8.7 Elizabeth Van Lew: A Union Spy (part 2)

Elizabeth Van Lew (part 2)

Full Transcript

If you have not listened to last week’s episode, I strongly recommend that you go back and give it a listen. This story will make so much more sense if you do. In part 1, you will hear how Elizabeth Van Lew, the wealthy Southern lady became a Union spy because she loved the South, but she was whole heartedly devoted to both abolition and the country (by which she meant the United States, not the Confederate States). She was also heavily involved in helping Union prisoners escape from Richmond.

On February 9, 1864, Libby prison had its most massive outbreak yet in a story that would strain credulity if we didn’t know that the Richmond underground had an inside man. In the very best Hollywood fashion, the prisoners actually dug a tunnel out of the cellar and under the street. It was 50 to 60 feet long, with a 2-foot diameter and hundreds upon hundreds of rats. The prisoners found time to do it because when the roll was called twice a day, some of the men counted first would sneak around the back to be counted again to cover for their digging compatriots, and all the while wondering that Erasmus Ross, the prison clerk, was so gullible and incompetent at taking the roll that he never noticed. Actually he was very, very competent. So competent that they never noticed he was secretly on their side (Varon, 121).

Anyway, on February 9th, over 100 men escaped in one night, which was hugely embarrassing for the Confederate government.

Elizabeth knew about it in advance for she had beds ready and waiting for some of the prisoners (Ryan, 60). (I’m assuming not the full 109 because I cannot imagine she could have hidden that from the neighbors.)  But she did not know which night the escape would happen. So when a group of terrified men showed up at her back door, she was not at home. Her servants feared a Confederate trick and refused to let the men in.

Elizabeth wrote that she was “greatly distressed” and “in despair” over those prisoners she failed to help, but she did have a strong reason for being away. She had a brother, John. To me, one of the most curious things about this story is their relationship, though none of my sources commented on it much. According to the conventions of the time, you would expect him to be the head of the family after their father’s death. He should have been the one making decisions, managing the estate, determining the family’s politics, and engaging in espionage if he so chose. But that was simply not how it worked in this case. I’ve found no clear explanation of why, but Elizabeth was definitely the stronger personality. Throughout her life, she would be stepping in to help him out of one problem or another. John had avoided joining the Confederate army as long as he could, but he was finally drafted. And he deserted. Having received word of where he was, Elizabeth had dressed in poor, coarse clothes to remain unnoticed as she visited the poor family that was sheltering him (Varon, 127).

Elizabeth knew how to smuggle people north. She had done so before, but the timing was bad. With 109 escaped prisoners on the loose, everyone would be under heightened scrutiny. In fact over half of the escapees were recaptured. Those who made it were often sheltered by sympathetic black families, and many of these safe houses were reimbursed for their expenses by Elizabeth Van Lew (Varon, 132).

Running north was dangerous enough for an escaped prisoner, but those men had very little to lose. Running north as a Confederate deserter was different. Anguished on multiple accounts, Elizabeth gave up on smuggling John out. She wrote that “desperate situations sometimes require despicable remedies” (Ryan, 60) and she chose one.

She went to the Confederate general (a man whom she had flattered and cajoled many times before) and begged a medical exemption for her brother. He granted it. John was still in the Confederate army, but not assigned to the front. It is unclear to me whether Elizabeth thought this despicable because it was a lie (John’s issue with the army was ethical, not medical) or because she knew she was trading on class and wealth privilege here. A poor man, of any color, would never have been treated so well as John Van Lew was.

Meanwhile, Union Generals Benjamin Butler and George Meade were working on Elizabeth’s tip and organizing a raid to recover the Richmond prisoners.

On March 1st, the Union army attempted to break into Richmond. Again, they failed. This time, rather spectacularly. I don’t intend to give all the details here, but basically, it was a two-prong attack and both prongs ran into problems and retreated, but not without casualties. The most notable man to fall was Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, on whose body were found papers with plans to burn the city and assassinate Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Varon, 139).

Ulric Dahlgren (Source)

The South claimed the North were barbarians. This is not how civilized warfare is conducted! The North agreed that that plan was despicable. They claimed the papers were forgeries intended to smear the North and inflame the locals. To this day, historians haven’t resolved that question, but Elizabeth believed the papers were forged and Dahlgren was a fallen hero (Ryan, 74).

