Miss Van Lew

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From Harpers Monthly, June 1911, pp. 86-99.

Miss Van Lew

On a bronze tablet set in the face of a great gray stone in the Shockoe Hill Cemetery of Richmond Virginia, there is carved the inscription:

Elizabeth L. Van Lew.

1818                                        1900

She risked everything that is dear to man - friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of he heart - that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.

This Boulder
from the Capitol Hill is a tribute from Massachusetts friends.

Miss Van Lew, a Richmond woman, was a spy for the Federal government - the most important spy for the Rebellion, inasmuch as her work merited General Grant’s tribute, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” For four long years, without respite, she faced death to obtain that information; day after day suspected, spied upon, threatened, persecuted, she worked with a courage far higher than the excitement-mad valor of battle-fields.

The greater part of the military information received from Richmond by the Army of the Potomac was collected and transmitted by Miss Van Lew. She established five secret stations for forwarding her cipher dispatches - a chain of relay points whose farther end was the headquarters of General George H. Sharpe (the authority for these statements), Chief of the Bureau of Military Information, but the Richmond end of the chain was the old Van Lew mansion. There she received and harbored the secret agents who stole in from the Federal army; when no Federal agents could reach her she sent her own servants as messengers through the Confederate armies. There, in the Van Lew house in the heart of Richmond, she concealed many of the escaped Union prisoners from Castle Thunder, the Libby and Belle Isle; there she planed aid for those who remained in the prisons, to whom she sent or carried food and books and clothing; for their relief she poured out her money - thousands of dollars - until all her convertible property was gone. Clerks in the Confederate War and Navy departments were in her confidence; counsel for Union sympathizers on trial by the Confederacy were employed by her money.

These statements of General Sharpe’s were made in a letter which was written to recommend that Miss Van Lew be reimbursed by the government to the amount of $15,000. The money was never collected.

This is her story. It was written from the remains of her diary, which, because of its menace, lay for months buried in the ground; other manuscript of hers exists - more than a thousand pages, an unpublished volume, part history, part treatise, here and there personal memoir. The story here presented is written from old letters; from newspapers - Northern and Southern; from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies; from the statements of men and women who knew Miss Van Lew long ago.

There are faded pages which tell of her childhood, how she was sent North to school - to Philadelphia, her mother’s early home. There, a schoolgirl, she accepted those principles which were to determine the course of her whole life; she went back at last to Virginia an unwavering abolitionist. She gave freedom to nine of the Van Lew slaves; others were bought that they might be reunited with a husband or a wife already in the Van Lew possession.

There are tales of the state and splendor in which the family lived, in the now famous Van Lew mansion (which still stands on Church Hill, the highest of the seven hills of Richmond). There were balls and receptions in the great house, garden parties in the wonderful gardens, journeyings in the coach drawn by six snowy horses to the White Sulphur Springs and other resorts of the day. Great men and distinguished families were their guests and intimates - Bishop Moore and Chief Justice Marshall, the Lees, the Robinsons, Wickhams, Adamses, Cabells, Marshalls, Carringtons; Fredrika Bremer, the Swedish novelist, visited at the Van Lew house and wrote of it and its household in her Homes in the New World; Jenny Lind at the height of her career sang in the great parlor; Edgar Allan Poe there read aloud “The Raven”; and, after an interval of years, there came the last great guest, General Ulysses S. Grant.

And so the time is passed over in a great sweep of years; Betty Van Lew has become a woman of forty, a woman of delicate physique and a small figure, brilliant, accomplished, resolute, a woman of great personality and of intimate charm. For her the years of quiet ended he Colonel Robert E. Lee, then of the United States arm, stormed Harper’s Ferry engine-house and captured John Brown. “From that time on,” she says, “our people were in a palpable state of war.” “We” - “our” in all her writing - the South is ever in the first person; it is the token that her love for Virginia never was forgotten.

It was at this time that she began her work for the Federal government; she wrote letter after letter to Washington describing conditions in the South - letters of warning, of advice; these letters she sent through the mails.

A year passed; winter came, and the South, Sate by State, began to secede. Sumter was fired upon: the first flush of fever - the John Brown Raid - had become the delirium of civil war.

The ladies of Richmond sewed and knitted for the Confederacy, and shot with pistols at a mark; Miss Van Lew wrote despatches for the Union - specific information of Confederate troops, their numbers and their movements. She had ceased to use the mails; the despatches now went North by special messenger. So the hot tumultuous days of summer passed; Bull Run was fought, and Richmond for the first time filled with wounded Southern men and wretched Northern prisoners. Here at last was work to do; from one official to another she hurried. Begging that she might nurse the wounded Union soldiers; until at last, from General Winder, Provost-Marshal General of Richmond, she obtained “permission to visit the prisoners and to send them books, luxuries, delicacies, and what she may wish.” Thus her four years’ service began.

