Civil War Secrets: Elizabeth Van Lew

Contributor: Kathi Thomas. Lesson ID: 10466

What would you do to right a wrong? What would you give up? Learn about women who gave up everything during the Civil War to spy for the side they believed was right!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Watch the following video to learn a Civil War secret.

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This is the fourth Related Lesson in our series on Civil War spies. Be sure to check out the others, found in the right-hand sidebar.

In this lesson, learn about Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, who was willing to incur the wrath of southern society in order to aid the causes of the North.

Since she was born in Virginia and the daughter of a slave owner, the people of Richmond were appalled at her anti-slavery views and compassion for Union soldiers housed in the squalid prisons of the South. Little did they know just how far Elizabeth was willing to go to assist the North.

Elizabeth Van Lew was the daughter of a successful businessman and, as a young woman, had an opportunity to attend school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

During her time in the northeast, she became convinced the institution of slavery was wrong and, upon returning to Virginia, urged her father to free the family’s slaves. He refused to do so, but upon his death, Elizabeth and her mother managed to arrange for the freedom of their slaves and used their financial resources to reunite them with family members.

One woman, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, stayed on as a servant to Elizabeth and eventually become a key agent in the spy network she established in 1864. Read How a Black Spy Infiltrated the Confederate White House to learn more.

The details of Elizabeth’s life show strong determination in the face of great social and financial pressure, and she is considered one of the most successful spies for the Union. Read this account of her history: Elizabeth Van Lew.

Continue on to the Got It? section.

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