Winchester Evening Star, 9/10/1913

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From Winchester (VA) Evening Star, 9/10/1913


A Female Spy Was Much Safer In South During the Civil War Than Male Ones.


Remained in Richmond All the Time, Mingled Freely Among Confederates and Kept Grant’s Army Well Informed - Then She Became Postmistress of the City.

By “NEMO” [Nemo = Mary Catherine McVicar (1843-1920)]

For some years past there has been agitated in Washington the idea of building some sort of memorial to the women who aided the Union cause with hands and brain, or rendered some special service for the soldiers either at their homes or in the field. Many meritorious deeds are given that they would purpose to commemorate. Among these were the knitting of socks by thousands of pairs in the blind asylums, where women and girls grudged the hours they had to pass in sleep, so anxious were they to use their knitting needles for the soldiers. A widow’s society in Portland sent 700 pairs of mittens to the soldiers, all knitted by its members. A long list of names is given of women who went to the front as hospital nurses and spies. Some of these were in Richmond many times during the war, and under pretense of being Southern refugees, were able to gather up news from the officers and transmit to the Federal army the actual condition of affairs in and around Richmond. A female spy was much safer than a male spy, and much less likely to be suspected. If she was, she had only to use her special talent for acting a part and hoodwink men by her feminine charm. Even when caught red-handed during the war, her life was safe on either side. Where a man would have been hung, the worst that could happen to a woman was a short imprisonment.

Dr. Mary Walker was then counted as a handsome girl, but eccentric. She wore pantaloons then, but short skirts over them, and a man’s wool hat, under which was the feminine touch of black curls, which fell around her shoulders. She urged the right of women to enlist as soldiers and her own appointment as a lieutenant in the army. If this account is correct, there were quite a number of women who served as regular soldiers in the Union army - some of them bribing the examining officers, and some getting in in irregular ways. It was mainly when wounded and carried to hospitals that their sex was discovered.

But this article gives Miss Elizabeth Van Lew the highest praise for efficiency as a spy, and wonders at the stupidity of the Confederate officials who never even suspected her of the deadly damage she was doing to their cause. During the entire four years of the war she lived in their capital city, associated freely with its officials and high army officers, and managed to keep in touch with the Federal army all that time, and keep them advised of every movement in Richmond. She even managed to get one of her slaves hired at the home of President Davis, in order to spy upon the movements there. General Grant testified that she had sent him the most valuable information that he received during the war. She had five secret stations from which to forward her cipher dispatches, the Richmond end being the old Van Lew mansion. There se received many secret agents and kept Union prisoners who had escaped from Libby, Belle Isle and Castle Thunder. Libby prison was near her home, and she secured permission to visit it regularly, and was able to convey the news of the city to the North by the exchanged prisoners; but with all her many activities she does not seem to have had any suspicion directed toward her by the Confederate government. It was not until the war had closed that it was know that there had been an active traitor in the camp during the whole four years of the war. Then Miss Van Lew met the usual fate of the person who betrays her own people, no matter what the cause may be - she was shunned as a leper by the people of Richmond, even though they were forced to accept her as postmistress for a number of years. She must have [next two lines illegible] well, but with the passing years the life(?) of public ____ was too strong against her, and she was forced out of office in Richmond. She secured a government position in Washington, but was bitterly disappointed by her reception there. The young generation would not accord her the honor she felt was her due. After years of bitterness there she gave up her position and went back to her Richmond home, living there in a large house in utter seclusion, having no friend or neighbor. She died there in 1900, a soured and embittered woman, forgotten by those she had served, hated by those whom she had betrayed.

Massachusetts sent a large boulder of granite to be put up at her grave, on which is inscribed the services she rendered to the Union. She was probably a good woman and acted conscientiously, but there seems to be in all countries, in all ages, and among all people, an inborn disgust against the man or woman who is disloyal to home people and home principles.

Remainder of article details actions of Dorothea Dix, Mary Bickerdyke and Clara Barton, and was not transcribed.]