8.6 Elizabeth Van Lew: A Union Spy (part 1)

Elizabeth Van Lew: A Union Spy (part 1)

We have now arrived at the woman who inspired this whole series on spies! Because Elizabeth Van Lew is one of my absolute favorites, and her story is so good that I simply cannot squeeze it into only one episode.

Full Transcript

She was born on October 15, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia. The Van Lews were one of Richmond’s elite families. They hosted many a famous guest like Edgar Allan Poe and Jenny Lind, the very famous Swedish singer (Varon, 15). Like all the other elite families, they owned slaves.

And yet somehow Elizabeth turned out very different from the other debutantes of the Old South. We don’t have a lot of detail about her childhood, so we can only speculate about why.

For starters, the Van Lews were new money. Her father’s family were originally Dutch and had come to Virginia via Jamaica. Her mother’s family were northerners, with Revolutionary heroes in the family memory (Ryan, 26; Varon, 10). So maybe northern and European roots explains it?

As a girl, Elizabeth was sent to Philadelphia to the same academy her mother had graduated from, so maybe a northern education explains it.

At any rate, Elizabeth herself later wrote that “From the time I knew right from wrong, it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the perceived opinions and principles in my locality” (Ryan, 27).

That may be a little bit of an overstatement, a little hindsight, but certainly she and her mother eventually arrived at the conclusion that slavery was fundamentally wrong.

Her father does not seem to have agreed. He died in 1843, so you might think that his wife Eliza could now free all the slaves. But sadly, emancipation was a lot more complicated than that.

For one thing, his will left the use of the slaves to Eliza but specifically denied her the right to free them. Apparently he knew what his wife was likely to do and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen.  And for another thing, Virginia law required freed slaves to leave the state within a year. Which meant that freeing a slave was the same thing as banishing them. They’d have to leave all family and friends and strike out to places unknown, probably without any capital or qualifications for any way of supporting themselves. Many slaves preferred slavery because the alternative they could see was isolation and quite possibly starvation. The law was intended to discourage do-gooders from lessening slavery’s power, and it worked.

But there were ways. You could free a slave secretly, and there are many rumors that the African-Americans who worked in the Van Lew mansion were paid employees pretending to be slaves (Varon, 9). Naturally there are no records of such a thing. You would not expect there to be records of such a thing. But one of these probably free African-Americans was Elizabeth Draper, mother of Maggie Lena Walker, a powerhouse of a woman who I discussed in episode 3.9. Maggie was born in the Van Lew mansion.

Van Lew Mansion (Source)

Now it is true and must be admitted that this arrangement still allowed the Van Lew women to benefit from the labor of their former slaves, who couldn’t easily go elsewhere. But remember that they still had to live in their world, not ours. It was not ideal, but it was something. And they did try other methods too.

One of their slaves, a girl named Mary Richards, was sent north to go to school. The neighbor’s minds must have boggled. Generally you didn’t want your slaves to be educated, you certainly didn’t pay for it, and you really truly certainly didn’t let it happen in a free state. But the Van Lews did. After Mary’s graduation, she went to Liberia as a missionary. At this time a lot of abolitionists were still laboring under the delusion that the solution to the slave problem was to ship all of them back to the mother continent, and Liberia was a colony created for just this purpose. It really doesn’t take too much imagination to think of at least ten solid reasons why this was never going to work, but it was a popular idea for a while and possibly the Van Lews shared it for a time.

Elizabeth (specifically Elizabeth, not her mother) sent Mary supplies and letters for several years until the living conditions got so bad that Mary begged to come home. Yes, she begged to return to a place where she would be considered a slave, at least outside the walls of the Van Lew mansion. Elizabeth arranged for it and Mary came home. And when a few months later Mary was arrested for roaming around without any certificates of freedom, Elizabeth showed up in court to rescue her. We don’t know exactly what she said, but since she paid a $10 fine for the crime of allowing her slave to wander “at large,” she must have claimed Mary as a slave, not as a free woman. Even the newspapers thought this was fishy. Liberia was a strange place for a slave to have visited (Varon, 30).

The point here is that even before the war the Van Lew women were leading something of a duplicitous life: outwardly they were wealthy, respectable, slave-owning Southerners. Inwardly, they were wealthy, respectable abolitionists. And to preserve that fiction, they were hiding some things from the neighbors.

And yet it wasn’t all fiction. After all, the obvious method, if they really wanted out, was to sell the house, the farm, and the hardware business and move north, taking their household with them, both whites and blacks, where it would be perfectly all right to free them. And yet Elizabeth never seems to have considered that, as some other Southern abolitionists did. She was a Virginian woman, a Southerner, and she saw it as her role to make the place better. Not to flee and leave her city to its fate.

That sense of responsibility stayed firm as the political situation worsened. Southern anger was burning hot. Women were only spectators, yet because they were so virtuous (blah, blah, blah), their approval proved the moral righteousness of any cause. Therefore, many newspapers insisted that all the ladies were for secession. Their patriotism was even stronger than that of the men, their loyalty was pure (Varon, 42). If any lady (such as both of the Van Lews) ventured to say that they thought secession was maybe not a good idea, then they obviously weren’t real Southern women. They were Yankees. And we don’t like Yankees, do we?

Elizabeth watched in horror and wrote that “the whole South became one great military school. We were told that it would only require 6% of our male population to whip the Yankees, a cowardly set who had only to believe us in earnest to yield to all our demands. Some went as far as to say that one Southern man could whip 500 Yankees, a race whose extermination, even of women and children, would be a blessing” (Ryan, 31).

On April 17, 1861, the Virginia convention voted to secede, and in May the popular vote ratified it.

According to Elizabeth, she knew men who were Unionists, but they voted for secession anyway because they’d been threatened with death if they didn’t, and there are other accounts that confirm that that really happened. “Surely madness was upon the people!” she wrote in her journal (Ryan, 32). And the fault, as far as she was concerned, was in the institution of slavery.

She wrote, “One whose intellect I much respect . . . has endeavored to convince me that Democracy was the whole and sole cause [of the war], but I always told him I thought it was slavery. In this belief my head and heart agree. Slave power crushes freedom of labor. Slave power is arrogant—is jealous and intrusive—is cruel—is despotic—not only over the slave, but over the community, the State” (Ryan, 63). “I saw two young men in tears. They had both joined the army against every principle of their nature. Do you blame them? If you do, then, you don’t know that slavery takes away a man’s moral or highest courage, and replaces it with brute valour” (Ryan, 33).

The Van Lews did not lack for courage. When they were asked to help sew shirts for Confederate soldiers, they refused. And they were threatened. They did not dare to speak their minds any further, so their double lives redoubled. They delivered books and flowers to the Confederate soldiers to appease their neighbors, but they did not change their opinions (Varon 53-54).

After the First Battle of Bull Run, Richmond was flooded with Union prisoners. Elizabeth went to the head of the prison and volunteered her services as a nurse. The man looked her up and down in surprise and said the Yankees weren’t worthy of her concern, so no.

Undaunted, Elizabeth went to the man’s superior. There she played the feminine purity card. If we were to win this righteous war, she said, we must show Christian mercy, even to those who do not deserve it. That was the right tactic. She got her permission (Varon, 56-57).

So she began delivering chicken soup and cornmeal gruel to the captives. Probably also medical supplies, all paid for out of the Van Lew family fortune. It would be unfair not to mention that the majority of the physical labor of these deliveries was done by the African American servants in the Van Lew household. They also ran risks and had close shaves. Unfortunately, we mostly don’t know their names, and very few of their stories.

Libby Prison held the Union officers in Richmond (Source)

Elizabeth soon learned that Christian charity to the least of these their brethren was not a rationale that would wash with everyone. The Richmond Examiner had this to say:

“Two ladies, a mother and a daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners confined in this City. Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles of comfort or necessity for our troops . . . these two women have been expending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on raping and murder, the desolation of our homes and sacred places, and the ruin and dishonor of our families. . . The Yankee wounded have been put under charge of competent surgeons and provided with good nurses. This is more than they have any right to expect, and the course of these two females . . . cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorstation [sic] of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.”

1861-07-29, Richmond Examiner; Varon, 59-60; Ryan, 37,

This was a most serious charge. Traitors were being rounded up by means both official and appallingly unofficial. And note that the charge is not just that they are not true Southerners, but that they are not true women. Dispensing charity had always been an integral part of a lady’s role, but now it was political, and only okay if you dispensed it in the right way and to the right people.

On the very next day, the Richmond Enquirer ran an article about a different visit to Yankee prisoners, one made not for charity, but by a reporter. According to him, some of

“the prisoners express regret at taking up arms against our people. Some say their newspapers and politicians had led them to believe that Southerners were semi-barbarous, and were preparing to overrun the North; others had been persuaded that the masses of the people here were held in subjection by a few unprincipled men, and desired the aid of the North to regain their independence; and many enlisted with the understanding that they would only be employed in the defence of Washington city. They are very grateful for the kind treatment they are receiving at our hands. But the Fire Zouaves [from New York] are incorrigible. They seem perfectly oblivious to every sentiment of honor, gratitude or decency. They have nothing but the human form and faculty of speech to distinguish them from Gorillas.”

