When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Union and Confederate officers could never have predicted the role women would play in gathering information about the enemy. But as Northern and Southern women began providing critical intelligence on everything from the enemy’s movements to its military strategy, both sides began to actively recruit them as operatives. Over the course of the war, hundreds of women acted as undercover agents, willing to risk their lives to help their cause.
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One of the most effective was Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew—a prominent member of Richmond, Virginia, society. The 43-year-old lived with her widowed mother in a three-story mansion in the Confederate capital. Educated in the North, Van Lew took pride in her Richmond roots, but she fervently opposed slavery and secession, writing her thoughts in a secret diary she kept buried in her backyard and whose existence she would reveal only on her deathbed.
“She believed that Virginia’s distinct and special role as the architect of the Union required it to do whatever it could to preserve and sustain the country,” said historian Elizabeth Varon, author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. “But she always pretended to be a loyal Confederate.”
As her wealthy neighbors celebrated Confederate victories, Van Lew quietly focused on helping the Union. Over the next four years she would send valuable intelligence to Union officers, provide food and medicine to prisoners of war and help plan their escapes, and run her own network of spies. “She is considered the most successful Federal spy of the war,” said William Rasmussen, lead curator at the Virginia Historical Society.
These triumphs for the Union, however, would ultimately cost Van Lew not only her family fortune but also her place as a member of Richmond’s social elite.
Van Lew saw her first opportunity to help the Union after the Battle of Manassas in July 1861. Having no place to hold the Union prisoners pouring into Richmond, Confederates put them up in a tobacco warehouse. The now-infamous Libby Prison, as it was called, soon became known for its harsh conditions, where hundreds of men suffered from disease, hunger and despair.
Van Lew volunteered to become a nurse there, but her offer was rejected by the prison overseer, Lt. David H. Todd—the half-brother of Mary Todd Lincoln. Van Lew went over his head and used flattery and persistence to persuade Gen. John H. Winder to allow her and her mother to bring food, books and medicine to prisoners.
Van Lew and her mother were vehemently criticized for their efforts. The Richmond Enquirer wrote, “Two ladies, a mother and a daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners…. these two women have been expending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil.”
Threats of violence quickly followed. “I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things,” she wrote. “We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, and threats of death.” The Richmond Dispatch wrote that if the Van Lews didn’t stop their efforts, they would be “exposed and dealt with as alien enemies of the country.”