The Libby Prison was her special care; it stood at the base of Church Hill, almost beneath her very door. There, in command, she found Lieutenant Todd, brother of Mrs. Lincoln, and won his “kind feelings” for herself by gifs of buttermilk and gingerbread. Castle Thunder - “Particular Hell” - with Caphart, “Anti-Christ Caphart,” in control; Belle Isle in its stockade lying like a bleached bone in the midst of the turbulent river - for four bitter years she was known at them all.

From the moment that she gained access to the prisoners her despatches to the government increased a hundred-fold in accuracy and value; for her hospital and prison ministrations were a cloak to cover her real mission: Miss Van Lew above all else was a spy.

The Federal prisoners furnished her with much more information than might be supposed possible; from the many-windowed prisons in the heart of the city and from within the stockade of Belle Isle, much that went on could be observed; they accurately estimated the strength of the passing troops ad supply trains, whose probable destination they shrewdly conjectured from the roads by which the Confederates left the town; then, too, there were snatches of conversations to be overheard between surgeons in the hospital or between the prison guards. Mere scraps of information all, but of infinite value to Miss Van Lew when combined with other scraps from here and there - some confirming, some setting an error right, some opening inquiry into fresh lines.

One deed of kindness at this time bore golden fruit twenty years after the war. Thirteen men accused of piracy had been tried in New York City, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. They saved themselves by their claim that they were Confederate privateersmen and must be treated as prisoners of war; the Confederate government, to which they appealed, at once espoused their cause; thirteen Federal officers were thrown into a dungeon of Libby Prison to await the execution of these men; the thirteen officers were then to be hanged in reprisal. Miss Van Lew secretly communicated with them and with their families she smuggled in to the hostages letters and money from home, gave them money of her own, and at last sent North the glad news that they had been restored to the footing of prisoners of war. Colonel Paul Revere of the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment was one of these officers, and it was his relatives in Boston, the friends which he had made for Miss Van Lew, who long years later were to come to her aid in her greatest hour of need.

And so throughout the war there passed between Miss Van Lew and the prisoners an almost uninterrupted exchange of question and answer, by which was derived much of the information that Miss Van Lew furnished to the Federal armies. In the prisons the information was conveyed in a score of ways - whispered words, friendly little notes with hidden meanings in words harmless to a censor’s eye, books which were loaned or returned with here and there a word or a page number faintly underscored, questions and answers that were concealed in baskets of food. There was one curious old French contrivance, a metal platter with a double bottom, originally intended to hold hot water beneath the plate to keep the contents warm. Its frequent use and clumsy appearance aroused a keen-eyed guard’s suspicions; Miss Van Lew, turning away with the empty plate one day, heard the threat he muttered to a fellow guard. Within a day or two the platter was again presented at the prison door.

“I’ll have to examine that,” the sentry said.

“Take it, then,” Miss Van Lew replied, and deftly slipping the shawl from around it, she placed the plate suddenly in his hands; that day the double bottom contained no secret messages, but was filled with water blistering hot, and he dropped it with a roar of pain.

Yet for the most part she had little trouble with the soldiery; “Crazy Bet” they called her, and let her, and let her wander about within the prison almost at will; they laughed as she passed singing softly to herself or muttering meaningless words.

Now and then, indeed, the authorities, for one reason or another, revoked her permit to visit the prisons; then she would go to General Winder or to the office of the Secretary of War, and sooner or later win it back again.

And so, by flattery and cajolery, by strategy or by the charm of personality, she succeeded most of the time in remaining in the good graces of the authorities; to the minor officials and the soldiery she was only harmless “Crazy Bet” and they gave her little heed; but to the people of Richmond she was still Miss Van Lew, a Southern woman who had turned against her neighbors and against the South; and as the war lengthened and bore more heavily upon them, their resentment turned to implacable hatred.

“The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community - who can write of them?” she wrote. “I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things. We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, and threats of death.”

Spring came, and with its coming, McClellan at the head of the Potomac swept up the Peninsula to Richmond’s very doors. The houses shook with the cannonading, and from their roofs the people could see the bursting of the shells. Then came the Seven Days, and the on-rushing Federal tide slowly turned, and ebbed, and drew away over the hills; an bitter disappointment and dead hope were locked in “McClellan’s room,” which Miss Van Lew had prepared for him and which was not to be opened again for many and many a day.

Richmond gave a great gasp of relief and joy - that turned to sighing, that ended in a sob; for night and day, for many days and many nights, the streets re-echoed with the ceaseless roll of wheels as Richmond’s sons came home; “the air was fetid with the presence of the wounded and the dead.”

