Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Yankee Spy in Richmond

diary by Elizabeth Van Lew
edited and with an introduction by David Ryan
Mechanicsburg, PA : Stackpole Books, 1996.

Elizabeth Van Lew lived in Richmond, Virginia, and was educated in the North. She believed slavery was wrong and was loyal to the Union, giving much of her life and inheritance in furthering the Union cause. In particular, she spied and gave information on troop movement and supplies, and worked to better the conditions and protect escapees from Libby Prison. This is her wartime diary, incomplete at least in part due to her own vigilance in getting rid of evidence that could have incriminated her.

I first heard of this when reading my LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Mary was a former slave at the Van Lew residence, and was instrumental in Elizabeth's and Thomas McNiven's spy network. Unfortunately, perhaps due to Elizabeth's care in destroying documents or the way the diary was buried for years, very little mention is made of anything connected to Mary Bowser, and only a little more is included of Elizabeth's own spying (primarily letters inserted that have innocuous messages on their face, but a request for information once heat and acid is applied to the document).

The Introduction pretty much covers the most interesting parts of the diary, and it's hard to follow what happened because it's such a truncated account. You do, however, get a window into the mindset of Elizabeth Van Lew, who saw her work as being loyal to her country (rather than her state), and definitely saw the point of the Civil War as ending slavery. She was appalled by the treatment of Union soldiers. She had deep convictions and her behavior mirrored what she believed, even though it made her extremely unpopular in her hometown. The inclusion of letters at the end, both by and about Elizabeth Van Lew, round out the picture of her life. Recommended if you're interested in the historic time period or place.

No comments: