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? With video and online research, 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!

Audio: Image - Button Play
Image - Lession Started Image - Button Start

Watch Elizabeth Van Lew - Virginia's most hated woman and learn a Civil War secret.

Image - Video

The role of women as movers and shakers in American history is undeniable.

From the very start of the new nation during the Revolutionary War to our modern day military, women have always felt compelled to take on tasks requiring both brains and bravery, sometimes even brawn. The passion for a cause that fuels remarkable deeds was clearly evidenced by those women who were engaged as spies during the American Civil War.

One woman, Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, was willing to incur the wrath of southern society in order to aid the causes of the North. Having been 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 who stayed on as a servant to Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Spy of the Confederate White House (Civil War Saga), would eventually become a key agent in Elizabeth’s spy network established in 1864.

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, at

Image - Button Next

Elephango's Philosophy

We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.