Miss Van Lew worked on. Through the stifling summer nights she schemed and planned and conferred secretly with the handful of Richmond’s Unionists. Disguised as a common farm-hand (the buckskin leggings, one-piece skirt and waist of cotton, and the huge calico sun-bonnet were found among her effects and are in existence to this day), a little, lonely, unnoticed figure, she stole about in the night on her secret missions. Through the blazing days of summer she worked in the ill-stocked markets she bargained for the food that sick men need - paying for it with money that, after a time, she could ill afford to give; in the rocking prisons and the fever-ridden wards; in the unfriendly crowds of the city streets, among those of the Confederate officers and officials themselves who still remained friendly despite the suspicions of the townspeople, she sought the recompense of her toil, the “information” that she required.

Her method of reaching President Davis in his least-guarded moments is evidence of her genius as a spy and a leader of spies. The Van Lews had owned a negro girl of unusual intelligence; several years before the war she had been given her freedom, sent North, and educated at Miss Van Lew’s expense. This young woman, whose name was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was now sent for; she came, and for a time was coached and trained for her mission; then, in consummation of Miss Van Lew’s scheming, she was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy. What she was able to learn, how long she remained behind Jefferson Davis’s dining-chair, and what became of the girl ere the war ended are questions to which Time has effaced the answers.

For many months Miss Van Lew was dependent solely on her own resources for sending her despatches to the Federal generals and receiving their replies; but it was accomplished in countless different ways by her cunning and ingenuity. It was seldom difficult for her to procure passes for her servants to make the trip between the town house and the Van Lew farm below Richmond, which was the second of the stations that she established for relaying the despatches between her house in Richmond and the Federal armies. Large baskets of eggs were brought in often; of each lot one egg was but a shell which contained a tiny scroll of paper - a message from some Union general. An old negro, shuffling in his clumsy thick soled shoes, pressed with each step on a cipher despatch in a slit in hi shoe sole. A little seamstress carried the implements of her trade to and fro from house to farm; the dress-goods and bewildering patterns were returned to her after but a cursory examination by the patrols and guards, who unwittingly had held a Federal despatch in their hands. Countryman, slave, and sewing-girl - humble agents whose very names will never be known - they bore time after time evidence that, if found, would have hanged them to the nearest tree.

As for Miss Van Lew, the likelihood of detection seemed inevitable. “From the commencement of the war until its close, my life was in continual jeopardy,” she wrote. Morning after morning she awoke to a new day of suspense and threatening danger such as few men and fewer women can be made to understand. Night after night - and what must the nights have been! And for four years this lasted without respite.

There came one day a stranger, a country woman of the lowest class. She bore openly a sheet of letter-paper, folded, addressed to “Miss Van Lew”; inside was scrawled a request for immediate information as to the provender and stores in Richmond and where the sick of the hospitals were being taken; the note was signed by a Federal general. So ignorant was his carelessly selected messenger that when Miss Van Lew expressed surprise and horror at her having such an incriminating paper, the woman indignantly replied, “I’d like to see any one try to put their hand in my pocket!” - as though the loss of the paper had been all!

There came a letter from General Butler to be delivered to X___, of _____ one of General Winder’s officers. (His name and residence and position are given in Miss Van Lew’s manuscript.) In the letter General Butler asked this man to come through the lines and communicate with him - in short, to “tell what he knew”; also it contained promises of reward; had it fallen into Confederate hands the letter would have been the death-warrant of him whom it was to tempt and of her who bore the temptation. Miss Van Lew carried that letter straight to X___ at his post in the office of General Winder, commander of the city of Richmond; she coolly took it from the bosom of her dress, gave X___ the letter, and watched him as he read. Had she judged him aright? She had sounded him, had found him dissatisfied, approachable, and she had marked him for an Arnold to his cause. Against her estimate of character she had staked her life; was she to win or lose? In the next room were the detectives and armed guards, the machinery of the Confederate capital’s secret police; X___ had but to raise his voice. ...She saw his face blanch and his lips quiver; as he followed her out he begged her to be prudent - if she would never come there again he promised to go to her. She had added one more to the weapons with which she was striking at the very heart of the Confederacy. Long years after the war X___ brought some of his friends to her that she might corroborate his story of what one woman had dared and risked.

There came a day when no messenger was at hand by whom to send a despatch to Grant - a message of supreme importance: he had asked of her that by a certain date she make a report of the number and disposition of the forces in and about Richmond. The cipher despatch was written, and, if it were to reach Grant in time, not one hour was to be lost in finding a messenger. Apparently no Federal agent was able to enter the city; she knew that just then no servant of hers might leave it. In desperation she took the great market-basket that had become so familiar a sight to the people of Richmond, and started in her customary manner for the market. As she walked, she childishly swung the basket and softly sang and hummed her little songs and smiled her vacant smile into the faces of those who as she passed, mocked at “Crazy Bet” - this woman who dared walk Richmond’s streets while in her hand she held - for the Federal army - a key to Richmond’s defences.

