Historians rethink loyalty within the American Civil War, highlight overlooked Black stories

The 2022 Institute for Honor broke down the nuance of America’s past in new ways

Kamron Spivey

Most of the Confederate sympathizers that “Crazy Bet” antagonized in 1860s Richmond dismissed her as a quack. Nobody imagined that a single, middle-aged woman had the audacity or even the ability to become arguably the most successful Union spy of the war, especially in the Confederate capital. 

But Elizabeth Van Lew, nicknamed “Crazy Bet” by Richmond citizens, did just that during the American Civil War.

Elizabeth Varon, professor of American history at the University of Virginia, opened her keynote address for the 2022 Institute for Honor Symposium at Washington and Lee on March 4 by telling Van Lew’s story. 

Over 50 people, mostly alumni, attended Varon’s lecture in the pews of University Chapel, with over a dozen more watching virtually. 

Ron Hatcher, parent of a student who graduated from Washington and Lee in 1991, considers himself a “Civil War lay-historian.” But he knew very little about Black Civil War history — one key focus of the symposium — before learning more at the event. 

“You know you’re sitting among people who probably know at least as much history as I do,” Hatcher said. “And it’s fun to get their ideas, a common appreciation of the past, and a wish to have a brighter informed future.”

The two-day symposium also featured speeches from two other historians: Ricardo Herrara, professor of military history at the U.S. Army College, and Hillary Green, associate professor of history at the University of Alabama. The event concluded with a round-table discussion about loyalty. 

All aspects spoke to the event’s theme, “The Civil War and the Ethics of Loyalty,” which was selected by Barton Myers, Washington and Lee professor of Civil War history. Myers’ three-year term as Director of the Institute for Honor ended with this event. 

“I hope the focus on the ethics of loyalty and allegiance stimulated new conversation and revived old conversations about the most divisive period in our country’s history,” Myers said. “I hope that this year’s programming is a strong example of the type of high quality educational and historical programming that W&L provides.”

Varon’s talk specifically focused on three individuals: Union spy Van Lew, Black veteran and activist Joseph Wilson, and Confederate General James Longstreet — whose definition of “loyalty” was very different from most Civil War-era Southerners.

“The point of the talk was to say the Civil War was a war of the South versus the South,” Varon said. “Although we don’t often appreciate how true that is, it is key to understanding the conflict.”

This nuance sparked a lot of questions from the audience. 

Scott Neese, ’72, said this was his first time attending the institute. A board member of the Manassas Battlefield Trust, Neese said that the symposium’s theme of Southern loyalty “digs up some of the old questions, particularly around Robert E. Lee.” 

Herrera’s talk, which traced the evolution of American oaths of loyalty since 1775, invoked similar questions about Lee from viewers. 

Herrera emphasized that intricate loyalties to the local or national level could draw soldiers to either the Union or the Confederacy.

“[Herrera] brought a broader and realistic understanding of honor and loyalty among military folk,” Hatcher said.

While Neese also enjoys these reexaminations, he said he thinks that historians “have got a lot of catching up to do” for underrepresented groups like the United States Colored Troops (USCT). 

Green shared a similar perspective in her talk, which told the eclipsed stories of Black men like Amos Barnes, who was captured by Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, and Joseph Winters, poet and abolitionist.

Both Green and Varon also spoke of the obstacles they faced when researching these historical figures. 

“All of  [Van Lew’s] wartime work was clandestine. She was trying to hide it,” Varon said. “And it is hard to study things people are trying to hide.”

Green had a similar issue, since most of the information she was working with came from “porch stories” — tales she had heard from her grandparents as a child. 

“The community members were like, ‘This is not in the textbook, but you must know,’” Green said.

Both historians found a solution: to work backwards from post-war memories, stories and clues  to understand the historical figures left out in traditional Civil War narratives.

But not everyone found the event appealing. 

One alumnus, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he wished the discussion had been more open to audience remarks — especially during the round table. 

“The arrogance and hubris of the speakers is pathetic,” he said. 

Varon said the symposium is necessary to address historical questions people still have about the Civil War over 160 years after it ended.

“So many of the issues of the Civil War were unresolved, and that’s part of the reason why we still find them so compelling and so relevant in the present,” she said.