Elizabeth Van Lew: Union spy

Looks can be deceiving. This woman was never quite what she appeared to be.

Looks can be deceiving. This woman was never quite what she appeared to be.

Zach – Welcome back to Minimum Wage Historian and this week’s topic of Elizabeth Van Lew. As many of you know, I’m an adopted Virginian and will always count myself as a Virginian even though I currently reside in Utah. And as a Virginian I have a duty to learn what I can about its history. In my wanderings I often come across small tidbits I find interesting, such as: the name of the City of Richmond comes from an Englishman who saw the James River and it reminded him of the Thames River as seen from Richmond Hill in London. So, he called the settlement Richmond. But sometimes I find a larger piece of history that I think people should know about. Today we will discuss Elizabeth Van Lew. She was a spy for the Union and one of the most effective and eccentric ones of the war. But before we get to that, let’s introduce our panel.
Anna – As always I’ll be co-hosting even though I’m twice the historian Zach is and far more attractive. I’m Anna Komemne, “Byzantine” princess born in the Purple Chamber of the Imperial palace and first recorded woman historian. Next we have Buffalo Calf Road, Cheyenne warrior woman and possibly killed General Custer.
Buffalo – Possibly??!!
Anna – Next we have Guiseppe Garibaldi. Italian hero of the Reunification.
Garibaldi – Gratzie. Anna, yes? And what would the lovely Anna be doing after this?
Anna – Doesn’t matter. I’ll be busy. Next we have Olga of Kiev, Russian Saint and expert on revenge.¬† Followed by Gaspar Correia, Conquistador and voted “Least accurate Historian ever.”
Gaspar – Who voted me least accurate??
Anna – Me and Zach.
Buffalo – (laughs)
Gaspar – Don’t make me play Conquistadors and Indians.
Buffalo – Let me drop a 99% lethal virus on your country and see how well you do.
Olga – Be quiet both of yous. This fighting is pointless.
Zach – Thank you Olga for being the voice of moderation and peace.
Olga – We all know Russia is best. You make us angry, we drop big bomb on you.
Zach – (face palms)
Anna – Anyway. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Olga – Yes, before I have to blow a comrade up with bomb.
Zach – Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond in 1818 to a wealthy family from New York. While they weren’t at the top of the social heap, they were respected enough to throw parties and dinners for high society. Heck, even Edgar Allen Poe performed a private reading of “The Raven” for them. Does it get cooler than that? I submit to you that it does not. But they were ‘new money’ and not an old southern family. Before the Civil War, the South and Virginia especially had a very aristocratic society.
Buffalo – And what he means by that is that the rich people controlled everyone else.
Zach – Pretty much. But Elizabeth’s father was successful in his business dealings and they owned a house in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond across from St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. On the 4th of July you can still go to that church and hear actors recreating that famous scene BTW.

Don't ever mess with a man that's willing to risk his life for freedom.

Don’t ever mess with a man that’s willing to risk his life for freedom.

Anna – Yes, they had a magnificent three and a half story mansion in Richmond and a summer house along the shore of the James River. She was privately tutored and then went to school in Philadelphia. She was not very pretty nor was she ugly, but she was usually the smartest person in the room, could hold informed conversations about almost anything and had a wit sharper than a razor.
Garibaldi – Sounds like my kind of woman, yes?
Buffalo – Ah, but there was a problem. She lived in Richmond, a very Southern city. And she was an abolitionist. That wasn’t smiled upon where she grew up. But she didn’t care what they thought. She only cared about what she knew to be right and wrong. She wrote in her diary: “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the … opinions and principles of my locality.” That was putting it mildly. From the time she was introduced into society, she made her opinions on slavery very clear and that didn’t make her popular at all. As the Civil War broke out, many Richmonders shunned her. Others called for her to be put in jail and some even wanted any Northern sympathizers hanged. Luckily for her they mostly ignored her because they viewed her as eccentric and ‘not altogether there.’ Still, she never hesitated from telling the Southerners exactly what she thought.
Garibaldi – Yes, yes! Her heart burned for freedom against the Austrian Crown…er…I mean…Against slavery! After her father died, her and her mother freed all their slaves, found their children that had been sold to others, bought them back and freed them too. She did not merely talk like so many. No, no! She acted with her love of freedom guiding her.
Gaspar – Very impassioned, Garibaldi.
Garibaldi – I cannot help it. I am Italian.
Anna – But then the Civil War started and she found herself surrounded by enemies. How bad was it? The Confederate States of America had their White House in Richmond. She was in the headquarters of the Confederacy.

The Confederate White House.  Not a good place for a Yankee lover to be livin'.

The Confederate White House. Not a good place for a Yankee lover to be livin’.

