Who Buried Elizabeth Van Lew?



Elizabeth Van Lew COURTESY PHOTO / wikipedia.org

Nestled in the tangled grounds of Shockhoe Cemetery is a tombstone unlike its neighbors. A boulder from Boston’s Beacon Hill marks the grave of Elizabeth Van Lew: fiercely proud Virginian, Republican postmistress of Richmond [1], and spy for the Union. The rough testament to Van Lew’s national service was established courtesy of Union soldiers who’d survived Richmond’s Libby Prison with the spy’s help. A few yards away, beneath an impressive obelisk, lies College of William and Mary alum and treason trial counsel for Aaron Burr, John Wickham, alongside his family. This cluster of tombstones includes several references to Confederate General Robert E. Lee — Wickham’s daughter had married Lee’s son. Unlike Van Lew, Lee is a ubiquitous presence throughout Richmond. Why is the unsuccessful rebel general Lee so prominently featured on the gravestones of family members, while Van Lew’s house was converted into a public school? Why is Monument Avenue a constellation of Confederate stars, while entire unionist clandestine networks are attributed to a single “mad” woman? Elizabeth Van Lew has been doubly buried in the city of Richmond — in the ground at Shockhoe and in the collective mind of the city. As a privileged, white female unionist operating a successful, racially diverse espionage ring in Richmond, she subverts the Lost Cause perception of the Confederacy as a single cohesive, contented front.

In order to understand why successful unionists remain forgotten while failed Confederate generals are lauded, it is important to understand the politics of Civil War burial. Tending to the dead after a battle was typically the responsibility of the victor. [2] However, during and after the war, the deceased rarely rested in peace due to the sheer number of casualties and lack of manpower and time required to properly dig graves. Shallow graves released their contents as the weather took its toll on the battlefields. Roving pigs descended upon the exposed corpses. [3] This was a widespread problem, especially for the lower classes. Oftentimes, the opposing force would release the body of an officer as an act of courtesy. [4] Additionally, the issue pertained predominantly to the South, simply because the main theaters of the war were fought on southern soil. Faced with such carnage, civilians felt a need to save the mistreated dead from obscurity. Embalming techniques, national cemeteries, and reburial programs were enacted in order to solve the problem. [5] Despite these improvements, in the aftermath of the war, the South did not feel as if the federal government was doing an adequate, or even respectful, job of burying their dead soldiers, favoring Yankee troops instead.

Caring for the dead fell to elite white women of the South, tapping into their historic vehemence and political activism from the days of the female-inclusive Whig rallies. Memorial associations proved to be fundraising powerhouses, with the Hollywood Memorial Association raising a whopping $18,000 in a damaged, still recovering Richmond in 1867. [6] However, their goals quickly diverged from simply burying the forgotten dead; memorial gatherings began to take on a more nostalgic, celebratory tone. Rather than using funds to help restore areas of the South hit hard by the war, grand monuments were erected commemorating elite figures. These sculptures, like the cluster on what would come to be called Monument Avenue, proved so popular that they even influenced real estate development. The city’s massive statue of Robert E. Lee began as part of a speculation deal that involved building the grand statue of the venerated hero in the middle of nowhere. Developers hoped that wealthy property owners would invest in the surrounding property. The gambit worked, the unveiling drew an adoring crow of 100,000, and soon the sculptures of favorite Confederate figures, from Jefferson Davis to Stonewall Jackson, were making appearances on the road. These commemorations were an elite project, with upper and middle class white women at the helm because the Reconstruction had temporarily displaced their ex-Confederate husbands from leadership positions.