A man overtook her and whispered as he passed: “I’m going through to-night!” She gave no start of surprise, no look of curiosity; the man walked just ahead and she followed. Was the Federal agent come at last? - or was this another of the countless traps of the secret police? The man was an utter stranger to her, but the need was urgent, imperative - should she take the chance? She quickened her pace, and, as she in turn passed him, again came the whisper: “I’m going through the lines to-night!” In her hand she held the cipher despatch, torn into strips and each strip rolled into a tiny ball; should she commence to drop them one by one? In great perplexity and fear she quickly glanced back for a look at his face. And instantly some instinct, some woman’s instinct, said “No,” and on that inner prompting she impulsively turned into a side street and hurried home. Next day she saw that man, a junior officer, marching past her house for the front with his Confederate regiment. By such hairs as these did the sword hang over her day after day, day after day.

What was the outcome? Was she able to contrive a means of sending the despatch to Grant by the appointed time? It is not known. Miss Van Lew’s story is difficult to tell; it is similar to a mosaic in fragments here and there pieces may be put together to reconstruct a part of the picture, a figure, a group, an incident of the story. Though there is a great quantity of material, it seems to have been spread upon a wide-meshed sieve, through which there has sifted - and dropped into oblivion - most of the detail, the “when and where and how” of the story, leaving behind only great blocks of background - cold fact and vague and generalized statement.

The wide-meshed sieve was Fear; for forty years Miss Van Lew’s every written and spoken word was sifted through it. Long after the war was ended a Northern friend wrote of her and her mother: “Neither talks about themselves or ever answers a direct question.”

In her mutilated war diary, or “Occasional Journal,” as she called it, there is written by way of preface:

The keeping of a complete journal was a risk too fearful to run. Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would now be of value; keeping one’s house in order for government inspection, with Salisbury prison in perspective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment. The following occasional journal...was long buried for safety.

Was such extreme caution necessary? It was imperative. Confederate spies were everywhere.

“If you spoke in your parlor or chamber to your next of heart, you whispered - you looked under the lounges and beds. Detectives were put upon their tracks by citizens and the government. Visitors apparently friendly were treacherous. They were brought to the attention of the Grand Jury, by those they regarded as true friends, for trafficking in greenbacks, when they had none of them. They were publicly denounced, and walked the streets for four years shunned as lepers...I shall ever remember the pale face of this dear lady [her mother] - her feeble health and occasional illness from anxiety; her dread of Castle Thunder and Salisbury - for her arrest was constantly spoken of, and frequently reported on the street, and some never hesitated to say she should be hanged...I was afraid even to pass the prison; I have had occasion to stop near it when I dared not look up at the windows. I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could sometimes be seen peeping around the columns and pillars of the back portico...Once a lady and a dear friend staying with this family was sent for to General Winder’s office, and requested to state if she could learn aught against them, but she replied that she ‘was not with them as a spy.’“ (The note demanding her guest’s presence is to be found among Miss Van Lew’s papers. “You need not see Mrs. Van Lew, nor will your name be mentioned to her,” the note concluded, affably.)...”Once I went to Jefferson Davis himself to see if we could not obtain some protection. He was in Cabinet session, but I saw Mr. Jocelyn, his private secretary; he told me I had better apply to the Mayor....Captain George Gibbs had succeeded Todd as keeper of the prisoners; so perilous had our situation become that we took him and his family to board with us. They were certainly a great protection....Such was our life.”

Summer came and passed and came and passed again; the third year of the war was drawing to its close in the terrible winter of ‘63-4. In February Miss Van Lew’s only brother, John, was conscripted and, in spite of having been pronounced unfit for duty because of ill health, was ordered to report immediately to Camp Lee. No previous mention in this story has been made of John Van Lew in all his sisters and his mother’s activities he remained but the silent partner, quietly conducting his hardware business, and from its dwindling proceeds supplying much of the money used for the aid of his sister’s secret operations. Now, when conscripted into the Confederate army, he immediately deserted and for a time was concealed in the outskirts of the city. While he still awaited an opportunity to escape to the Federal lines his sister (wearing her disguise, she says) visited him, on the evening of February 9th - the most unfortunate date, events proved, which she could have chosen. Her story of that night and of the next succeeding day is found among her manuscript.

