Elizabeth Van Lew: A Union Spy In The Confederate Capital

She wasn’t the only Union spy in Richmond, Virginia, but her story is worth telling because of its uniqueness. Though history has often tried to portray Elizabeth as crazy or as using a crazed persona to cover her actions, some historians are arguing against this portrayal, claiming that from sources it seems unlikely and may simply have been a degrading way to see this remarkable woman.

Either way, Elizabeth boldly supported the Union cause through subterfuge. Continue reading

I’ll Spy On You – Civilians & War, Part 2

One of my favorite history books about the American War for Independence is George Washington: Spymaster by Thomas B. Allan. The spy network used on both sides during this conflict was incredible, especially given the limited “technology” they possessed.

Today, we’ll use the American War for Independence setting and look at the role civilians played as spies. (If you missed my post on Tuesday, it’s an in-depth look at the spying going on in Gettysburg before that battle – check it out here.)

If this civilian woman is making uniforms, growing food, and sheltering spies, is she really a non-combatant? You decide.

If this civilian woman is making uniforms, growing food, and sheltering spies, is she really a non-combatant? You decide.

Really Non-Combatant?

Let’s be clear on something. A civilian is technically any person not enlisted in the military or with a para-military organization (like a police force.) But are civilians really non-combatants? That’s a big question, and one which I think each person needs to decide for themselves.

Here’s an example of how the situation becomes complicated. American Civil War: Southern farmer is not in the Confederate army, but he’s growing food to feed that army. He’s a civilian, but is he really a non-combatant? Can he really plead innocence when the enemy comes to burn his fields.

Another scenario: a civilian harbors guerilla fighters (pick just about any war you want). Are they really non-combatants?

You decide. But keep in mind – very rarely are civilians completely innocent bystanders. (A real moral dilemma for military commanders.)

So now that I’ve opened that topic for you to consider, let’s talk about some civilians (people not in uniform) who were playing very active roles in wars: spies.

1. Washington’s Spies (American War for Independence)

One of America’s first known spying attempts went disastrously wrong. Nathan Hale, a 21 year old officer in the Continental Army, disguised himself as a civilian and trudged off to spy on the British. (Listen, if you’re ever a spy don’t hide your notes in your shoes; that’s always where they check first!) Well, poor Nathan was captured, made to take off his shoes, his notes were found, and he was hanged.

After that tragic occurrence, George Washington set up an official spy ring – and he was actually a member (Agent 711). Washington’s spy ring was mostly civilians, a couple double agents, and a few other civilians who were brave enough to send messages about what they knew.

Benjamin Tallmadge (portrait is from c. 1800)

Benjamin Tallmadge (portrait is from c. 1800)

Benjamin Tallmadge was the leader of the spy ring. He was in charge of the unofficial military intelligence department, keeping track of secret agents, giving assignments, and developing the secret code.

2. Tallmadge’s Secret Code

Tallmadge’s code was a combination of numbers which represented certain words – names, locations, actions, or things. There were also ways to write words not assigned numbers by laboriously rewriting the words in code.

The British were very mystified by the “random” and “nonsensical” numbers and letters. They never successfully deciphered the code.

Want to see what the code looked like? Here’s some examples (with translations).

232 mmk would translate to “Gazette665”

711 111 gqlpyemmcu 683 619 translates to “George Washington (711) confident (111) Cornwallis (gqlpyemmcu) will (683) surrender (619)”

3. The Culper Spy Ring

This spy ring was based near in the New York / New Jersey area and passed information from the British army headquarters in New York to George Washington. Not many of the members knew each other – some never even saw their contacts. (Security reasons, of course.)

Artist's idea of a member of the Culper Spy Ring

Artist’s idea of a member of the Culper Spy Ring

The spies in the city hung around taverns, coffee shops, and the loyal British newspaper offices, picking up fragments of news which they encoded and sent on the journey to Tallmadge and Washington. The messages traveled in various ways – left buried in certain locations for “pick-up”, slipped to the next person, carried in hats, bags, wagons, and who knows what else. At one location, a lady would signal if it was safe to transport messages by hanging a certain number of white handkerchiefs on her clothes line!

One of the disappoint things for historians is that we often don’t know much about the spies themselves or their missions. It was secret, and it has remained a secret.

4. The Spying Quaker

Again, somewhat shrouded in appropriate mystery, Lydia Darragh was a secret agent in Philadelphia (not connected to the Culper Spy Ring as far as we know). Lydia was a Quaker, and she believed all war was wrong. But she wasn’t a very good non-combatant!