This incident and its aftermath is the longest section in her memoirs and to understand its significance you need to know that the Victorians were obsessed with death. This is the time period when Queen Victoria was still wearing black, decades after her husband died, and hundreds of thousands of women around the world were following her example. The manner of your death was very, very important. You were supposed to die in your bed, surrounded by your loving family, followed by a large, expensive and religious funeral, followed by extensive mourning rituals, especially by your female relatives.

Our modern mentality is so different that it’s easy to dismiss the way people of the time felt about it. From their perspective, the tragedy of the Civil War was not just that so many died, but that they died far from home, in harsh conditions, buried hastily, without Christian rites, and often in mass unmarked graves that their families would never find.

So when the Confederates mutilated Dahlgren’s corpse and gave it the secret, unmarked burial they thought a villainous philistine deserved, it was as distressing to the Unionists as the fact that he had died in the first place. And they decided to do something about it.

I’m not sure who was the brains behind this operation. Maybe Elizabeth? Or maybe not.

At any rate, some of her Unionist men discovered the location of the grave by asking an African American cemetery worker. It was a dark and stormy night in April when they snuck out to dig up the body. They took it to a safe house and the following day the Richmond Underground, including Elizabeth, attended a viewing (which cannot have been pretty at this point) and a religious service. They placed Dahlgren in a nice coffin, placed the coffin in a wagon, tightly packed it around with young peach trees, and drove out past the Confederate picket by the simple expedient of engaging the guard in a discussion of peach cultivation. Then they drove 10 miles further out to their chosen location, gave Dahlgren the hero’s burial they felt he deserved (Varon 142-149, Ryan 69-72), and patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

But the story wasn’t over. What the Richmond underground did not know was that Dahlgren’s father, a Union admiral, was also upset about the disposition of his son’s body, and he had been negotiating with the Confederates about it. An agreement was reached, which promised that his son’s body would be returned to him. So on April 14th, the Richmond Examiner reported that Confederate soldiers had “opened [the grave] under the direction of the officials who interred the remains, but the grave was empty—Dahlgren had risen, or been resurrected, and the corpse was not found” (Varon, 151).

The feat impressed the Union command greatly, once they understood what had happened. But it seriously freaked out the Confederate command. Here I quote Elizabeth’s biographer, Elizabeth R. Varon who wrote “With the humiliating great escape from Libby [prison] still fresh in the public’s mind, the great resurrection was deeply disquieting to Confederate Richmond, for it disclosed the presence of a loyalist resistance able not only to spy, smuggle, and bribe, but apparently to work miracles” (Varon, 151).

Resurrection notwithstanding, Elizabeth was still writing letters to the Union army regularly. Three per week, in fact, now directed to General Ulysses S. Grant’s spymaster, for Grant was now closing in on Richmond.

This was not the first time that a Union army had approached the city, and Elizabeth’s thoughts on it are very different from the first time. In 1862, Elizabeth had even gone out to visit a friend, knowing the battle was near, and she found it exhilarating, happy in anticipation that the war would soon be over. “The rapid succession of guns was wonderful,” she wrote. “About nine o’clock it ceased and with a kind good night we left our friends. . . reached home about ten; found the family much excited, the fight having approached so near our house that the bursting of the shells could be distinctly seen from the home window, and the house shook with each report. No ball could ever be so exciting as our ride this evening. I realized the bright rush of life, the hurry of death on the battle field!” (Ryan, 44).

But four long years of war and death and disappointment and fear had elapsed since then, and with Grant’s army fighting nearby, she now wrote something very different. “I do not feel as if the Federals would get here this spring . . . It seems to me we have suffered past all excitement. Nothing elates me. I have a calm hope, but there is much heart sadness with it. . . . One cannot imagine the gloom of this place now” (Ryan, 93).

Sure enough, the Union army did not get to Richmond that spring. And still Elizabeth worked. She sent Grant news of all changes in Confederate fortifications, the state of Lee’s troops (not good), and all troop movements and supplies (Varon, 69-170). Historians such as William B. Feis have attributed a great deal of Grant’s success to the efforts of agents in Richmond (Varon, 173), which is to say Elizabeth and her team.

