History Friday: The Southern Belle Spy

(An archive post for Friday – I wrote this for the Unusual Historicals website last year.)

She was the very last person in the world whom anyone in Richmond, Virginia, would have suspected of being a spy … well, almost the last person, as her abolitionist sympathies were not a secret. But she was a genteel lady of certain years – and a very Southern sense of gentlemanly chivalry ensured that her activities went unsuspected and unhampered all during the Civil War. Elizabeth van Lew, if not a classical Southern belle in the Scarlett O’Hara mode was pious, eccentrically addicted to doing good works, and from a wealthy and well-established old Richmond family. Of course she couldn’t possibly be up to anything more than visiting the captive Union officers held as prisoners of war in a comfortless converted tobacco warehouse, bearing genteel gifts of food, books, clothing and writing materials, or being a regular Lady Bountiful towards the families of Richmond’s freed slaves. Everyone knew of her families’ eccentricities – her mother was a Quaker from Philadelphia, don’t-cha-know.

Elizabeth van Lew was born in 1818; her father had built up a prosperous hardware business in Richmond and a grand mansion on Church Hill. In spite of the family’s abolitionist sympathies, he also had owned slaves. But when the senior van Lew died in the mid 1840s, Elizabeth’s brother took over management of the firm and household – and he freed the families’ nine household slaves. Around the same time, Elizabeth used her own allowance to purchase and free the relatives of those family slaves. For some years afterwards, John van Lew routinely visited Richmond’s slave market to purchase whole families who were at peril of being sold to different owners and separated from each other. Then he would formally free them. And this would likely have been seen as no more than a peculiar eccentricity … until the beginning of the Civil War, when the aftermath of the battle of Manassas brought Union Army officers to a squalid and overcrowded imprisonment in the tobacco warehouse.
The middle-aged Elizabeth and her elderly widowed mother began visiting the Union officers, bearing their lady-visitor charitable gifts.

Eventually there would be more than a thousand of Union prisoners crammed into the two top floors of the warehouse – and turnover at Libby would be constant, primarily because of a high death rate. Although barred, the windows were left open to the elements of weather and the prisoners suffered accordingly. For deaths from exposure, disease and malnutrition, Libby Prison eventually became second only in notoriety to Andersonville. For that kindliness to the prisoners, Elizabeth and her mother were publically criticized for disloyalty to the Confederate cause; little did the critics realize that while Elizabeth might have felt the sting of neighborly disapproval and public bullying, she did not give two pins for the Confederacy … and in fact resolved to do whatever she could do in order to bring about its’ downfall. Chatty, eccentric and seemingly harmless, Miss van Lew proved to be a woman of infinite nerve and resource. For she began helping the prisoners even more actively; smuggling messages in a dish with a hidden compartment, and through notes hidden in books, or with key passages in those books underlined faintly in pencil. She had a tiny cipher key on a scrap of paper hidden in her watch – and a secret diary outlining her activities, buried in the garden. She bribed the guards to permit the prisoners to have food and clothing over and above what they had been allowed. She helped organize escapes, even hiding escaping prisoners in her family home.
In the early days of the war, she began sending letters bearing information of military knowledge to Union commanders, gleaned from newly-arrived prisoners who would have observed Confederate fortifications and troop dispositions on their way to Richmond and captivity. Before many months had passed, Elizabeth van Lew was a full-fledged spymaster, and one of the most valued Union assets within Richmond, sending coded messages, requested specific intelligence – as well as flowers from her garden directly to General Grant. Many of her couriers were freed slaves, and often her messages were concealed in hollowed-out eggs. She cultivated the friendship of the Confederate commander of Libby Prison; she even saw to it that one of the Lew family’s former slaves, a young woman named Mary Bowser, was hired by the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary, who worked serving meals at the Jefferson home, was privy to much interesting mealtime conversation.

And when the war ended and Union troops were about to enter the defeated Confederacy’s capital city, Miss van Lew was the first to raise the American flag over Richmond with her very own hands, to the anger and chagrin of her neighbors. A mob formed before the Lew family mansion, but Grant’s lady spy was undeterred by it. “I know you, and you, and you!” She shouted, pointing at them one by one and addressing them by name. “General Grant will be in this city within the hour; if this house is harmed, your houses shall be burned by noon!” The mob dispersed – and General Grant came to take tea with her – almost his first act upon entering Richmond.

The story of Miss van Lew and the remainder of her life is an equivocal one. The fortunes of her family – no less than those of many of Richmond’s old elite – were ruined by the war. She was socially ostracized by her neighbors, once it came out how she had aided the hated Yankees. The Union which she had served with such commitment could not or would not reimburse her for the expenses which she had borne during the war, nor offer any kind of pension other than a sinecure for a few years as postmistress. But she was generously supported for the remainder of her life by those former prisoners of war, or their families, whom she had aided at great personal risk to herself during the war. But knowing that slavery was ended and the Union restored – and that she had been no less a soldier than any of the captives in Libby Prison in bringing about that conclusion – must have been of considerable comfort to the lady spymaster during the rest of her life. She died in 1900, and is buried in a Richmond cemetery, under a stone monument paid for by the families of soldiers she had assisted during the war.