“I went to the kind family where my brother was secreted; they were poor and I passed the night with them. In the morning our driver came out with a basket of supplies. As soon as he entered he said that there was great trouble and excitement, and that brother was in great danger - that many prisoners had escaped during thee night, and some had come to the outer door - the servants’ room door on Twenty-fourth Street - and knocked and asked for Colonel Streight and begged to come in, but that he was afraid they were not prisoners - only our people [Confederates] in disguise to entrap us, and [he] would not let them in; that some had stood off by the churchyard wall and watched, and he was afraid.” (Unfortunately these were indeed Federal officers; it was not until roll-call next morning that it was discovered that 109 officers had escaped through Colonel Rose’s tunnel out off Libby Prison.) “Brother then had to give up all hopes of escape, because we knew vigilance would be redoubled, and we were in great trouble for the family he was with; for it was to be expected that their house would be searched, and it would be searched, and it would have gone very hard with them had a deserter been found secreted there was to be an exit - had been told to prepare - and had one of our parlors - an off, or rather end room; had had dark blankets nailed up at the windows, and gas kept burning in it, very low, night and day for about three weeks - so we were ready for them - beds prepared in there.

“I went home as quickly as I could, in despair. As desperate situations sometimes require desperate remedies, I determined to go to General Winder.” And so the story goes on at considerable length to tell how General Winder personally made great efforts to induce the medical commission again to declare John Van Lew unfit for service; the general failed in that, but he did succeed in getting him into his own regiment, and there he was able to give such effectual protection that John Van Lew never wore a Confederate uniform, and only once shouldered a Confederate musket, to stand, on a great “panic day,” a figurehead guard at the door of a government department. But at last, during the summer of ‘64, when even General Winder’s protection could no longer save him from active service at the front, John Van Lew deserted again, and this time reached the Federal army, where he remained until after Richmond had fallen - and so passes from this story.

As for the fugitives from the Libby, it has been told in Richmond, and is told to this day, that Colonel Streight and a number of his comrades lay hidden for days in the secret room of the Van Lew mansion. The story that they were in the secret room is forever set at rest by the diary for Monday, February 15, 1864:
“I shall ever remember this day because of the great alarm I had for others. Colonel Streight and three of the prisoners...were secreted near Howard’s Grove. After passing through the tunnel they were led by a Mrs. G___ to a humble home on the outskirts of the city; there Mrs. R___ received them. By request of some of their number she came...for me, and I went with her to see them...We had a little laughing ad talking, and then I said good-by, with the most fervent God bless you in my heart toward all of them.”

The parlor - that “off, or rather end, room,” with its blanket-curtained windows and its extravagant waste of gas is used by Miss Van Lew as dust to throw in our eyes for some unfathomed reason of her own; in none of her writings does she mention the true secret room; yet it was there then, and it is there - no longer a secret - to this present day.

It extends in a long, low, narrow cell just back of where the main roof slopes up from its juncture with the flat roof of the great rear veranda the garret is squared, and between its west wall and the sloping roof lies the hidden room. When it was built and by whose hand, whether it was designed for the purpose to which it was put, and how many men it may have sheltered during the war, may now never be known. It existence was always suspected, and though the house was searched time after time for that very room, it was discovered just once, and then by a little child; save for her it might have remained a secret till the old house should come to be torn down; for Miss Van Lew never told of the spring door in the wall behind the antique chest of drawers.

Long years after the war - after Miss Van Lew had died - she who had been the little girl visited the old house, and rediscovered the secret room; after more than forty years her fingers searched out and again pressed the hidden spring. And then she told of that other time when she had opened the door; how with childish curiosity she had stealthily followed Aunt Betty up through the dark, silent house to see where the plate of food was being carried into the night. She has never forgotten what she saw as she peeped fearfully into the attic from the head of the stairs - the shadows and the ghostly shapes of the old furniture around the walls; her aunt, shading the candle with her hand, standing before a black hole in the wall, from which peered a haggard soldier with shaggy hair and beard, his thin hand outstretched for the food. When she saw him looking at her, before he could speak she laid her finger on her lips and fled. But after her aunt had gone she stole up to the attic again, and called softly to the soldier; he told her how to open the door, and when she had done so he talked to her; she remembers that he laughed as he said, “My! what a spanking you would have got if your aunt had turned around!” Presently she shut him into the secret room again and crept off to bed she never dared go to the attic after that, nor tell her aunt what she had seen.

There was at least one other secret recess in the house - the hiding-place for despatches. In the library there was - and still remains unchanged - an ornamented iron fireplace; on either side of the grate are two pilasters, each capped by a small sculptured figure of a couchant lion. Accident or design had loosened one of those so that it could be raised like a box-cover; it was in the shallow cavity beneath that Miss Van Lew placed her despatches. There was no whispered conference between mistress and messenger - to be overheard by spies within the house, to be watched by those without. Miss Van Lew, perhaps with her back to the mantel, would deftly slip the cipher letter under the couchant lion; later the old negro servant, while alone in the room, dusting the furniture, would draw the message out, and presently go plodding down the dusty road to the farm, bearing some such tidings as that Lee was being re-inforced by 15,000 men.

