During the American Civil War, one bold woman in the heart of the Confederacy dared to support the Union cause by freeing her slaves, aiding captured soldiers, and leading a spy ring that extended into the Confederate White House itself. Though her story may be obscure, her boldness and courage during the toughest years in American history tell the tale of a true American hero. Chloe Helton explains.
John Van Lew, Elizabeth’s father, was the owner of a wildly successful hardware store when he married Eliza Baker, the daughter of a former Philadelphia mayor. No doubt the prominence and wealth of the Van Lew family created the circumstances which allowed for Elizabeth’s successes in aiding the Union during the war. A well-rounded education and cushy wealth made for an outspoken and independent young woman in Elizabeth, and the distaste for these traits among the Richmond elite may account for some of the reason for an attractive, wealthy young woman like Elizabeth having never married. That is not to say, however, that she did not use her charms: often she was able to persuade high-ranking Confederate men to heed her requests, which allowed the success of many of her anti-Confederate actions during the Civil War.
When Virginia announced its secession from the Union, a celebratory parade marched through Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Perhaps every citizen in the whole city was present for the festivities except Elizabeth and her mother, Eliza. Elizabeth, an ardent Union supporter who after her father’s death had used her considerable inheritance to buy and free the families of her emancipated slaves, soured at the prospect of secession and considered fleeing the city. Not one to flee from unfriendly situations, and much too attached to her beloved family home, she eventually decided to stay, vowing to instead help the Union in any way she could.
At first her actions were not hotly opposed within the city. Southerners expected swift victory in the war and initially Northern prisoners were treated well, so even when Elizabeth requested that a captive Northern Congressman who had fallen gravely ill be treated in her own home it was easily allowed, and not much suspicion was aroused. The Congressman, Calvin Huson, Jr., died soon after his relocation despite tender care from the Van Lew ladies, but Elizabeth received a thank-you letter from Union soldiers in Richmond which she kept with her until her death. As the war dragged on supply shortages ravaged the South, and when Elizabeth requested permission to visit the infamous Libby Prison she was told - by the First Lady’s half-brother (a Confederate officer), no less - that a lady like her should not be fraternizing with the enemy. Elizabeth redirected her plea to the Secretary of the Treasury, C.G. Memminger, and after she turned some of his own famous arguments about Christians proving their love for each other through aid even to those who did not deserve it he did grant her request. She used her considerable fortune to buy produce for enemy prisoners in a time when most common city folk could scarcely afford to eat, and the result among her peers was social isolation and death threats.
Van Lew’s induction into espionage did not begin intentionally. Many of the prisoners had acquired pieces of information from the Southerners they came into contact with - guards, doctors, and deserters mostly - and when these bits of hearsay were all compiled it was considerably useful. Elizabeth simply passed it on to Union officers, and because part of her family’s farm was outside the city walls she was easily able to pass on information there without arousing suspicion. Some issues did arise: at one point her pass to visit the prisons was rescinded, but with more manipulation she was able to receive permission again. The prison guards also became wary of her and banned her from speaking to the prisoners. However, this did not discourage her from soliciting information: she poked messages into cloth with pins and slipped pieces of paper into the bottom of a food dish.
Supporting the other side
Despite her valiant and charitable efforts in the prisons, Elizabeth’s real claim to fame began when Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, began asking for reliable servants for the Southern White House. Van Lew was apparently unable to pass up this opportunity and offered one of her freed slaves for hire, and Davis, who had known her father, accepted. When Mary Bowser began work in the White House, Davis didn’t think she even knew how to read, much less that she had been educated in the North and had photographic memory, so he was careless with his papers around her - too careless. Word soon got out that there was a leak in the White House, but nobody ever suspected the unassuming former slave.
Elizabeth did see other excitement during the war. In 1862 Union forces were tantalizingly close to capturing Richmond, and the feisty Southern belle even prepared a room in her house for General McClellan to stay as her guest. After a powerful speech from Robert E. Lee, however, the Confederates were able to drive them away. Until the next and final invasion of Richmond, Elizabeth bided her time by directing the spy ring she was now leading, which ran so smoothly and efficiently that despite frequent house checks by a suspicious Rebel officer no evidence could be found of her treason. She did protest these annoying visits, eventually housing a Confederate officer as a guest in order to ease suspicion. Van Lew also helped Colonel Paul Revere (a descendant of the Revolutionary Paul Revere) escape certain execution by helping him escape and housing him in her attic.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, as Richmond prepared for the march of Union soldiers into the city, Elizabeth proudly raised the American flag above her home. This bold action caused a mob to descend upon her mansion and she quashed it with feasible threats. After the war, though, Elizabeth’s pro-Union actions were revealed and she faced social isolation throughout the rest of her life. After a stressful stint as postmaster in Richmond and the death of her mother she fell into a depression which lasted the rest of her life. Her bold actions and unrelenting dedication to her cause cemented her in history as one of the most famous spies during the war, however, and her story is an inspiration.
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- Karen Zeinert - Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy