“You have to focus on what needs to be done – always do the right thing, not the popular thing.”                                                              David Cameron

Fall 1861 – Confederate Capital, Richmond, Virginia: Elizabeth Van Lew walked a few blocks from her house to watch the activity at the tobacco warehouse. A few months earlier, following one of the first battles of the Civil War in nearby Manassas, Virginia, the Confederate Army needed a lockup for captured Union soldiers. They quickly converted an old warehouse into a makeshift prison.

Elizabeth introduced herself to the colonel in charge and volunteered her services as a nurse. “Miss Van Lew are you a nurse?” he questioned. “No sir,” she shook her head. He responded, “Why would you want to take care of Yankee soldiers?” She had her reasons. He turned her down. A few days later, Elizabeth was back. Using all the Southern charm the 43-year-old spinster could muster and a freshly baked cake, she persuaded the colonel to allow her to help the soldiers.

 She was born in 1818 into an affluent Richmond family who lived in a three-story antebellum mansion in Church Hill, the wealthiest section of town. Her father owned a successful hardware business, and her mother, Eliza, hailed from a prominent Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, family. Elizabeth was educated at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, where she began to realize the injustice of slavery, despite her father owning a dozen slaves.

Despite Elizabeth’s frequent passionate pleas to her father to free the slaves, he refused. When he died in 1843, his will stipulated that none of his slaves could be freed. It took more than a decade, but Elizabeth finally convinced her mother to free the slaves who worked for them. Because they were well treated, half the slaves chose to remain with the Van Lews, including Mary Bowser, their cook, whom the Van Lews had helped educate.

Although Virginia seceded from the Union in May 1861 and Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth and Eliza remained strongly pro-Union. When Elizabeth began volunteering at the prison, she was appalled by the deplorable living conditions and harsh treatment of the soldiers. The situation served as her call to action.

After she started, Elizabeth persuaded a guard to allow her mother to help her in the prison. The two women routinely brought food, clothes and medicine to the prisoners. In these items, unbeknownst to prison guards, they hid information on how to escape. On several occasions, they hid escaping prisoners in a secret room in their attic in Church Hill. Nobody suspected that the two compassionate, seemingly naïve women were Union spies.

Elizabeth’s efforts to assist Union soldiers reached General George Sharpe, an intelligence officer with the Union Army of the Potomac across the James River from Richmond. He recruited her as a spy. Under Sharpe’s tutelage, Elizabeth’s spy ring grew to more than a dozen people. She used her former slaves to assist in the espionage work. Before the war ended, the spy network included clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments.

Perhaps Elizabeth’s most impressive feat as a spymaster was placing Mary Bowser in the Confederate White House. The Van Lew’s former slave worked directly for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Although he was wary of a mole in his inner circle, little did he know that the spy was the Black woman who cooked and cleaned for him. He never suspected that Mary could read nor that she had a photographic memory.

Mary relayed critical Confederate intelligence information, such as Rebel troop movement, supply line activity and military plans to former slaves, who carried them to Elizabeth. Mary learned to use colorless ink that became visible when soaked in milk. She also sent coded messages on small pieces of paper that were hidden inside hollowed-out eggs or vegetables or sewn into garments. Under the code name ‘Bobsal,’ Elizabeth sent information to U.S. generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, the Commanding General of the Northern Armies.

While hundreds of women on both sides served as spies during the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew was one of the most productive. In 1865, she received a letter from General Grant, “Dear Miss Van Lew: Thank you for your bravery. You sent me the most valuable information from Richmond during the war.” He believed her intelligence was instrumental in several Union victories.

Elizabeth Van Lew’s legacy as a Union spy is a testament to the power of conviction in the face of adversity. Her extraordinary efforts helped shape history, secure the Union’s victory and keep our country united.