British officers liked to use her comfortable parlor for planning meetings. And Lydia eavesdropped! She scribbled down her news, folded the papers and recovered some buttons for her son’s jacket, sealing the messages inside the buttons. Her son then went to visit Washington’s camp…and somehow lost the buttons.

Legend has it that Lydia Darragh discovered an important British secret regarding a military movement. She left the city (with British permission and pass), met an American officer at a tavern, handed him her sewing kit, and left. In the sewing kit was the information about the British army that Washington had been seeking.

These are just a few examples from one war. Think of how many civilians have impacted the outcome of battles and conflicts with their spying missions. I wonder how many spies and mission are so secret we will never know about them… Probably more than we could ever imagine…yikes!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Got a spy story from a different war? I’d love to hear about it!


Gettysburg Spies

“A spy in Gettysburg!” Betsy exclaimed.

“Who would’ve ever thought such a thing would happen?” (Blue, Gray & Crimson)

Though my beloved fictional character expresses surprise about an incident in pre-battle Gettysburg, in reality she may have seen multiple spies in or around the town and never known it. There is historical evidence leading to the conclusion that there were far more Confederate spies hanging around Gettysburg and other Pennsylvania towns than we may have realized.

General Jackson's mapmaker may have sent spies into Southern Pennsylvania months before the Gettysburg Campaign.

General Jackson may have sent spies into Southern Pennsylvania months before the Gettysburg Campaign.

1. Mapmaking Spies?

In the early spring of 1863, an invasion of the northern states was already on the minds of the Confederate commanders: Lee and Jackson. With great secrecy, General “Stonewall” Jackson ordered his mapmaker, Jedidiah Hotchkiss, to send his cartographers north to documents the roads and towns of Pennsylvania.

Nobody in Gettysburg would’ve paid much attention to an extra man or two in town for a day or two; the town was the county-seat of Adams County so an extra person or two passing through town wouldn’t have sparked comment. So if the map-makers came to Gettysburg, they arrived, made a few observations, and moved on. (Remember, Lee did not come north planning to fight at Gettysburg, so it was just a little crossroad town on the big map.)

The owner of the Globe Inn mentioned that several men whom he believed were Confederate spies stayed at his establishment. Interestingly, he did not report them when they were in town…he was in the Democratic political party and might have had Southern sympathies.

Want to know something even more crazy? During the June 26th Raid, one of Early’s staff officers came to the Globe Inn and quietly admitted to the owners that he had stayed there three weeks prior. Then with remarkable respect the officer paid for his dinner with a silver quarter. Sounds like something suspicious was happening at the Globe Inn…there’s a lot to wonder about.

2. The Local Spy

What you are about to hear was not public knowledge in 1863.

Gettysburg had at least one spy – a Union spy. He was local resident named David McConaughy. McConaughy was a staunch supported of Abe Lincoln during the 1860 election and was the captain of a local militia.

When the invasion of Pennsylvania began, McConaughy offered his skill set to the Union and became part of the “secret service.” (No, he wasn’t guarding the president). Although details are vague, McConaughy and some of his neighbors sent information to the Union army.

General Meade personally thanked Mr. McConaughy for his secret work

General Meade personally thanked Mr. McConaughy for his secret work

The clear fact: McConaughy was personally thanked by General Meade – commander of the Union army – after the battle. So he probably did something important….what? (I really want to know!)

3. The Spy & The Spy Catcher

On the morning of June 30th, a strange man appeared in Gettysburg, strolled up to some school-age children and started asking some questions. Questions like: where’s the Union army? Have you seen any cavalry around here recently?

Down the street came Captain John Myers, a veteran from the War of 1812, and a man already on the look-out for a spy or an adventure. He got both. With the help of a Union soldier who’d really and truly lost his regiment (he hadn’t deserted), Captain Myers arrested the suspicious individual and hauled him off to the sheriff.

The sheriff found condemning evidence in the man’s clothes and shoes, and the Confederate spy was thrown into the local jail. Good work, spy-catcher John Myers!

4. The Unknown Spies

I wonder how many other Confederate and Union spies slipped through Gettysburg, undetected by the civilians. It’s probably something we’ll never know. (Too bad!) But it is my opinion that these known and recorded accounts are probably not the only representation of undercover actions swirling around Gettysburg. Hmm…

The espionage surrounding Gettysburg in the months, weeks, and days leading up the battle was far from most of the civilians’ minds. They were busy with their housework, business, or farm chores – and just hoping the Rebels wouldn’t come. They never imagined the secret war…which to this day remains a continuing subject of curiosity for historians and adventurers alike.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts?