The prompt for the Writers Group this week was “Shadows”. I was uncertain as to what I was going to write about. I had started to read a book about Civil War Spies and decided to write about Elizabeth Van Lew. The large portion of this story is true. Some of the dialogue between Captain Gibbs and Elizabeth’s sister-in-law is not. Members of Richmond society did make comments about Elizabeth’s appearance.
Elizabeth Van Lew could sense a shadow pass across her face. Standing in the pantry, she could hear the tipsy cackle of her sister-in-law Mary rattling from the dining room. “Elizabeth is not nearly as pretty as that portrait makes her to be”, Mary said. “And if you have not noticed, she is a bit eccentric”. There was a bit of an upward lift to Mary’s voice when she said the word “eccentric”. Mary was talking to Captain Gibbs and his wife. Gibbs was the new commander of the tobacco warehouse complex that housed the imprisoned Yankees captured in some of the earliest battles of the Civil War. Gibbs and his wife had taken up temporary residence at the Van Lew’s Richmond, Virginia, mansion until permanent quarters could be secured. Mary continued her rant, “I do declare that I believe the Van Lew family; Elizabeth, her mother and my husband are all a bit off. All of these slaves that have been waiting on us hand and foot are considered staff! The Van Lew’s have spent a lot of money purchasing their freedom. Yet they still remain! Now my daft sister-in-law is asking you if she could come and feed those vile Yankees in Libby Prison! The thought gives me the vapors!”. “I do not see any problem with Miss Van Lew providing some comfort to those men, even though they are devils”, replied Captain Gibbs. The shadow quickly dissolved and a beaming Elizabeth emerged from the pantry into the dining room. She would now be able to launch the plan she had spent several months developing.
Forty-three years old, birdlike in appearance, the unmarried Elizabeth Van Lew was, in fact, perceived as an eccentric by much of Richmond’s high society. She was also an outspoken opponent of the institution of slavery and considered secession an act of treason. The plan she was about to launch called “The Richmond Underground” would become one of the largest and most successful spy operations of the Civil war. Now allowed to visit the Union prisoners, Elizabeth was able to obtain key details of how they were captured and of what they observed on their way to imprisonment. The details included the numbers and locations of Confederate units, which direction they appeared to be marching and who their leaders were. Heading back to her home with this information, Elizabeth would transcribe the details onto paper – using invisible ink she developed and written in a coded cypher she created. Applying milk to the paper would make the letters visible. The notes were given to trusted acquaintances who would ensure that they would be delivered to the appropriate people on the Union side. These trusted acquaintances, or operatives discovered that there were other people within the city of Richmond that had sympathies much aligned with Elizabeth’s. The operatives had access to most of the departments within the Confederate government and, as such, could provide her with additional key information to be transcribed into the coded notes.
Gaining the confidence of the Union prisoners, they began to tell her about impending escape attempts and asked if she could provide maps with detailed escape routes from Richmond. Elizabeth would hide escaped prisoners and Union loyalists trying to return North in a large, secret room on the 3rd floor of her family’s mansion, using the trusted members of her shadow organization to lead or transport them to safety. Much of this activity in her home was conducted under the nose of her odious sister-in-law, and for a short time Captain Gibbs. Elizabeth was aware that Confederate loyalists were suspicious of her, despite all of the secrecy and subterfuge practiced by the underground organization. Leaving Libby Prison early one evening, Elizabeth became aware a hulking presence shadowing her movements. When she picked up her pace, her follower did, likewise when she slowed. She increased her pace to a jog, but her pursuer began to outpace her and caught up with her. Grabbing Elizabeth’s arm and roughly spinning her around, he got close to her face and hissed “we know what you are up to. You need to stop, or what happens to you and your mother will be very unpleasant”. He released her and slipped away into the dark. Despite being shaken, the assault only made her more determined to continue her operations.
Not long after her encounter, Elizabeth received a gift in the form of a want ad in the Richmond Examiner. Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was seeking a seamstress. She would visit Mrs. Davis and offer the services of the Van Lew family seamstress, Mary Bowser. The President’s wife was exceedingly grateful in accepting Elizabeth’s offer and could not wait for Miss Bowser to start work. This venture began to pay huge dividends to the Richmond Underground operation. Mary Bowser possessed a photographic memory, for both the spoken and written word. After starting her job in the executive mansion, Mary would return to the Van Lew home and recite the documents she had seen on President Davis’ desk, and conversations she overheard between President Davis and his cabinet, or with senior Generals. What was overwhelming for Elizabeth were the notes of praise she received from Union authorities about the accuracy of her communications and how much they helped in planning for the fall of the Confederacy. Gazing out her window at the sky, Elizabeth noticed the clouds had caused a shadow to fall across the front of the “White House of the Confederacy”. Is this some type of prophecy? Is the end of this folly near she thought?
Chatham Writers Group
2 thoughts on “Shadows”
Ernie, you have a gift for bringing life to obscure historical incidents.
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Great story Ernie! I love how you used “Shadow” in the story. The courage of these women is astounding and inspiring. Beautifully written. This would make a wonderful children’s book!
On Wed, Apr 21, 2021 at 10:25 AM The Chatham Packet wrote:
> estricsek posted: ” The prompt for the Writers Group this week was > “Shadows”. I was uncertain as to what I was going to write about. I had > started to read a book about Civil War Spies and decided to write about > Elizabeth Van Lew. The large portion of this story is true. ” >
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