Confederate History Month – part deux.

In a comment to my recent Holocaust Day post, commenter/internet buddy absurdbeats wrote “The history matters—the actual history, the actual lives and deaths of millions of human beings. Not the mythification and weaponization of history, but the actuality of it. The actual horror of it.” Truer words have never been spoke.

In something of that spirit, and following in the rather formidable footprints of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I’ve decided to mark Confederate History Month — by learning and blogging about a handful of real Southern heroes about whom I had never heard until TNC mentioned them. (I started last Wednesday, if you want to catch up!) Today’s hero: Elizabeth Van Lew.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Born in 1818, Elizabeth Van Lew was the well-educated daughter of a wealthy businessman in Richmond, Virginia — which was, you’ll recall,  the capital of the Confederacy. Much like General George Henry Thomas, however, Van Lew both opposed slavery and was loyal to the Union.  “She risked everything that is dear to man,” reads a sign at her grave, “friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for one absorbing desire of her heart — that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”

Van Lew’s opposition to slavery came to the fore and found expression early on: When her father died in 1843, she learned he had written into his will that his slaves could never be legally freed — so she reached some sort of agreement with them, simply telling the former slaves that they could leave if they chose, and paying them wages when they stayed on to work for the family. The money her father left her was spent buying and freeing the slaves of others.

Van Lew also took bold action in support of the Union once war broke out. She got food and bribe money to Union prisoners, hid prisoners of war who had managed to escape (and even the occasional stolen Union body), and was herself a spy, conveying to the Union army information regarding Confederate attack plans. Her spy ring known was known as the Richmond Union Underground, and some of the former slaves she had freed were among the Underground’s agents. According to Elizabeth Van Lew: Civil War Spy: “General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, highly valued her work as a spy. The messages she delivered to him were some of the most valuable information he received and helped ultimately to lead the Union to victory.”

And as if that weren’t enough, she passed this information on in a secret code of her own devising:

Another Southern hero — and something of a feminist foremother, to boot!


  1. Excellent, thanks for this.

  2. Bryn

     /  April 20, 2010

    Ooooh! I JUST finished reading a fascinating book about Van Lew called Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. As the South became more rebellious and more defensive of slaveholding, she became more adamantly opposed to slavery. Southern ideas about ladies being innocent and refined really helped her to get away with some of the things she did…they just couldn’t imagine an aristocratic Southern lady doing what she did. The book covers some of the amazing things African Americans in the South did too in support of the Union.

    I didn’t know much about that code. That is awesome.

  3. Very cool.

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