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Lyons Den Books

Dear Ellen Bee:
A Civil War Scrapbook of Two Union Spies

(Atheneum, 2000. ISBN: 0689823797)

Jacket photograph copyright ©2000 by Marc Tauss. 
Jacket design by David A.Caplan.

In a fictional format that recalls the scrapbooks kept by women in the nineteenth century, Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch piece together the true story of Ellen Bee—a fictional code name used by two extraordinary women who courageously undermined the highest level of the Confederacy: Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew.

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Dear Ellen Bee
is written in two voices: an older white woman and a young African-American woman who was her former slave. Though they agree on issues that involve slavery, their age and racial differences often produce different reactions to the same event. As you read the book, decide which character you agree with. Miss Bet? Liza? Do you change sides? Why?


Dear Ellen Bee
is written as if it were a scrapbook. Before making your own scrapbook, pretend you are living through the Civil War.

1. Give yourself a name and an identity. Are you a Confederate, fighting for the south? Or are you a Unionist, fighting for the north? If you’re a soldier, what is your rank? What battles have you fought?

2. If you’re a woman, how do you contribute to the war effort? Do you make munitions? Bandages and socks? Or perhaps you are a nurse.

3. Research the announcements, letters, etc. that your character might save. Re-create the mementoes and paste them in a scrapbook. See the first paragraph on p.158 of Dear Ellen Bee for ideas.



The characters in Dear Ellen Bee are based on two actual women who were Union spies during the Civil War. The scenes relating how they tried to take custard to Union prisoners are based on fact. Make the custard recipe below. As you serve it, explain why Miss Bet wanted to bring custard to the prisoners and why Liza agreed to help her.

Boiled custard

Cook over low heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or in the top of a double boiler over hot water. Either method requires constant stirring.
3 eggs
6 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups scalded milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Put the eggs in a heavy-bottomed pan and whisk just enough to blend. Add the sugar and salt. Slowly pour in the hot milk, stirring constantly. Cook over medium heat until the custard coats the spoon, in 7-10 minutes. As soon as you see small bubbles forming around the edge of the pan, remove from the heat quickly; if it boils, the eggs will curdle. Stir in the vanilla, and strain into a bowl or pitcher. Cover and chill. The custard will thicken as it cools.


The characters in Dear Ellen Bee sent secret messages to each other using the code below. Follow the directions and share a secret with a friend.
To write or decode a message:
1. Find the first digit of the number in the column on the left. Find the second digit in the row on the bottom.
2. Find where the two meet. This box contains the alphabet letter you want to write or decode