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.