Author: Michael DeMarco

a PhD candidate in history at Temple University and an adjunct professor of history at Kean University

Elizabeth L. Van Lew (1818–1900)

Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond Unionist and abolitionist who spied for the United States government during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Leading a network of a dozen or so white and African American women and men, she relayed information on Confederate operations to Union generals and assisted in the care and sometimes escape of Union prisoners of war being held in the Confederate capital. Van Lew, who worked with invisible ink and coded messages, has been called “the most skilled, innovative, and successful” of all Civil War–era spies. While some historians have claimed that she was open about her Unionist politics, deflecting suspicion by behaving as if she were mentally ill, others have argued that these “Crazy Bet” stories are a myth. After the war, Van Lew served as postmaster of Richmond during the administration of U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, one of the generals to whom she had once fed information.


States’ Rights

States’ rights is a political philosophy that emphasizes the rights of individual states to fight what proponents believe to be the encroaching power of the United States government. Although the discourse around states’ rights dates from the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the writings of Thomas Jefferson, it became critically important first during the Nullification Crisis (1828–1832), when South Carolina attempted to overrule a federally imposed tariff, and then during the Secession Crisis (1860–1861), when South Carolina and a number of other Southern states, including Virginia, seceded from the Union rather than accept the election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. president. In theory, states’ rights generally favors state and local control over federal control. During the 1850s, however, it was a malleable political philosophy that both Northerners and Southerners employed to advance their sectional interests. Deep South politicians acquiesced to federal power when it protected slavery but cited states’ rights when questioning federal attempts at regulating the spread of slavery into new territories. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the philosophy served both as a pillar of Confederate propaganda and, at times, as a drag on Confederate unity. Ironically, Confederate president Jefferson Davis had little trouble expanding the central government in order to prosecute the war.


Belle Boyd (1844–1900)

Belle Boyd was one of the most famous Confederate spies during the American Civil War (1861–1865), repeatedly and under dangerous circumstances managing to relay information on Union troop strengths and movements to Confederate commanders in the field. According to Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the intelligence she provided helped the general to win victories in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862. Authorities suspected her of being a spy almost from the start, and the Union imprisoned her multiple times, but Boyd was a master of manipulation. Her ability to exploit a soldier’s sense of chivalry and the Victorian male’s natural deference to “ladies” became legendary and may help explain why so many of the war’s best spies were women. In 1864, she fled to London, England, where she married one of her captors and later penned a memoir, Belle Boyd in Camp and in Prison (1865), that detailed her exploits and attracted international attention.