1861-07-30, Richmond Enquirer

So you can see the way the sentiment was going: If they are agree with us they are simply misled (and you would think that would mean they were deserving of charity). If they don’t agree with us, they are subhuman.

Elizabeth was one of those Southerners who desired the aid of the North to regain their independence. She knew her actions placed herself and her family at risk. She felt threatened enough that she appealed to Jefferson Davis himself for protection. No protection was forthcoming, so the Van Lews averted suspicion by taking in a Confederate captain and lodging him in their house. They didn’t like him, but it showed they were doing their Confederate duty (Varon 65-67). This was a double game they would continue to play. Mrs. Van Lew conspicuously helped Southern soldiers to allay suspicion, while Elizabeth quietly helped the Union ones (Varon, 67).

In June of 1862, Union General George McClellan approached Richmond with his army, and the Van Lews so expected his victory that they prepared a room for him to stay in when he triumphantly entered the city. As you may know, McClellan did not enter the city on that occasion. 5000 Union prisoners entered instead (Varon 77-83).

None of the prisons had been designed to hold so many men, and conditions (which had never been as good as the newspaper implied) now grew appalling. There wasn’t enough food, space, or medical care. Prisoners were dying of their wounds, of disease, of malnutrition, of the weather, and of brutal treatment by the guards.

Elizabeth was no longer allowed to visit. The war had started ugly, and it was getting uglier. But this did not stop her. She convinced the surgeons to send the worst affected men out to the hospital. She could still visit the hospital.

She brought these men custard in a dish that just so happened to have a false bottom. In it she could stuff information and money. As everywhere else, prisons worked at least partially on a market economy. If you could pay, you could buy extra food and bribe the guards for better treatment (Varon, 85)

Clergy members were still allowed to visit, so she sent bribe money through them too (Varon, 86). And of course the prison relied on African American labor, and she sent bribes through them too.

There are no hard figures on how much of her fortune she spent, but there is no doubt that it was in the tens of thousands of dollars, which in modern money means at least half a million (https://www.in2013dollars.com/).

And it wasn’t just money and food. Escape was a possibility too. Every Sunday Elizabeth took a walk down the street, never looking at the prison with more than casual interest. The African Americans inside cleaning would tell prisoners by the window to look. That lady, they said, would help them if they could get out (Varon, 91).

And she did. The clerk of Libby prison, Erasmus Ross, was a friend of hers and a member of the Union underground. He played his role well. He yelled and swore at the prisoners and sometimes hit them. But one inmate recorded that after punching him in the stomach, Ross demanded that he come to his office, presumably for further beating. And when he got there, Ross handed him a Confederate uniform and told him to change his clothes and walk out. The man walked out the front doors of his prison, whereupon an African American man led him to the Van Lew mansion (Varon, 89).

In fact there was a steady trickle of escapes from Libby prison, many routed through the Van Lew’s before their flight north, and each man who made it through brought news of Richmond’s inner workings. It was almost certainly through one of these escapees that the Union army came to hear of a Miss Van Lew in Richmond.

It goes without saying that none of the Union generals were very popular in the South. But Southerners were reserving a very special place in hell for General Benjamin Butler. Besides the obvious reasons, he had done two things to earn their wrath. In 1861 in the very earliest days of the war, he had declared three escaped slaves to be contraband and refused to return them. From a modern perspective, he doesn’t deserve much credit here because his reasons were entirely practical, not moral. Why—he asked himself—should these people be overworked and underpaid for the South’s benefit when they could be overworked and underpaid for the North’s benefit? No reason at all—he answered himself—and he put them to work. It was economic warfare, and it was his action that led many in the North to think that emancipation was a military necessity even if they had no particular abolitionist convictions.

Offense #2 happened in 1862. The Union took New Orleans by sea and Butler was placed in control of the city. The fair ladies of New Orleans were a problem. They showed their Confederate spirit by shrieking at, spitting at, or emptying chamber pots on the Union soldiers. Generally speaking, the gallantry of the time meant that arresting, imprisoning, or otherwise punishing women was unchivalrous persecution. It certainly wasn’t holding an independent capable adult accountable for her independent capable decisions because women didn’t really have independent capable decisions, did they?

Butler correctly realized that he couldn’t just round all these women up and give them jail time. That-would have been a PR nightmare. So instead he instituted Order No. 28, the Woman Order. It said that any woman who insulted a Union soldier would “be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation”. That is to say, as a prostitute.

Butler claimed then and later that this policy was intended as a deterrent. No Southern lady wanted her reputation besmirched and the problem evaporated. No arrests were needed.

