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December 19, 2012


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Monica Eppinger

Thanks for the alert! I include a very brief synopsis of Elizabeth van Lew's spying career in the "history of intelligence operations" segment of my National Security Law class, both for its intrinsic historical interest and to illustrate the practices in American spycraft of recruiting and running a network, a precursor to some post-WWII practices of HUMINT. The new biography should be a fascinating read.

Alfred Brophy

I didn't know she had such significance for intelligence history. My interest in her is focused on the cemetery (the boulder pictured above was taken, the plaque says, from capitol hill in Boston) and her anti-slavery beliefs.

Monica Eppinger

I'm not sure that she did. U.S. practice of intelligence was episodic (and thus its history episodic rather than cumulative) at that point, so I wouldn't claim that elements of her conduct of intel carried into the present.

But she was significant in her day, a very effective part of the Union intelligence effort (particularly after the Pinkertons the North hired proved so ineffective.) Pedagogically, she makes a great (and unclassified) case study of how a network is recruited and run, which is itself a reflection of a particular epistemological slant still discernible in U.S. intel today, at least in the HUMINT side of the house.

You probably know this already, but worth mentioning given your interest in her anti-slavery beliefs, that it is believed that one of the most effective spies in her network was an African-American woman who worked in Jefferson Davis' house. (I'll be interested to see if the new biography sheds any light on this or debunks it as urban legend.)

The boulder is cool too.


Union Generals Grant, Sharpe, and Butler all praised the intelligence gathered by Van Lew's spy ring--although it's difficult to know today precisely what information she smuggled to them, because the official records related to the espionage were destroy after the war, at Van Lew's request (presumably to protect other members of the spy ring).

Since Varon's biography was published, I've done additional research about the ring, which you can read about in the article "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House" and in the book *The Secrets of Mary Bowser*

Susan Poser

Proud to say Elizabeth Varon was my college roommate for 4 years at Swarthmore. She is a brilliant historian, a great person, and the book is indeed wonderful.

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