Friday, July 5, 2013

Elizabeth Van Lew, a Quaker

Elizabeth Van Lew, Born: 25 October 1818, Richmond, Virginia. Died 25 September 1900 (aged 81), Richmond, Virginia., cause of death Natural death, Resting place: Shockoe Hill Cemetery Richmond, 37.551816, -77.432016
   Residence: 2301 E. Grace Street, Richmond, Virginia (now Bellevue Elementary School)
Known for Espionage during the American Civil War Elizabeth Van Lew (October 25, 1818 – September 25, 1900) was a well-born Richmond, Virginia resident who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the United States during the American Civil War.
   Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 25, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew and Eliza Baker, whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth's father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.
   Elizabeth was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where her family's abolitionist sentiments were reinforced. Upon the death of her father in 1843, Elizabeth's brother John Newton Van Lew took over the business and the family freed their nine slaves, even though John had been somewhat opposed to the idea. Those slaves included the young future Union spy Mary Bowser. In the depths of the 1837-44 depression, Elizabeth used her entire cash inheritance of $10,000 (nearly $200,000 in current money) to purchase and free some of their former slaves' relatives. For years thereafter, Elizabeth's brother was a regular visitor to Richmond's slave market, where, when a family was about to be split up, he would purchase them all, bring them home, and issue their papers of manumission.
Upon the outbreak of the war, Van Lew began working on behalf of the Union. When Libby Prison was opened in Richmond, Van Lew was allowed to bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.
   Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has been widely suggested that Van Lew convinced Varina Davis to hire Bowser as a household servant, enabling Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy. Varina Davis adamantly denied ever hiring Bowser, although it would be unlikely she would have known of Bowser's real identity or admitted hiring her after the fact. Recent research by Lois M. Leveen suggests that although Bowser used several pseudonyms during and after the war, making her contributions especially difficult to document, newly uncovered sources confirm her involvement in the Union espionage circle run by Van Lew. Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.
   Van Lew's work was highly valued by the United States. George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65." On Grant's first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond. Grant said of her, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war."
   When Richmond fell to U.S. forces in April 1865, Van Lew was the first person to raise the United States flag in the city.
   President Grant made her postmaster of Richmond and she served in that office from 1869 to 1877.
After the Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. She persuaded the United States Department of War to give her all of her records, so she could hide the true extent of her espionage from her neighbors. Having spent her family's fortune on intelligence activities during the war, she tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government. When the government failed to provide sufficient aid, she turned to a group of wealthy and influential Bostonians for support. They gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.
   Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war donated a tombstone. She is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. Even into the twentieth century, however, Van Lew was regarded by many Southerners as a traitor.
   In her will, Van Lew bequeathed her personal manuscripts, including her account of the war, to John P. Reynolds, nephew of Col. Revere. In 1911 Reynolds was able to convince the scholar William G. Beymer to publish the first biography of Van Lew in Harper's Monthly. The biography indicated that Van Lew had been so successful in her spying activities because she had feigned lunacy, and this idea won Van Lew the nickname "Crazy Bet". However, it is unlikely that Van Lew actually did pretend to be crazy. Instead, she probably would have relied on the Victorian custom of female charity to cover her espionage.
   Books and Films: Bet Van Lew is a major character in The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel by former college professor Lois Leveen. The novel became a Target book club pick in August of 2012.
The 1987 television movie A Special Friendship tells a fictionalized story of the friendship and pro-Union collaboration of Van Lew (who is presented as a young, rather than middle-aged, woman in the film) and her former slave Mary Bowser. The 1990 television movie Traitor in My House tells the story of ELizabeth Van Lew from the perspective of her niece; Mary Kay Place portrays Elizabeth.
Her story was also fictionalized in 1995 children's book The Secret of the Lion's Head by Beverly Hall, and in the 2006 novel, Only Call Us Faithful: A Novel of the Union Underground by Marie Jakober.