You may well wonder, after all this time, hadn’t the Confederates gotten the least little bit suspicious? Well, as a matter of fact, they had. In the fall of 1864, the Van Lew family was under official investigation. Elizabeth’s mother took the brunt of it, as head of the household, but it was all the more nasty for being a family squabble too. One of the people testifying against them was John’s estranged wife, and there was a child custody issue behind the accusation of disloyalty (Varon, 178).

In the end the charges were dropped, which is flatly remarkable since the Van Lews were guilty of far more than what they had been charged with. There was no hard evidence, but that isn’t really what saved them. They were saved by a refusal to believe that women could be guilty of such charges. One member of the tribunal wrote: “Miss Elizabeth Van Lew of this city is very unfriendly in her sentiments toward the Gov’t . . . [but] it does not appear that she has ever done anything to infirm the cause—Like most of her sex she seems to have talked freely—and in the presence of female friends, who have informed on her. The question is whether she shall be sent beyond the lines because of her opinion?”

In this Mr. Blackford was dead wrong, and he may well have lived long enough to know it (I’m not sure), but in the end it was both sexism and classism that saved her. High-born women were known to be irrational talkers, so let us indulge them. Women were not known to actually act in any significant way, so they are no threat.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth continued her subversive acts. She wrote to Grant of shipments of goods, which he captured (Varon, 188), and of the ever-worsening conditions in the city.

Richmond finally fell on April 2, 1865. As the capital, it spelled the end for the whole South. For the city, it was a flaming apocalypse, but in a bitter twist of irony, it wasn’t the Union army that burned the city. The Confederate troops torched their warehouses and workshops as they retreated, to prevent them from falling into Union hands. Unfortunately, there were gusty winds that night.

To make matters worse, the city council chose to destroy all the liquor reserves to prevent intoxication. They poured all the reserve stores out, so that the gutters were literally running with alcohol. Alcohol is highly flammable, and those gutters soon allowed the flames to flow to everything downhill (Varon, 191). A marauding army could scarcely have destroyed the city any more efficiently than the Confederates did themselves.

Lithograph depicting the Evacuation Fire (Currier & Ives, 1865) (Source)

Amidst this blazing inferno, the Union army entered, and it was they who put the fire out. Elizabeth wrote:

“Had it not been for [the Union soldiers], the whole city would have been a map of smouldering ruins. Hundreds of houses had fallen victims to the spreading fires. The loss of public and private property was immense. Our beautiful flour mills, the largest in the world and the pride of our city, were destroyed. Square after square of stores, dwelling houses and factories, warehouses, banks, hotels, bridges all wrapped in fire, filled the sky with clouds of smoke as incense from the land for its deliverance. What a moment! Avenging wrath appeased in flames! The chains, the shackles fell from thousands of captives, and thousands of arms fell powerless . . . Civilization advanced a century. Justice, truth, humanity were vindicated.  . . . No wonder that the walls of our houses were swaying; the heart of our city a flaming altar, as this mighty work was done. Oh, army of my country, how glorious was your welcome!”

Ryan, 105-6

That sentiment was, obviously, not the same as that felt by many of her neighbors, but it is the key to her character. All the way along, Elizabeth would reject the label “spy,” which she, like most in her time period, considered dishonorable. “I do not know how they can call me a spy,” she wrote, “serving my own country within its recognized borders . . . [for] my loyalty am I now to be branded as a spy—by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest?” (Varon, 7)

She did what she did because she believed it to be right and her moral duty to do it. It was the men who voted for secession who were traitors to America’s great legacy, and those who held and mistreated slaves who were neither honorable nor honest.

And there is no doubt that she suffered for her convictions. Constant fear and danger during the war, and afterwards growing disillusionment. As Reconstruction advanced she was disappointed to realize that emancipation was not enough. The racial power dynamic had not really changed.

Damage near the Armory. Albumen print, 1865 (Source)

On a more personal note, she had spent over half her fortune on supporting the Union, and the family hardware business was dead. When her neighbors found out the truth about her, bit by bit, she received death threats (Varon, 207).

