Her tombstone reads:
Elizabeth L. Van Lew
She risked everything that is dear to man
– friends – fortune – comfort – health – life itself –
all for the one absorbing desire of her heart –
that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.[i]
Elizabeth Van Lew grew up as a rich and privileged Southern belle. Her father owned a successful hardware store in Richmond; her parents hosted the cream of society at balls and garden parties at their mansion on Grace Street. Their guests included former President John Adams and Edgar Allen Poe. (Though not at the same time. That would have been weird.)
Elizabeth went to school in her mother’s hometown of Philadelphia, where she became an abolitionist. Although her father had slaves, after his death she freed them and used her $10,000 inheritance (about $300,000 today) to free their families as well.
Posing as a good Christian women bent on charitable works, and referring to Union prisoners as, “thankless and unworthy,” she got permission to visit them and bring them comfort. The men were held in converted tobacco warehouses. They lived in terrible conditions – crowded, filthy, and starving. Elizabeth’s gifts of fresh food and clothing were important for the prisoners – more than one said she saved his life. She had a larger purpose, however. She smuggled in secret messages, hidden in food containers and coded into books and clothing, and got information from the prisoners out in the same way. The prisoners told her about the rebel numbers and positions they had observed while marching, and passed along information they gathered by listening to the doctors, nurses, and guards.
One guard grew suspicious when Elizabeth kept bringing a special double-layered food container to the prison. The bottom section could be filled with hot water to keep the food in the top section warm. Elizabeth, of course, used the bottom section to smuggle messages in and out of the prison. Someone warned her about the guard. The next time she visited, the guard demanded to inspect the container. Innocently, Elizabeth put the container into his bare hands. He roared with pain; the bottom of the container was filled with boiling water. He never asked to inspect it again.
Despite strong societal pressure and threats, Elizabeth continued to help the Union prisoners throughout the war, providing them with everything from food and clothing to help escaping. But she didn’t stop there.
She took the information she’d gathered at the prison and sent it on to the Union. Elizabeth developed an intricate spy network that included famers, grocers, factory workers, and servants. Using invisible ink and a secret code devised by the Union, she passed on messages hidden in sewing patterns, eggs, and hollow-soled shoes.
As the war continued, Elizabeth’s danger increased. With the passage of the sequestration act, Confederate officials could legally expose and punish female traitors to the South. By the end of the war, the Confederates had seized over five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property from “alien enemies.”
In her diary, Elizabeth wrote, “From the commencement of the war until its close, my life was in continual jeopardy.”[ii] A New York Times article written after the war stated, “… there was not a moment during those four years [of Civil War] when Lizzie Van Lew could hear a step behind her on the street without expecting to have someone tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘You are my prisoner.’ “”[iii]
The challenge was to appear to be a loyal Confederate who could not possibly be engaging in espionage.
To allay suspicion, she hung a large Confederate flag in her entry parlor and offered southern hospitality to a variety of Confederate soldiers and officials. She even provided housing to Captain George Gibbs, the head of the tobacco prison complex.
There were some close calls. Suspicious officials searched her house several times. They never found the secret information she hid in the decorative brass animals by her fireplace. Once, when she had a coded message hidden in her shopping basket, a stranger came up behind her in the market and whispered, “I’m going through tonight.” The message was urgent, and she was tempted to trust him, but, wary of a Confederate trap, she said nothing and headed home. The next day, she saw the man from the market marching past in uniform at the head of a group of Confederate soldiers.
Despite everything, Elizabeth continued to do everything she could to help the Union. She hid escaping Union prisoners in a secret room in the attic; the hidden door could only be opened by a spring that was concealed behind an antique bureau. By 1864, she was sending three messages a week to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later wrote to her, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”[iv]
At the end of the war, Colonel Sharpe of the Union Intelligence agency said, “The greatest portion” of the information passed to the general’s army in 1864-65 was “owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss Van Lew.”[v] When Grant’s army invaded Richmond, the General spent several hours drinking tea on Elizabeth’s front porch in gratitude for her help in winning the war.
Her neighbors never forgave her. Although Grant rewarded her with a position as postmaster of Richmond, she lived the rest of her life as a social pariah. “I live – and have lived for years – as entirely distinct from the citizens as if I were plague stricken… Rarely, very rarely, is our doorbell ever rung by any but a pauper, or those desiring my service.”[vi] Having spent the bulk of her fortune on her prisoner-support and spy activities, Elizabeth Van Lew was almost penniless when she died on September 25, 1900, at the age of eighty-two.
Elizabeth was not alone in sacrificing everything for her beliefs; many on both sides of the conflict gave up their lives in the Civil War. At least her efforts were not in vain – her wit and daring made a material difference to winning the war, saving the Union, and abolishing slavery.
Today, she is widely regarded as one of the most successful spies on either side of the Civil War.
For those of you who are new to this blog – welcome! You can expect a new Life and Death Decision in History on the first and third Wednesday of the month, with the solution on the following Friday.
[i] Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010, p. 87
[ii] Caravantes, Peggy. Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2002. Ch. 5
[iv] Winkler, p. 83
[v] Winkler, p. 83
[vi] Caravantes, Ch. 5.
Footnotes from the Problem of the Reluctant Traitor
[i] Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Harper, 2014, p. 53
[ii] Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010, p. 52
[iii] IBID, 53
[iv] Winkler, p. 56
[v] Abbott, p. 46
[vi] Winkler, p. 80
Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Harper, 2014.
Caravantes, Peggy. Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 2002. Ch. 5
Smith, Scott S. “Elizabeth Van Lew, a Spy Who Lifted Union Cause.” Investors Business Daily. Encore Arapahoe Library District, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 May 2015.
Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL. 2010
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