Of all the many despatches which Miss Van Lew sent through the Confederate lines there to-day exists but one. Inquiry addressed to the War Department shows that “all papers in this department relating to Miss Van Lew were taken from the files December 12, 1866, and given to her.” These papers - cipher despatches from Miss Van Lew and all reports in which she was mentioned - must have been immediately destroyed by her for there is no trace of them. The one despatch must have been in some way overlooked when her letters were returned to her by the War Department, and so escaped being destroyed. It is a strange chance that it should have been the one to be thus preserved, for it is this despatch - so closely connected by time and circumstance with the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid - which seems to establish the real motive which inspired Miss Van Lew and some of her fellow Unionists to take the desperate risk of stealing Colonel Dahlgen’s body. The despatch, like most of those sent by Miss Van Lew, was in cipher, but, though only its jumbled letters had been published, it nevertheless might now be translated and understood; for when Miss Van Lew died there was found in the back of her watch - where it had been constantly carried for nearly forty years - worn, yellowed bit of paper on which was written the faded letters of the cipher code, here published for the first time.

Many years after the war the following translation of her despatch was published in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate armies. (Series I; Volume XXXIII, Part I, page 520.)

Fortress Monroe, February 5, 1864.

Secretary of War :

SIR: I send inclosed for your perusal the information I have acquired of the enemy's forces and dispositions about Richmond. The letter commencing "Dear Sir," on the first page, is a cipher letter to me from a lady in Richmond, with whom I am in correspondence. The bearer of the letter brought me a private token, showing that he was to be trusted. There are not now in Lee's army or about Richmond 30,000 men. I can get no co-operation from Sedgwick. Forty thousand men on the south side of the James would be sufficient for the object of taking and permanently holding Richmond. The roads have been good up to to-day. You will see that the prisoners are to be sent away to Georgia. Now, or never, is the time to strike. On Sunday I shall make a dash with 6,000 inch, all I have that can possibly be spared. If we win, it will pay the cost; if we fail, it will at least be in an attempt to do our duty and rescue our friends. New Berne is relieved, and, I believe, permanently.

I have marked this “Private and immediate,” so that it shall at once come into your hands.

Respectfully, your obedient servant,


Major-general, Commanding.


JANUARY 30, 1864.

DEAR SIR: It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker [a Union man whom I know.--B. F. B.] knows this to be true. Are building batteries on the Danville road.

This from Quaker: Beware of new and rash council! Beware! This I send you by direction of all your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them, amounting in all to 40,000 or 45,000 troops. Do not underrate their strength and desperation. Forces could probably be called into action in from five to ten days; 25,000, mostly artillery. Hoke's and Kemper's brigades gone to North Carolina; Pickett's in or about Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by General Lee for want of horses. Morgan is applying for 1,000 choice men for a raid.

Then, under date of February 4th, there follows - in the form of question and answer - the account of the circumstances under which this letter was received. The messenger, in his answers to General Butler’s questions, told how Miss Van Lew had asked him to take the letter, promising that General Butler would take care of him; how a man had been paid $1,000 (Confederate money) to guide him, but had “fooled” him, deserted him at the banks of the Chickahominy River, how nevertheless he had got a boat, crossed, and kept on. He repeated his verbal messages: “They are sending the prisoners to Georgia. Richmond could be taken easier now than at any other time since the war began. ‘Quaker’ (that is not his name, but he says he does not want anyone to know his name) said his plan to take Richmond would be to make a feint on Petersburg, let Meade engage Lee on the Rappahannock; send two or three hundred men and land them at the White House [Landing] on the other side of Richmond, so as to attract attention, then have 10,000 cavalry too go up in the evening, and then rush into Richmond the next morning.”

Did Miss Van Lew and “Quaker” and the other Unionists of Richmond hold themselves responsible for the ill-fated raid to release the Federal prisoners? Was it indeed the information in Miss Van Lew’s despatch which inspired the raid? Thus, when the body of the crippled boy-leader, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren - he was not yet twenty-two - lay in secret among the ten thousand grassless graves below Oakwood Cemetery in Richmond, what was it which moved Miss Van Lew and the Unionists to risk their very lives to steal his body and send it through the Confederate pickets to a “friendly grave” - was it pity only, or was it that they felt that they had brought him there?

The Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid was primarily to release the Federal prisoners in Richmond. On February 28, 1864, General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren at the head of 4,000 picked troopers left Stevensburg and made direct for Richmond. There was the feint - the simultaneous demonstration by Meade against Lee’s left; there was the plan for Dahlgren to engage Richmond on the south with a small force while the main body was to enter on the north; there was to be the release of the prisoners who were so “soon to be removed to Georgia” - is there doubt that Miss Van Lew and “Quaker” saw in it all a responsibility that rested in a measure on themselves?

