Doing the right thing doesn’t always lead to applause. Mark Twain famously said, “Always do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” More than that, it will sometimes be called wrong and condemned as disloyalty. So many recent news stories tell us about people who do wrong things—praising tyrants and rewarding cruelty—and suffering nothing for their behavior that I think it’s time to honor some people who have chosen the right path and stuck to it even when condemned by others. One American woman who should be honored for her courage in standing up for the unpopular cause of ending slavery is Elizabeth Van Lew.
Slavery had been a problem since the beginning of the country. By 1850s, some Virginians and people in other Southern states were talking about breaking away from the United States over the slavery question. They worried that Northerners would put an end to slavery and this would cause hardship for the South. Eventually the quarreling became so bitter that the Virginia legislature voted to quit the United States. They joined the Confederacy of Southern states to become a new country.
Still many Virginians did not want to leave the United States. Men who opposed joining the Confederacy could join the Union Army and fight to preserve the country. Women weren’t allowed to be soldiers, so they had to find different ways of supporting the United States. Elizabeth van Lew was one of these women. She believed that slavery was wrong. She loved Virginia, but she loved her country more and believed secession was a tragedy.
After fighting broke out close to Richmond, Elizabeth and her mother got permission to nurse wounded Union soldiers. Elizabeth helped the soldiers write letters to their families. She also found another way to help—she became a spy.
A network of people helped get soldiers’ letters to the Northern states. They were taken on boats flying a “flag of truce,” which were allowed to sail between Virginia and the Northern States. General Benjamin Butler, a Union officer, heard about Elizabeth’s work and asked whether she could send information about the movements of Southern troops. He did this by sending a letter addressed to “my dear aunt” and signed with a false name. The letter was carried to Elizabeth by a Northern agent who slipped through the Confederate lines. When the letter was treated with acid and heat, another letter written in invisible ink appeared. In this letter Butler asked her if she would “aid the Union cause by furnishing me with information”.
Soon Elizabeth was able to set up a system through which she could send secret messages to a false address in the North. They were then picked up and sent to General Butler. Elizabeth couldn’t travel around the city, because she was a well-known and wealthy woman and people noticed her. Usually she sent a servant, often a young boy, to carry the letters to the ship. People didn’t pay much attention to teenage boys walking around the streets near the port.
Elizabeth got her information just by watching what was going on in the city. She was also able to talk with Confederate army officers and officials. Most of them did not believe a woman could be collecting information for the North. They considered Elizabeth just another wealthy society woman.
Elizabeth not only sent information to the North. She also helped to hide Union prisoners when they escaped from the military prisons in Richmond. She and her mother nursed prisoners who were sick or injured and let them stay in the house until they were strong enough to travel.
When the war ended with the Union victory, Elizabeth was made postmaster of Richmond as a tribute to her services to the Union cause. But within a couple of years she lost that job because of political changes. Most of her neighbors never forgave her for being loyal to her country instead of to the South. She lived a sad and lonely life, forgotten by the North and scorned by the Southerners who lived around her. It takes a lot of courage to fight and suffer for an unpopular cause.
The audience that laughed and cried with Shirley Temple as she starred in movies like Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, and Heidi during the 1930s and 1940s has pretty much disappeared. Some of us still remember the TV shows she hosted during the 1950s and 60s, but her movies and the songs she made famous like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” seem relics from a forgotten past. Nonetheless her name and image are still remembered as an indelible part of America’s past.
Like many other people, I had a vague idea that Shirley Temple had maintained a long career after her retirement from films. Recently, however, I had a vivid reminder of Shirley Temple’s career when I read Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace (2018). The palace of the title is a magnificent home designed and built in Prague during the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish entrepreneur whose fortune was made through coal mining. The Petschek family was driven from the country when Hitler came to power and Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis.
Eisen has built his book around telling the story of the palace and its occupants throughout the century. Each chapter tells an intriguing story but the one that surprised me the most was that of Shirley Temple Black, who was ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the late 1980s. She had first visited Prague and the palace in 1968, after she had retired from the movies. The purpose of her visit was to encourage the country to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She succeeded in her mission, but was unexpectedly caught up in a coup. On the morning that she had planned to leave the city and return home, she looked out of her hotel window and saw tanks crowded with Soviet troops rolling down the streets. Suddenly all of her plans were cancelled. Tanks have a way of doing that.
Reading this chapter of the book reminded me vividly of my trip to a library conference in Moscow in 1991. I dug out the old journal I had kept during that trip to find my description of how the sudden eruption of the August coup had seemed to me and my colleagues.
Last night was scary. After we went to bed at 11:00, we heard tanks rumbling through the streets. They really make a racket ‑‑a loud roar that sounds almost like a low‑flying aircraft. Then we heard gunfire, first pistols then machine gun fire. Not much of it, but enough to make us listen. We kept peering out the window and trying to see what was going on. We could see the tanks, but could not see where the shooting was. There were lights all over the city. In the hotel across the street we could see people silhouetted in windows. I began to realize how people must feel in Beirut where no one knows what is happening.
The noises stopped at about 1:30 and we finally got some sleep. This morning at breakfast rumors were flying. Some people can see down the street to the Yeltsin office building. Some said that there were crowds out on Kalinnen Prospekt yelling “Yeltsin” “Yeltsin” and that the tanks turned back when they came upon the crowd. There is some hope that the fact that the tanks refused to fire means that the junta is going under. Some reports on the radio say that two junta members are “ill”. CNN doesn’t go on the air until 9:00, so there has been no outside news.
The memory of those tanks and the insecurity of not knowing what was going on and not being able to get in touch with people back home is still clear in my mind, Eventually the coup failed, Moscow was safe and soon we were able to return home and go on with our lives.
Shirley Temple’s coup adventure lasted longer than mine and had a far different ending. After days of confusion and conflicting news, many foreigners were finally able to leave Prague and Shirley played an heroic real life part in the drama. With the help of people from the U.S. State Department, she led a caravan of autos to the German border where they were able to escape from the Soviet’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. The events had a great impact on her and she spent most of the rest of her life in public service, working as White House Chief of Protocol, and eventually becoming an ambassador to Ghana and then to Czechoslovakia in 1989. She returned to Prague and lived in the palace, which is now the American embassy. As ambassador, she was able to welcome a more liberal government as it took power. She demonstrated both good judgment and star power in encouraging the Velvet Revolution that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia.
Eisen has chosen well in focusing on one building that saw the unfolding of so many historical trends during the 20th century. It is a welcome reminder of how history unfolds and how events in other countries impact American life. I strongly urge you to read it. Not only will you learn a lot of history, but you will also enjoy suspenseful stories about some amazing people.