Statue of Lee on Monument Avenue

Statue of Lee on Monument Avenue

In Winchester’s Stonewall Cemetery, 10,000 attendees arrived to witness the re-internment of three Confederate soldiers [7]. Several of these celebrated troops had no connection to Winchester whatsoever. The innovative “garden-esque” Hollywood Cemetery became a bastion of the Confederate dead, with many plots still punctured by tiny rebel flags. Like Shockoe, it is also the resting place of many notables, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis and presidents of the United States John Tyler and James Monroe. Monroe was actually exhumed and moved to Richmond from his original New York gravesite, in a bid to elevate the cemetery’s prestige—a situation strikingly similar to the incidents involving the Winchester re-internments and the construction of Lee’s monument. The Southern concept of honor relied upon exterior appearances — celebrity cameos helped give places like Hollywood Cemetery and Monument Avenue an edge, allowing them to bloom into strongholds of Confederate memory.

As ex-Confederate proponents like Jubal Early slowly drifted back into positons of leadership, the Southern cause of rescuing the dead had become increasingly more concerned with providing the living a chance to reconnect over the Lose Cause, rather than memorializing the identities of the fallen soldiers. The Confederacy itself, along with its fallen troops, was become blurred by nostalgia’s rosy tint — the sacrifice of the dead was “…to be honored and invoked less for themselves than for the purposes of the nation and the society struggling to survive them.” [8]

The unpopular presence of Northern military oversight during the Reconstruction only further alienated unionist individuals from their neighbors in Richmond. It is still surprising that outsiders were needed to step in and properly commemorate Van Lew and ensure that she received a proper headstone. Richmond was not a homogenous society. In a culture so associated with being exclusively associated with Christianity, it is surprising indeed to find a military cemetery filled exclusive with Jewish Confederate soldiers. Like the 1834 construction of St. Peters Catholic Church, the cemetery indicates that there were thriving subcultures operating in Richmond during the 19th century. However, there was no pro-Northern attempt to commemorate Van Lew or preserve her home. Clearly, any unionist impulse was stifled by the loud, public Confederate celebrations in the wake of the war.

From the perspective of Richmond’s ex-Confederate elite, the memory of Van Lew was almost as dangerous as her espionage operations. She was living proof of intense opposition in the Confederate capital, a unionist strain that encouraged black and white operatives to band together and pass along information to Union forces. This thread of dissent did not mesh well with the Lost Cause assertion that the Confederate past had been a golden age of cooperation and unity. Memorial groups even attempted to portray African Americans as happier and better off under the slave system, as the fledgling black middle class attempted to organization their own Emancipation Days celebrating their freedom. [9] So Van Lew was recast as a lonely spinster, serving the Union out of insanity rather than conviction. [10] She was a traitor; an ironic label, considering she saw her actions as an expression of loyalty to the federal government. Her political post and collaborations with former slaves like Mary Bowser were rendered irrelevant. If she was reclusive in life, it is because her neighbors shunned and threatened her for furnishing her home with pictures of Grant and not Jackson, Davis, or Lee. [11] Like her fellow residents of Richmond, Van Lew loved her home state. However, she also hated slavery and what she regarded as sedition; what’s more, she possessed the courage and intelligence to act upon her convictions. And so, the city of Richmond buried this troubling memory, rendered her a ghost story, and left her forgotten and obscure beneath the scraggly grass of Shockhoe Cemetery.

Elizabeth Van Lew's grave. COURTESY PHOTO / wikimedia.commons.org

Elizabeth Van Lew’s grave. COURTESY PHOTO / wikimedia.commons.org

[1] Elizabeth R. Varon, “Prologue,” & “Epilogue: Van Lew’s Ghost,” from her book, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy (2003), 3-4. 

[2] Drew Gilpin Faust, “Burying: New Lessons Caring for the Dead,” chapter 3 from her book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), 69.

[3] William A. Blair, “Waging Politics through Decoration Days,” &The Politics of Manhood and Womanhood,” chapters 3 & 4 from his book, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914 (2004), 182. 

[4] Faust, 73

[5] Ibid., 100

[6] Blair, 89

[7] Ibid., 90

[8] Faust, 83

[9] Blair, 100

[10] Varon, 260

[11] Ibid,. 6

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