" ..Live As If I Were Plague Stricken..", Elizabeth Van Lew's Price For Patriotism

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
van lew liz or mother.jpg

This woman on the grounds of the Van Lew mansion, Church Hill, Richmond, may be Eliza Van Lew, not Elizabeth but her mother. Southern Unionist Elizabeth, famous and still celebrated- or disdained- spy. Eliza live until 1875. Both were forever effectively shunned by Richmond for refusing to acknowledge citizenship in any country other than The United States of America. They could not find enough pall bearers for Eliza's funeral.

" I do not know how they can call me a spy 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? God knows”
Elizabeth Van Lew


Elizabeth Van Lew, famously a spy and probably the best known Southern Unionist remains unpopular. Because she was a spy, living exactly where she grew up, part of the Richmond elite, from a slave holding family she ranks probably barely second with poor Mary Lincoln- Southern women whose apparent defection still rankles. Why, I have no idea. The whole ' long memories ' argument doesn't work. We're one country or are supposed to be. History is wayyy back there, over 150 years of yesterdays.

Came across the letter below in an 1876 newspaper. Made me awfully sad. In fact, she either writes with a prophet's pen or we've been single-mindedly steering a course right past all the History to which we're supposedly committed.

1876. Post-war, the woman Grant states was the reason he took Richmond had been postmistress. By 1877 that job, through a series of convoluted events, vanished.

Spy, fierce Unionist, raised the first American flag inside Richmond greeting Union troops as they marched into the city she was also a raging humanitarian. We’re so enthralled with ‘ spy ‘ that part is neglected. My grgrgrandfather’s brother, Calvin Huson, JPK’s brother, died in her home, the Van Lew mansion. She’d spotted him on a visit to Union prisoners at Liggon’s, a middle aged politician scooped up at Bull Run now dying of typhoid. She took him home, nursed him- in her writings she states he was well, then suddenly died. He’s still in the Van Lew plot in Hollywood, unmarked. Elizabeth had him buried there.

Post-war book on Richmond,and barely post war, the Van Lew mansion illustrated as a landmark, home to an illustrious family. The American flag is an odd touch- inside that house two women paid dearly for defending it. It's a baffling illustration, really. After her death, house was a school, a private club- finally razed.
van lew house book liiustration.jpg


She paid for all of it. Here's the widely published letter written " To Northern Democrats ". Our parties looked a little different.

Oct. 29 1876

“ To Northern Democrats

I hope you will pardon me for addressing you but I am impressed with the idea of your patriotic idea for the well being of the country, and that many of you have also the nobel impulse of sympathy for those whom you consider suffering the misfortunes of war. Believing you entirely misunderstand the disposition of the South-at any rate the state and community in which I live-I desire to give you the facts as they really are.

A cultivated and enlightened people are always a liberal people. Prejudice and ignorance never reason, and are always intolerant. A people brave and intelligent would value those who for principle dared for years to brave obloquy, danger, and death as we loyal people of the South did, who never rendered evil for evil, who have shown no vindictiveness nor malice, unwavering, unswerving in kindness, but slavery was a jealous idol and never permitted a word or doubt of her divine origin. “ The man who says slavery is wrong shall be hung for murder “ said a member of the Virginia legislator to me shortly before the war broke out. This spirit still lives and rules, and is a crushing power.


The person who would differ from the South, and thinks the South was wrong in the late struggle, who took part with the North has never forgiveness, the idea of the Southern mind is that the United States Government and ts supporters have need of forgiveness and the word is used with this charming reversion, Witness an article in The Dispatch, a leading journal of this city, after the Ohio and Indiana elections, it speaks of Mr. Harrison who was the Republican candidate for Governor of Indiana, as a man of Southern origin and held him up for excoriation and said he should be held as a social and political renegade etc. etc..

The proscription of Republicans here is something of which no idea can be formed. From a transient visit to the South you can know nothing.-you can only have a parlor view. Having been since the close of the war looked upon as a representative person – a representative of loyalty to the Government- I feel it my solemn duty to make this statement to you. I was born and brought up in the city, I was ever faithful to The United States Government, and did all that I could to serve it, thought I never compromised myself by any betrayal of trust or honor. I live and have lived for years so entirely distinct from the citizens as if I were plague stricken.

