecemeal diary gave me much respect for the woman who risked everything for a cause she believed in and it made me want to learn more about her and her work. Ryan has done a great service to the literature on the Civil War by bringing this part of its history back into the light.
Fun Facts from the Book
- One of Elizabeth’s black servants, Mary Bowser, found work with Varina Davis and passed information from the Davis house.
- Elizabeth suggested the failed Kirkpatrick-Dahlgreen raid to rescue Union prisoners held in Richmond.
- Elizabeth later helped steal Dahlgreen’s body and rebury it.