Elizabeth Keckly

Elizabeth Keckly

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Capture of African Americans by Union troops

John McEntee - Captain
Headquarters Army of the Potomac
Aug. 3, 1864

Another scout (colored), supposed to have been captured yesterday, just came in and reports that his colored friends near Stony Creek told him that Butlers brigade of cavalry was lying at Reams Station. General Hampton was in that vicinity with one brigade (Rossers), between Reams Station and Stony Creek. He also reports that his friends told him that on Sunday last General Lees cavalry division marched from the north side of the Appomattox River to Dinwiddie Court-House, and on Monday marched back north of Petersburg. This man is familiar with the country about Reams Station, etc. His wife now lives on Stony Creek, and lie has many acquaintances about there with whom he has talked.

Additional Details
African Americans Involved: 1
Army: Union
Source Location: Headquarters Army of the Potomac
Source Recipient: Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys

The War of the Rebellion Series. 1 Vol. 42 Part II Page 26-27

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

African Americans Helping the Union

O.B. Willcox - Brevet Major-General
Lew Jones Bridge on the Nottoway River, Brunswick/Dinwiddie Counties, VA
April 9, 1865
The people are driving their herds and horses across Nottoway River. Negroes, coming in numbers, say they have been ordered in with horses, mules, etc. They are stealing and pillaging.

Additional Details
  • African Americans Involved: In numbers...likely a few dozen?
  • Army: Union
  • Source Location: Beasley's House, Petersburg, VA
  • Source Recipient: Major-General Parke
The War of the Rebellion Series.1 Vol. 46 Part III Page 675

African Americans Helping the Union

G.K. Warren - Major-General of Volunteers
Vaughan Road, Dinwiddie, VA
March 29, 1865

My column is just passing the junction of the stage road with the Vaughan road. No sign of enemy. I have an old negro who has been hiding around in the woods near Crawford Church. He says he saw a man from Dinwiddie Court-House yesterday, and there were no troops there. I cannot rely much upon what he says. I send this up the Vaughan road by Captain Winslow with an escort of ten men.
Additional Details
  • African Americans Involved: 1
  • Army: Union
  • Source Location: Near Vaughan Road, Dinwiddie, VA
  • Source Recipient: Major-General A.S. Webb
The War of the Rebellion Series.1 Vol. 46 Part III Page 254

Dinwiddie Court House

Conscription, Confederate (army or labor)
Rob N. West - Colonel
Dinwiddie Court House, VA
Sept. 8, 1864

According to their accounts, the farmers are thrashing out their grain with all possible dispatch, and hurrying it and their prime negroes beyond Dinwiddie Court-House.
Additional Details
  • Army: Confederate
  • Source Location: In the Field
  • Source Recipient: Captain M.J. Asch
The War of the Rebellion Series. 1 Vol. 42 Part II Page 756

Sappony Church, VA

Capture/enslavement/re-enslavement of African Americans by Confederates
Sappony Church, VA
June 28, 1864

Defeated them at Sappony Church, about seven miles southwest of Dinwiddie Court-House; and at Ream's our forces attacked them in front and near, putting them utterly to rout, and making important captures, the most valuable of which consists of some hundreds of negroes, curried away from their owners by the Yankees on their expedition.

Additional Details
  • African Americans Involved: Many
  • African American Name: Not given
  • Slave Owner Name: Not given
  • Source Location: Richmond, VA
  • Newspaper: Richmond Daily Dispatch, July 1, 1864 [Untitled] Page 1 Column 1

Fugitive Slaves/Runaways

Winfield Scott Hancock - Major-General
Near Boydton Plank Road, Dinwiddie, VA
Nov. 19, 1864
Eight deserters, two white men refugees, four negro men, and one woman came into my lines during the night....The negroes state that the enemy are daily expecting a movement on our part. I send you a Richmond paper of the 18th, which they brought over. The Richmond paper states that when last heard from Sherman was at Jonesborough, on his road to Macon.
Additional Details
  • African Americans Involved: 4
  • Army: Union
  • Source Location: Headquarters Second Army Corps
  • Source Recipient: Major-General A.A. Humphreys
The War of the Rebellion Series. 1 Vol. 42 Part III Page 662