Rarely, very rarely is our doorbell rung by any other person except a pauper, or those desiring my service. In this city are two nephews of my mother- one and Episcopal minister, the other a prominent member of the Young Men’s Christian Association- who gave her up entirely, never noticing her or visiting her. Their “ principles “ would not allow them. “ You do not know me “ mother remarked to an old friend. “ I know you well enough” said the friend as she turned her head. My mother and I have been refused board in the summer season as a result of our Republican principles and told to apply to a “ northern gentleman “ –insulted at summer resorts and forced to go North.

September 1875 my mother was taken from me by death. We had not friends enough to be pall bearers “ Mr G is a radical “ said one lady to another, “ Oh no “ was the reply, “ why do you say so? “ “ Because he went to Mrs. Van Lew’s funeral and was one of the pall bearers and none but a radical would have gone ‘.This solemn occasion was ridiculed and called a n***** funeral.

In your kindness you are misled. Talk not of bayonet rule There is nothing so terrible as united public prescription and I am qualified to speak on the subject for I have felt it under Confederate rule God only knows how terrible and now, under this rebel rule is the guise of Democracy I have felt the full blast of the power. When the people all speak and think one way you may be sure there is not much liberty among them.

Here the people are a unit. Many a man has told me he dare not differ, for bread and butter for his family rely on his silence. An avowed Republican can get not business situation and Republicans stand not chance in our courts of justice. Let me give you and extract from the Raleigh Sentinel, and see how the great God of Heaven and Earth is spoken of,. After an
account of a concert given at White Sulphur Springs, in which Blaque Bey sung a tenor it says “ The concert was a grand success and put $800 dollars in the pocket of the church, beneath whose humble roof the great Virginian regularly and reverently bowed his gray head in homage to the God who had defeated him and and overthrown the cause he loved and fought for-the God who in his case seemed for once at least to permit might to triumph over right . “

As far as we are concerned the colored people have made no innovation, not the slightest, into our parlors or into our social circles and are, with rare exceptions, humble and respectful. The manner in which they are hurried, crowded in the penitentiary, for small offences committed in their great necessity, would arouse your indignation. Here the lash is used even upon the women.

The negro is the practical tobacconist of the South, and by the sweat of his brow and his cultivated, educated fingers, you own the luxury you so much enjoy. The wealth that comes from its manufacture never finds itself into his pocket and should he deny himself, save a penny, and go into business for himself, he is not permitted by the white man to enter the Tobacco Exchange and of course stand no chance of success. Labor is cheaper to the tobacconist than it was before the war. Most factories close during the winter, and men and women are not admitted into the almshouse if able to work. Without money, without work and
pressed by hunger, cold and starving children they may yield to temptation and steal, and for small offences the penitentiary receives them and a voter is lost, and your party has gained in purity and strength and it goes on; but God keeps the record.

There is a proposition now before the people to amend the Constitution so that the theft of a chicken shall disqualify a man forever as a voter. It is easy to see at whom this is aimed, and we have ballot box breakers and a class of men who are willing to swear anything about a Republican, black and white. I am not exaggerating. A man ( a conservative ) told me we might have the vote-the majority-but that we could never carry the election here; that it was so arranged
and it would be so. This man has been prominent in our elections. I told one of the city judges what he said.

I write this to you in all truth and honesty. I know not political bane. There are other political matters of which I could speak, but will leave them to abler pens. It is with much pain and awkwardness that I write of myself. I will not tell you of gross and repeated personal insults, they have long since ceased to move me, there is no one in the community to whom I would not render a service, if in my
power, no social or political act for which I blush, others before me have passed through the furnace, and I have found consolation in Matthew v. 10th​, 11th​ and 12th​, Luke vi, 22nd​ and 23rd​, which the whole world can neither gainsay nor take away from me.

Most respectfully and earnestly do I beg you to reflect upon the consequences before you unite with a “ Solid South “ – the Democrats of the South. As a woman
I have no power but through your vote. A vote is a tremendous power. You not only protect yourselves with it but provide for the wants and miseries or add to the wretchedness of your fellow human beings. Remember the ballot is the moral lever by which you put in place and power your officials.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Elizabeth L. Van Lew

Richmond, Virginia, October 27th​, 1876
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
I am familiar with her story. They never forgave her. How dare she, as a woman, have principles and stand by them. She saw a nation divided, first by war, then after by cruel politics, yet she never ceased to do good works. Now that, is a Christian.