Zach – But what could she do? It was just her and her mother living in a big house with no friends. When she heard that Yankee prisoners were being held in a prison in the city, she went and visited them and began getting messages to send to their loved ones. She succeeded in a “Charisma” check and convinced the guards to let her visit as a nurse.
Garibaldi – Ha! But soon these little visits weren’t so innocent, no? She began collecting military information from the Yankee soldiers and Southern guards. She began to go places where she could overhear important information. But she wasn’t noticed because people were used to ignoring her. And she also acted a little crazy. She would walk hunched over, mumble to herself and act strange. No one thought the weird lady was a Union spy. What information she gained, she mailed coded messages to Union officials and generals. The cipher was kept in her watch which she still had when she died. I could have used a senora like her during my wars!
Olga – I’m sure you Italian man had plenty of womens.
Garibaldi – (shrugs)
Zach – She also sent her servants on “innocent” errands. She would put messages in empty egg shells and sown into their clothes. Keep in mind that her neighbors hated the idea that she was even helping the Union soldiers. If they knew she was acting as a spy, they would have hanged her. To the people of Richmond there was only one thing worse than a Yankee: a traitor. Heck, me being a Southerner I didn’t know “Damnyankee” was two words until I was thirteen.
Olga – What is that word?
Zach – Never mind.
Gaspar – But that is not all. She also became notorious for her assassinations.
Zach – No, she did not!”
Gaspar – Sit down and let grown ups do history here. They didn’t know who it was that kept blowing up factories and killing their agents, but they had a name for her: Lady Reaper. Southern spies feared being found out by the Lady Reaper and soon they sent their own assassin after her. Alexander Boudilaire was a Southern aristocrat, but he had a talent for shooting the Ace cards right through the middle. No one was more lethal. Their duel lasted two days through the city of Richmond. One stalking the other and then trying to line up a shot on their target. Eventually Elizabeth caught him in an alleyway. Her knowledge of her home town let her trap her target. The ensuing gunfight was brief but bloody.

She was a force of Destruction to the South!

She was a force of Destruction to the South!

Anna – Everyone, please ignore everything Gaspar just said. He’s a moron.
Buffalo – Gaspar, a girl doesn’t have to blow up half the city to be a hero. She did everything she could to do what she felt was right, regardless of personal danger. I’d call that a hero any day.
Olga – So, why do it then?
Buffalo – Because to her, the equality of all men was more important than her own life. She once said: “I’m not a Yankee. I’m only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginian tradition of opposition to human bondage.”
Zach – But then Elizabeth or “Crazy Bett” as the prison guards called her, thought of an idea. She had a servant named Mary Bowser.who had a photographic memory. Elizabeth rolled her Charisma check again and somehow talked Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President to take Mary on as a servant. From Mary, Elizabeth was able to gain vital information about troop movements and military strategy, information that could make or lose a war.
Buffalo – But information wasn’t enough for this woman! She organized a web of contacts and spies that she gained more and more information from. She even helped plan a prison break for the Union soldiers and when they finally made their escape, she hid several of them in her attic until the heat was turned down.

Maybe one of them was Steve McQueen's ancestor?

Maybe one of them was Steve McQueen’s ancestor?

Garibaldi – Near the end of the war when General U.S. Grant set up his headquarters outside of Richmond, she continued to pass messages to him regularly. She was so good at it, that she liked to also sneak him flowers for his breakfast table. Yes, even in war a man must appreciate the beautiful things of life.
Zach – But eventually the war was won by the Yankee filth…oh…I mean, the Union forces. And her wartime activities became known. She didn’t hide it ether. As soon as Lee left with his forces, she went up to her roof and unfurled a giant American flag. Her neighbors gathered around and began cursing her but she said “General Grant will be here within the hour. If you do one thing to my home, yours will be burnt in the hour!” If she had been disliked before, she was outwardly loathed now. From this day on she basically became a reclusive hermit in her house. She occasionally had important Northern visitors and was even named Postmaster of Richmond by Grant, but no one in society would even look at her except to spit at her. She had spent her family’s fortune helping the Northern war effort and was now friendless and penniless. She has been called the most effective spy in the war and she received nothing but heartbreak and loneliness for it. For decades after she could be seen walking through the streets of Richmond with her cane and talking to herself. She also owned 40 or so cats. Yes, sometimes that crazy cat lady might have a story to tell and Elizabeth’s story was one of doing what she thought right even if it cost her everything but her life. After the war her only income was an annuity from a Union soldier she helped escape from prison.
When she died in 1900 she couldn’t afford a tombstone, but Union soldiers she had saved donated money for the tombstone which said: “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.”
Anna – Sometimes doing what’s right doesn’t earn you any rewards. Sometimes the person loses quite a lot. Just look at our dear Joan D’Arc.
Zach – But Elizabeth was a hard core woman that didn’t just talk, she did. When she saw injustice she risked all she had to fight it. That’s a lesson we need to keep alive. And that goes for the big and small things in life alike.

Gaspar's Photo of a "Union spy."  He insists its real but something seems off about it....hmm....I wonder.

Gaspar’s Photo of a “Union spy.” He insists its real but something seems off about it….hmm….I wonder.

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4 comments on “Elizabeth Van Lew: Union spy

  1. Kaso says:

    A meaningful post, given the times. Good work, Zach.

  2. Zach, a historian at any wage level might be interested to know more about Richmond circa 1850s and 1860s. May I humbly suggest you check out “The North of the South,” a short article about the free and enslaved black community in antebellum Richmond? http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/the-north-of-the-south/ It will give you a sense of the milieu in which Bet Van Lew lived.

    Given your own fictive leanings, you might also like *The Secrets of Mary Bowser,* a book that imagines life in the Van Lew mansion and the Richmond spy ring from the point of view of Bowser, that former slave who became a spy in the Confederate White House. http://www.thesecretsofmarybowser.com It’s available at most bookstores and at Target. How’s that for minimum-wage history?

  3. Veritas says:

    Great article too bad you had to waste it on a damn Yankee spy.

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