The raid - though it penetrated to within five miles of Richmond - failed. By a series of accidents - chief of which was the treachery of Dahlgren’s negro guide - the two forces, after separating for the attack, lost each other and were never able to unite. Tuesday, March 1st, found both Kilpatrick and Dahlgren - widely separated - in retreat, and riding hard for the Peninsula. But that night, in the storm that raged, Dahlgren and his advance (about one hundred men) with whom he rode became lost from the remainder of his little command. In all the history of the war there is no more pathetic figure - with crutches strapped to the saddle, and in the stirrup an artificial limb to take the place of the leg lost but a few months before - none more dramatic than young Ulric Dahlgren as he led his handful of exhausted men through the roused country. In King and Queen County - there came the end - the little band rode into an ambush, and at the first volley from out he thicket Colonel Dahlgren, who was in advance, was shot dead some of his men managed to escape, but the remainder were taken.

In her manuscript Miss Van Lew tells the detailed story of the killing of Colonel Dahlgren and of what followed.

“A coffin was made, and the body of Dahlgren placed in it and buried, where he was killed, at the fork of two roads, one leading from Stevensville and the other from Mantua ferry. After a few days it was disinterred by order of the Confederate government, brought to Richmond, and lay for a time in a box-car at the York River Railway station. It was buried, as the papers said, at eleven o’clock at night, no one knew where and no one should ever know....” No word of Miss Van Lew’s reveals that the plan to steal the body was hers; it was she who incited the men to steal; her money purchased the metallic casket, which was concealed by her strategy.

“Several endeavored to trace it, and Mr. F. W. E. Lohmann succeeded in doing so, willingly running the risk of its removal, which all knew here was perilous in no small degree. The discovery of the body was entirely accidental, or rather providential, would not have been made had not a negro been out in the burying-ground at midnight and saw them burying Dahlgren...When search was made, the negro suspected that the person inquired for was sleeping in his care - and to this negro’s [illegible word: intelligence?] it may be that Colonel Dahlgren’s body was ever found.

“Arrangements had been made to convey it to the residence of Mr. William S. Rowley, some short distance in the country; and, accompanied by Mr. Martin M. Lipscomb, on the cold, dark, and rainy night of April 5th, Mr. Lohmann went to the ground, and with the aid of a negro took up the coffin, opened it, and identified the body by the missing limb - it having lost the right leg below the knee. It was then put into a wagon, and Mr. Lohmann drove it to Mr. Rowley’s; the coffin was carried into an outbuilding - a kind of seed or work shop - where Mr. Rowley watched the rest of the night beside it. In the morning a metallic coffin was brought out. A few friends saw the body. Colonel Dahlgren’s hair was very short, but all that could be spared was cut off and sent to his father...The body was taken from the rough, coarse coffin and placed in the metallic one, the lid of which was sealed with a composition, improvised by F. W. E. Lohmann, as there was no putty to be procured in Richmond. This coffin was placed in Mr. Rowley’s wagon, which was then filled with young peach-trees packed as nurserymen pack them - the coffin, of course, being covered and concealed. Mr. Rowley took the driver’s seat and drove all that remained of the brave young Dahlgren through the several pickets, one of which was then the strongest around Richmond;...at this very place the day before his death had Dahlgren fought for hours. Wary and vigilant were our pickets, ad if one had run his bayonet into the wagon only a few inches, death would certainly have been the reward of Rowley.”

Rowley was chosen well; Miss Van Lew’s account shows him to have been a man of iron nerve and a consummate actor. At the picket post he listened without a quiver to the unexpected order that his wagon be searched; an inbound team drew up, and the picket, perceiving that Rowley gave no sign of being in a hurry, thoroughly searched it. The lieutenant of the post having re-entered his tent, and one of the guard at that moment having recognized in Rowley a chance acquaintance and recalled to him their former meeting, there at once commenced a lively conversation. More wagons came, were searched, and went on. The lieutenant, looking out from his tent for an instant, gave orders each time to “search that man.” The suspense must have been terrible it seemed now that nothing would avert the discovery of the casket.

“Your face is guarantee enough,” the guard said to Rowley, in a low voice; “go on!” And so the body of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren resumed its journey to the farm of a German named Orrick, near Hungary (now Laurel Station). The grave was quickly dug and the coffin placed in it; two German women helped to fill it in ad to plant over it one of the peach trees which had so successfully prevented discovery.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the Unionists carried out their well-intentioned plan, for Admiral Dahlgren’s recovery of the body of his son was thereby retarded until after the war. With Admiral Dahlgren’s request for the return of the body the Confederate government made every effort to comply - an action which was a great surprise to the Richmond Unionists, who believed the Confederates to be too bitter against Dahlgren ever to accede to such a demand. But the body was gone, and the mystery of its disappearance remained - for the Confederates - long unsolved.