Well put as ever @Mrs. V . I realize being a Christian- as well as living up to those principle when one professes to be Christian isn't popular but I'm sticking to it, too and thank you. Point there being heck, so if you think about it no matter the religious aspect, pretty darn good rules to live by.

It's odd or maybe not- female spies are a huge topic right? Unless that female spy is Elizabeth Van Lew. It's what I mean when I say we simply HAVE to separate ghosts from flesh and blood, yesterday from this morning. Hers is an incredible story of the war and 150 plus years later she's STILL hated. It's not only weird it's idiotic. How many pasts do get to cling to before we're not a country any more?

She's buried under a massive boulder for a reason- pretty hard to deface a boulder. She's buried standing up for another reason. No room left in her plot and why? She had a Union civilian prisoner who died in her home buried there. That was an act of compassion as was taking him home with her, suffering from typhoid, in the 1st place.

AND really- what on earth better example IS there of a Steel Magnolia? Sorry but the cherished image of a Southern woman stubbornly unmoved while all heck breaks loose around her? Elizabeth Van Lew.
 

connecticut yankee

First Sergeant
Joined
Jun 2, 2017
A book everyone would do well to read is:

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
By: Karen Abbott

In this well written, insightful book Abbott details the grit, determination and heroism of four female spies during the war. In Elizabeth Van Lew's story we see a wealthy Richmond socialite who carried out an incredible espionage operation under the observation of the city's political leaders and was never convicted of any treason to the southern cause. Her actions in a war-torn Richmond were quite humilitating to the social elite and politicians who could never prove their suspicions of her disloyalty. She went far beyond just speaking of her support for the Union. Her network of operators at the risk of their lives harbored escapees from Libby prison and other Unionists seeking a way out of the city and over to northern territory in addition to sending vital military information the north desperately needed.

Van Lew was highly educated, strong willed, and resourceful and in my opinion did more for the Union by far than any individual in Richmond during the war. She was so highly effective in her spy network I can understand why some people still vilify her 150 years later.
If it were my call, I'd erect a monument to this lady.
 
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JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Location
Central Pennsylvania
A book everyone would do well to read is:

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
By: Karen Abbott

In this well written, insightful book Abbott details the grit, determination and heroism of four female spies during the war. In Elizabeth Van Lew's story we see a wealthy Richmond socialite who carried out an incredible espionage operation under the observation of the city's political leaders and was never convicted of any treason to the southern cause. Her actions in a war-torn Richmond were quite humilitating to the social elite and politicians who could never prove their suspicions of her disloyalty. She went far beyond just speaking of her support for the Union. Her network of operators at the risk of their lives harbored escapees from Libby prison and other Unionists seeking a way out of the city and over to northern territory in addition to sending vital military information the north desperately needed.

Van Lew was highly educated, strong willed, and resourceful and in my opinion did more for the Union by far than any individual in Richmond during the war. She was so highly effective in her spy network I can understand why some people still vilify her 150 years later.
If it were my call, I'd erect a monument to this lady.


Isn't Karen good? If anyone hasn't come across the book, seriously recommend and I'm not just saying that because she's been a member here in the past. Her research is extremely ' picky ', for want of a better word and you just never catch her making leaps- as in taking some piece of information and creating a fact that doesn't exist in order to sensationalize something. You know what I mean. You read it and can kinda come away with the belief you've just added to your store of knowledge, not have to go look something up.

That's an interesting concept, a Van Lew monument? It's a shame the mansion was razed since that would have been a terrific monument all by itself AND a better indication of how difficult is our history. Nothing is good/bad, black/white, no one hero/bad guy ( ok, Sickles.... ). There are always, always shades somewhere, you know? The Van Lews family were slave holders, Eliza seems to have clung to the idea even while her daughter bought freedom for men and women. IMO, it's how we got here or anywhere that seems important- that mansion would tell an awful lot of history.
 
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