She needed a decent-paying job, and it was hard enough for a woman to get one of those even when the neighbors liked you.

On March 17, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant proved how much he had valued her assistance during the war. He appointed her Richmond’s postmaster. It was almost, but not quite, unheard of for a woman to get that job. This needs a little explanation because I’m sure I neither know nor care who runs my local postal system, but in the 19th century, this was a highly influential job. The postmaster was paid well, could hire their friends for a substantial workforce, and controlled the flow of political information with free postage for messages they liked and failure of delivery for the ones they didn’t (Varon, 218). This was all completely expected and done across the country.

Needless to say, the white male chauvinists of Richmond were not pleased that this coveted job went to any woman, much less a traitorous Republican woman, who immediately hired a whole troop of African Americans and women to work for her (Varon, 218). On the other hand, the growing women’s rights movement cheered. Both Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were fans of Elizabeth Van Lew. (Varon, 222). But then they would be. They were both Notherners.

Many would have liked it if Elizabeth had proved incompetent, but she didn’t. She modernized and brought delivery from 14,483 letters per month to a whopping 83,258 letters per month. Those who wanted to bring her down generally had to fall back on gender complaints, such as “no lady can wield the political influence which the dignity and value of the office should command” (Varon, 222) or “what are these women doing here [working in the post office]—we want voters” (Varon, 229).

Despite those complaints, Grant appointed her a second time. But the trouble with political appointments is that your party won’t be in office forever and then you lose your job and she did.

Its loss was devastating, emotionally and financially. The subsequent jobs never worked out well. She could not sell the mansion. Years of spending her not-enough-money meant it was run down, and no one wanted the run-down house of a double-crosser. Those accusations got worse over the years, not better. By the 1890s, what historians call the Cult of the Lost Cause was in full swing (Simpson). In that mentality, the South may have lost the war, but it had been a noble war, a heroic effort, and if they had been defeated it was only because they fought against overwhelming odds, not because they had not deserved victory and certainly not because there was anything wrong with the cause for which they fought. Most of the statues and monuments that have been controversial, taken down, or proposed to be taken down in recent years were erected in the 1890s and subsequent decades, when the Cult of the Lost Cause was at its strongest. And to those who wanted to commemorate the glory of the Old South, Elizabeth was no Southern lady, deserving of respect. She was the arch-traitor, the villain, the cancer that had added to the already overwhelming odds against the doomed, but noble, men in gray. She had betrayed the South, her gender, her race, even her religion as they interpreted it.

The effect on Elizabeth was profound. She, obviously, did not see herself that way at all. She was the one who had remained true, who had believed in Christian charity, who had put herself at risk to save her country. But she was increasingly isolated. “No one will walk with us on the street,” she wrote. “No one will go with us anywhere—and it gets worse and worse as the years roll on” (Varon, 245).

This was perhaps, an exaggeration; a reflection of profound depression after a difficult life. Northerners still loved her after all. Some of them sent her money when they became aware of her need. Still it cannot have been easy to hear her niece, who lived with her say “if I had a child and it was a republican I would kill it, aunty,” rather than have it suffer the social rejection (Varon 245).

Elizabeth died on September 25, 1900, in the same house in which she had once hidden escaped Union prisoners. Her story, always controversial, mutated yet again after her death. She was charged with the same thing women, particularly older single women, are so often charged with when society wants to ignore them. If she had opinions of her own, if she did not value the same things her neighbors valued, if she was too poor to dress nicely, if she didn’t behave like nice ladies, then she must be crazy.

It is very easy to find sources that call Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” and claim that she pretended to be crazy to get away with her espionage. The myth was started by a guy who admitted that he had not actually read any of the memoirs, letters, or other papers available (Varon, 253). When you actually look, you find that she says a lot about pretending to be Confederate and nothing at all about pretending to be crazy. No one else called her crazy at that time either. She held her own opinions, yes, and she was willing to risk everything for them, yes. But it was precisely because she was not crazy, because she was an intelligent, respected, genteel Southern lady that she managed to survive.

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.

One comment

  1. Wow! What an interesting story — and so well told! Thank you for expanding my mind to know about so many impressive women throughout history.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s