16 thoughts on “History Friday: The Southern Belle Spy”

  1. From the point of view of her neighbours she was presumably aiding an army some of whose activities were simple terrorism. It’s a knotty problem, civil war ethics.

  2. The Civil War is the gift that never stops giving. Perhaps because I had family killed on both sides- with family stories handed down about the war- I have an abiding interest in the Civil War. On one side of the family was a follower of John Brown, who was killed at Harper’s Ferry. On the other side of the family, a Colonel and son of a slaveholder killed in Tennessee in the early years of the war. It is difficult to get more “both sides” than that. The Civil War was a tragedy, but as far as I can tell, was a conflict that could not be avoided.
    I am currently reading:

    http://www.amazon.com/South-Vs-Anti-Confederate-Southerners-Shaped/dp/0195156293/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409951849&sr=1-1 The South Vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War, by William Freehling

  3. Gringo, my family as well. I had a relative wounded at Harper’s Ferry, another killed fighting for the Confederacy, and another who captained a cavalry squadron at Appomattox and lived to tell the tale. That last was invited into General Sheridan’s ceremonial guard for the surrender of Lee to Grant. I doubt he witnessed it, since it was in the courthouse and would have been generals only. But he was right outside! :)

  4. Both Michael Hiteshew and I have noted that our respective family trees contain people who fought on both sides of the Civil War. This phenomena has only increased over the years with the mobility of our nation, but divided families were part of the Civil War from the beginning. Mary Lincoln had half brothers who fought for the Confederacy, for example. Divided families have helped heal the wounds of the Civil War, as it is more difficult to dehumanize your kith and kin than to dehumanize strangers a thousand miles away.

    But time has also had a healing effect. My mother told me that in the Thirties, 7 decades after the Civil War, her relatives were still rehashing the Civil War- a rehashing which was much more prevalent in the South than in the North. In 1980 I recorded my grandmother’s story about her grandmother’s encounter with Union soldiers during the Civil War. Chicken thieves, the lot of them! My mother told me that as a teenager she decided that she was not going to re-fight the Civil War, and she didn’t.

  5. Anyone whose principal complaint against an invading army is that it consists of “chicken thieves” has been very lucky.

    “7 decades” means that people still remember eye-witness and participant accounts from their parent’s generation. (Which is one reason why I incline to believe many of the yarns about Jesus in the New Testament.)

  6. Knowing how union prisoners were treated by the Confederates, she undoubtedly saved many lives, too.

    Would being a female during that time deflect suspicion on her?

    It is a travesty that she was not compensated by the Federal government.

  7. dearime
    “7 decades” means that people still remember eye-witness and participant accounts from their parent’s generation.

    My mother’s paternal grandfather, who died after VE-Day in 1945, was 14 years old when the Civil War ended. He could talk for hours about the Civil War.

  8. It was amazing that Americans could treat other Americans that way. Sherman is still hated in some circles of the South but his march through Georgia involved the destruction of civil structors and rich plantations. No civilians were molested and several of his soldiers were hung for rape.

  9. “No, just subjected to crowded, unsanitary conditions and starved to death.” War is coarsening: that’s one reason why it’s a good idea to be reluctant to start one.

  10. A friend of mine – another author with an interest in history skulled it out one day; imagine, he said – when you were a child, talking to the oldest person you knew about what that person remembered of historical events which they might have witnessed. We started with our parents; ours were all born in the 1920s to 1930s. Take that as a starting point; our mother or father, 8 or ten years old in 1935, talking to the oldest person they knew – say, then 80 or 90 years of age. That oldest person would have been born between 1845-1855. When they were eight or ten years old in 1855-1865; they might have seen the firing on Ft. Sumter, soldiers marching to Gettysburg, through Georgia, and Lincoln’s funeral train.

    Now imagine that the oldest person that your parents talked to in the 1930s, had talked to the oldest person they knew – round about the years 1855-1865 … that oldest person, being 80 or 90 years old, would have been born (give or take) around 1770 … and they might have seen … Paul Revere riding from Boston crying the alarm, the local militia , heard the bells ringing in Philadelphia for the Declaration of Independence, seen Washington’s army at Yorktown. We were, my author friend said, only a bare three removes away from that time, considered in memories.

  11. “War is coarsening: that’s one reason why it’s a good idea to be reluctant to start one.”

    Ironically, Allied POWs in WWII got better treatment for long bone fractures from the Germans than from their own medical system. I have the story in my book but the Germans invented the Intramedullary rod for femur fractures. Once they had gotten to POW camps, the care was better for that injury. A family friend broke his femur bailing out of a B 17 and was shipped across Germany in a box car before he got to a camp and walked with a limp the rest of his life. The delay was the factor, not the care once he was in the camp.

    The Japanese were another matter. My father-in-law was commandant of a POW camp in the Philippines for Japanese POWs and there was a group of Japanese medical officers in the camp who made a souvenir for him before they were shipped home. They scratched their names on a canteen. He had it until his house burned down in a fire in 1961. For the most part, the Japanese were barbaric, partly because their army never had decent logistical capability. Hence many executed POWs.

  12. “We were, my author friend said, only a bare three removes away from that time, considered in memories.”

    My grandfather, my mother’s father, was born in 1849. She was born in 1898 and lived into 2001.

    Three generations.

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