because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew was only twenty-five-years old when her father died, leaving his thriving hardware business in Richmond, Virginia, to her and her brother. She had been educated at a Quaker school and her abolitionist leanings were so strong that the first thing she did when she received her inheritance was to talk her brother into freeing the family's nine slaves. And the second was to spend the entire $10,000 in cash she also received to buy up and free as many as possible of the family's former slaves' relatives.

Then, as if that wasn't enough, when the Civil War began, Van Lew became active in earnest. Allowed to visit the Union Army prisoners at the Libby Prison, she brought them food and clothes, but also information on how to escape and find their way safely home. They, of course, returned the favor by giving her information about Confederate troop movements which she then smuggled out to the Union military leaders in hollow eggs.

Not satisfied yet, however, Van Lew proceeded to set up a bonafide spy ring, gathering information from multiple sources, including in-your-face woman Mary Bowser, a former family slave Van Lew talked into a position as household help in the home of Confederate President Jeff Davis himself! One highly placed Union officer credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-1865."

When the war was over, Van Lew hoisted the first American flag in Richmond, which didn't exactly make her popular with her neighbors. And despite the fact that she was allowed to have personally (and hide) all the paperwork outlining her importance as a spy, everyone knew she was made Postmaster of Richmond as a reward for something. To this day, Van Lew is seen by many in the U.S. South as a traitor to the cause. But regardless of all that, she was and will be remembered also as an unapologetically in-your-face woman.

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