But Southerners were having none of that excuse. They read the order as—and I quote—an “instigation to the violation of the women of New Orleans.” It was way beyond the rules of civilized warfare as they understood it (Varon 108). Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared that anyone who caught Butler should hang him immediately.

I’m putting this little digression in here because it is very revealing about gender relations of the time. From where I’m sitting it is not okay to rape a woman even if she is a prostitute, so Butler’s order was not an instigation to violate anyone. I find their reaction far more disturbing than the actual order. But it was not just Confederates who thought Butler was the one in the wrong. British and even Northern newspapers argued against him too.

Anyway, by January of 1864, Butler was no longer allowed to be in charge of New Orleans, he was in charge of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and having heard of Elizabeth he wrote her a letter, and this is what it said:

My Dear Aunt: I suppose you have been wondering why your nephew has not written before, but we have been uncertain whether we should be able to send a letter. The Yankees steal all the letters that have any money in them through Flag of Truce, so that we thought we would wait until we got a safe chance.

I am glad to write that Mary is a great deal better. Her cough has improved, and the doctor has some hope. Your niece Jennie sends love, and says she wishes you could come north, but I suppose that is impossible. Mother tells me to say that she has given up all hopes of meeting you, until we all meet in heaven.

Yours Affectionately, James Ap. Jones

Ryan, 53

All innocuous enough, but after heat was applied the same letter read

My Dear Miss: The doctor who came through and spoke to me said that you would be willing to aid the Union cause by furnishing me with information if I would devise a means. You can write through Flag of Truce, directed to James Ap. Jones, Norfolk, the letter being written as this is, and with the means furnished by the messenger who brings this. I cannot refrain from saying to you, although personally unknown, how much I am rejoiced to hear of the strong feeling for the Union which exists in your own breast and among some of the ladies of Richmond. I have the honor to be,

Very respectfully, Your obedient servant.

Ryan, 53-54

Elizabeth accepted the pen pal. On January 30, 1864, she wrote to him:

Dear Sir: It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Are building batteries on the Danville road.

What this meant was any rescue attempt was urgent, for the prisoners were about to be shipped south. Elizabeth had thoughts about the rescue attempt too, for she continued:

No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them, amounting in all to 40,000 or 45,000 troops. Do not underrate [the Confederate’s] strength and desperation. Forces could probably be called into action in from five to ten days; 25,000, mostly artillery. Hoke’s and Kemper’s brigades gone to North Carolina; Pickett’s in or about Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by General Lee for want of horses. [General John Hunt] Morgan is applying for 1,000 choice men for a raid.

Ryan, 55-56

This was a serious amount of information for a spy to supply, and it was only the first of many letters. You might wonder how a Southern even knew about so much of the Confederate dispositions. Elizabeth had friends. She was not the only Unionist in Richmond, and many of them were men, some in high places. Her role was not so much to dig up the information herself, but to collect it from various sources and pass it on.

Also, to continue to foster the internal troubles of Confederate command. But for that, you’ll have to come back next week.

Selected Sources

“$15,000 in 1861 → 2022 | Inflation Calculator.” http://Www.in2013dollars.com, http://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1861?amount=15000. Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.

“1861-07-29, Richmond Examiner; Condemnation of Two Ladies, Living on Church Hill, Who Are Attending the Yankee Wounded [Elizabeth van Lew and Her Mother].” Civilwarrichmond.com, civilwarrichmond.com/written-accounts/newspapers/richmond-examiner/10-7-29-1861-condemnation-of-two-ladies-living-on-church-hill-who-are-attending-the-yankee-wounded-elizabeth-van-lew-and-her-mother. Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.

“1861-07-30, Richmond Enquirer;  City Alms House Hospital (Gen. Hos. #1) Described. Used as a Prison at This Time.” Civilwarrichmond.com, 2014, http://www.civilwarrichmond.com/written-accounts/newspapers/richmond-enquirer/2327-1861-07-30-richmond-enquirer-city-alms-house-hospital-gen-hos-1-described-used-as-a-prison-at-this-time. Accessed 5 Sept. 2022.

Axelrod, Alan. The War between the Spies : A History of Espionage during the American Civil War. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.

Lineberry, Cate. “Elizabeth van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy.” Smithsonian, Smithsonian.com, 5 May 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/elizabeth-van-lew-an-unlikely-union-spy-158755584/.

Ryan, David D. A Yankee Spy in Richmond. Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 2000.

Simpson, John A. “The Cult of the ‘Lost Cause.’” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 34, no. 4 (1975): 350–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42623867.

Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy : The True Story of Elizabeth van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.

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