Close upon the heels of the Dahlgren raid and its tragic ending came the opening of the spring campaign. “As the war advanced,” (Miss Van Lew wrote) “and the army closed around Richmond, I was able to communicate with General Butler and General Grant, but not so well and persistently with General Butler, for there was to much danger in the system and persons. With General Grant, through his Chief of Secret Service, General George H. Sharpe, I was more fortunate.” So “fortunate” that flowers which one day grew in her Richmond garden stood next morning on Grant’s breakfast table.

Great gaps occur in the “Occasional Journal” for 1864-5; the personal element had been destroyed, and there is left only description of general conditions - save for the story of Pole, the Englishman, who, in February, when unseen Peace was but six weeks away, was piloted into Richmond from headquarters by a Federal agent to assist in obtaining information; Pole, the Englishman, who brought the shadow of death closer, blacker, more imminent than ever it had been before. For Pole, once he was in Richmond, immediately betrayed Babcock, who had brought him in, and White, with whom he was to have been quartered, ad those Unionists by whom he and Babcock had been aided along their way. Miss Van Lew read in the newspaper of the arrests, and there followed hours of suspense, until it became apparent that Pole had been unable to incriminate her, and that she had escaped again.

Winter was hardly over when Lee’s veterans - more gaunt, more grim, immeasurably more heroic - recommenced the now hopeless struggle. The despairing Confederacy was ransacking the South to obtain horses to send to its fighting men; Miss Van Lew hid her last remaining horse in the smoke-house, until, finding it to be unsafe there, she stabled it in the study of the house, its stamping being deadened by a thick-strewn layer of straw.

At last came the fall of Richmond. The special guard, under command of Colonel Parke, sent by General Grant for Miss Van Lew’s protection, found her in the deserted capitol, seeking in the archives for documents which might otherwise have been destroyed. President Grant, fifteen days after his inauguration, appointed Miss Van Lew Postmaster of Richmond. She knew that it would be heralded that she had demanded the office in payment for services rendered against the Confederacy; but her family was in need of money, so for eight years she served as postmaster.

“I live - and have lived for years - as entirely distinct from the citizens as if I were plague stricken,” she wrote. “Rarely, very rarely, is our door-bell ever rung by any but a pauper, or those desiring my service...September, 1875, my mother was taken from me by death. We had not friends enough to be pall-bearers.”

After her removal from office there followed years of distressing poverty and unavailing efforts to procure any sort of government appointment. Her salary during office had been spent without regard for the morrow - chiefly in charities to the negro race - characterized by her neighbors as “pernicious social-equality doctrines and practices.” Utterly unable to dispose of her valuable but unproductive real estate, she was reduced to great distress - absolute need. “I tell you truly and solemnly,” she wrote, “that I have suffered for necessary food. I have not one cent in the world...I have stood the brunt alone of a persecution that I believe no other person in the country has endured who has not been Ku-Kluxed. I honestly think that the government should see that I was sustained.”

And finally there did come the long-sought appointment - a clerkship in the Post-office Department at Washington. Then after two years the war party was overthrown, and the change brought bitter days to Miss Van Lew. Perhaps - as her superiors fretfully reported - she did owe her place to “sentimental reasons,” perhaps her “peculiar temperment” did make her “a hindrance to the other clerks,” perhaps she did “come and go at will.” It was recommended that she be reduced to “a clerkship of the lowest salary and grade” - and it was done; but she mutely clung to her only means of livelihood. Two weeks later there appeared in a Northern newspaper a sneering editorial. “A Troublesome Relict,” it began, and closed, “We draw the line at Miss Van Lew.” And then she wrote her resignation, and, a heartbroken old woman, she returned to the lonely house on Church Hill.

There, in desperation, and stung by the taunt made to her that “the South would not have forsaken her as the North had done had she espoused the Southern cause,” she wrote to Northern friends for help. To send the letter, she was obliged to borrow a stamp from a negro. The letter brought a response that was quick and generous; those friends and relatives of Colonel Paul Revere - whom she had helped in Libby Prison - gave an ample annuity, which for her remaining years procured those comforts that money could buy; but there was that for which money had no purchasing power. And so, at last, in the old mansion with its haunting memories, Miss Van Lew died.

There is but one paragraph more to be written - to be copied from a torn scrap of paper among her manuscripts:

“If I am entitled to the name of ‘Spy’ because I was in the secret service, I accept it willingly; but it will hereafter have to my mind a high and honorable signification. For my loyalty to my country I have two beautiful names - here I am called ‘Traitor,’ farther North a ‘Spy’ - instead of the honored name of Faithful.”


* In these excerpts from the manuscript of her unpublished book, Miss Van Lew frequently refers thus indirectly to her family or herself, but within a few lines slips back into the first person.

NOTE - To Miss Van Lew’s executor, John Phillips Reynolds Esq., of Boston, acknowledgment is here made for his kind co-operation in the preparation of this article.

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