The Civil War was one of the darkest times in our nation’s history. But behind the scenes, many individuals worked nobly for their cause, whether it was freeing slaves on the “Underground Railroad” or flying high in a hot-air balloon to gather information about an opposing army.
Read about these adventures:
Elizabeth Van Lew
*Historical sketches in this section are written in the first person for stylistic reasons. Biographies should not be interpreted as direct quotations. Sources are listed at the end of each sketch.
A Hard Beginning
My nickname is "Moses," but I didn't part any sea to get that name. Like Moses, I, too, led slaves to freedom and a better life. Unlike Moses, I was an intelligence officer!
I started my life as one of 11 children born to Harriet and Benjamin Ross on the Eastern Shore of Maryland around 1820. My grandparents were from West Africa. They were Ashanti, warrior people from that area. Having Ashanti in my blood would come in handy for what awaited me later.
My childhood was different from what most kids today know, because I was born a slave. At five years old, I was already being rented out by my master to work in other people's homes. There was no time for fun and or even an education like other kids have. You also never knew if one day your parents, your brothers and sisters or even yourself would be sold to another plantation. Imagine never seeing your family again. The work was hard and the beatings many. I may not have had an education, but always in my heart and mind the word "freedom" whispered to me.
When I was 15 years old, I helped another slave escape by standing in the master's way. He tried to get by me and threw a lead weight at the running man, but it hit my head instead. I was in a coma for quite awhile. For the rest of my life, I also had a scar and dent on my forehead along with frequent severe headaches. I didn't care. I had helped a man to freedom. Freedom was no longer just a whispered word.
“Moses of the Underground Railroad
At 24 I married John Tubman, a freed slave, but that didn't make me free. I told John I wanted us both to be free. We needed to go north for that. John wanted no part of such a plan. He told me he would tell my master if I tried to leave. I was sad that John felt this way; however, I just couldn't live as a slave anymore. When I found out I was to be sold, I knew I had to leave. I hoped John would change his mind and join me later. All my experiences had prepared me for this moment. Helped by members of the Underground Railroad, I made it safely to Pennsylvania. I memorized everything about the route I took as I thought it would come in handy later on.
Though I was free, others still weren't. I joined the Underground Railroad and ran 19 missions for them. I brought many people to freedom including a lot of my family. I never lost a passenger on my "railroad." My motto was "move or die." I carried a gun to back it up. No slave could turn back and betray the many on the railroad route who helped us. I once went back for John, but he had married again and refused to leave. My heart was broken, but my determination was strong. I never looked back. My work was too important and much bigger than the sorrows of my life.
I knew every stone, every blade of grass, and every drop of water between the Eastern Shore and Pennsylvania. I learned the best places to hide. I learned the value of disguises. I also learned to understand the code of quilts used by the Underground Railroad. Quilts hung a particular way or quilts with a particular design were a code to Railroad "conductors" like myself. I learned the qualities of leadership. I learned who to trust and who not to trust. I became a self-taught intelligence officer just like
Elizabeth Van Lew. To do the job, any job, you have to prepare yourself.
When the war started in 1861, I decided to help out in the Union hospitals. I went to South Carolina and helped care for the "contrabands". "Contrabands were African-Americans who were no longer slaves, but not legally free until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. Many had fled the plantations to join the Union Army. Many of them were sick and malnourished. I believed my place was with them. I also nursed wounded white Union soldiers who were the first casualties of the war.
A Civil War Spy
The Union Army appreciated my help, but they realized I had other talents they needed to win the war. They were aware of my reputation with the Underground Railroad and they needed "Moses" to lead them victory. The Union Army wanted information on their enemy, and I was the best person to get it for them. I gathered together a band of black men and led them on scouting expeditions. We gathered intelligence on Confederate troop movements, size of the armies, how well they were armed, and information on the land itself. I also had spy network of slaves who remained on the plantations and gave me lots of information.
My band of spies and myself were quite successful and we saw lots of victories. Our biggest victory was the raid on Combahee River. The Union Army gave me three gunboats and 150 black soldiers led by Colonel James Montgomery. Colonel Montgomery was a guerilla war expert, so I knew I had some good people. We managed to destroy some Confederate railroads and bridges, take up mines in the river, destroy stockpiled army goods, and freed 800 slaves. Imagine how the Confederates felt when they found out a former slave woman led the attack on them! I smile each time I think of it. This and other raids led the Union Army to call me "the General."
Life after the War
I led many other campaigns such as this and kept my spy network running until the war's end in 1865. I was tired after so many years spent scouting, fighting, helping others and my country. I returned to my home in Auburn, New York and, focused my attentions on helping poor and sick blacks. I never sat in a rocking chair on my laurels as there was still too much work to do. I followed my motto from my Underground Railroad days, "move or die." I did set up a home for the poor. I grew vegetables for the people and did all I could to keep the home funded. My military pension of $20 a month helped a bit, and I got donations from many friends, too. I even worked with a writer who did a biography of me. She donated all the money from the book to the home.
When I got too old to move, I, too retired to the home which I turned over to a church to run. I never was interested in money or power, so I was always poor. But I was rich in spirit and in friends. Like any spy, I was quiet about my work. My work was for my people, for all people, and for my country.
When I died at 93, they gave "the General" a military funeral. A lot of my friends came to my funeral and a lot of nice words were spoken. I think what abolitionist Frederick Douglass once wrote in a letter to me best captures my life as a spy: "The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."
I am, like so many others in my line of work, a silent servant to freedom.
McCarthy, Linda, Spies, Pop Flies and French Fries
Markham: History is a Hoot, 1999.
Markle, Donald E., Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War
New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Taylor, M.W., Harriet Tubman
New York, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.
P.K. Rose, Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War
Central Intelligence Agency: 1999.
[Top of Page]
Elizabeth Van Lew
Growing Up in Richmond, Virginia
Imagine believing in a cause so much that everyone in your hometown wouldn't talk to you. Standing up for what you believe in as an intelligence officer is not only dangerous, but also very lonely.
My name is Elizabeth Van Lew, but you can call me "Bet". Some people even called me "Crazy Bet" during the war because I would pretend to be crazy as part of my spy disguise. I was born and raised in Richmond and dearly loved the city. My parents were from up North. Father was from New York and Mother was from Pennsylvania. My father owned a very successful hardware business, and I had a nice life in Richmond as a young child. Our large home was atop Church Hill, the highest hill in town. I could look down on the city I loved and later wouldn't agree with.
My parents sent me to Philadelphia for my schooling when I got older . While I was up North, I realized how wrong slavery was. I also understood that for our country and its people to be strong, it must be united and not divided. I am ashamed to say my parents owned slaves, as most wealthy families did in Richmond. I vowed that one day I would free our slaves and other slaves, as well.
After school I returned to Richmond. My father died shortly after my return. Though I loved Father very much, my chance had finally come to keep my promise. I convinced my mother to free all of our slaves, which she did. I didn't stop there. I bought the freedom of my relative's slaves, too. I also paid for a Northern education for one of my former slaves. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a bright young girl and she would be a big help to me in War.
Change was in the air at this time. War was coming and I felt helpless. April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon by the Confederates. That attack later marked the start of the Civil War. April 17th, to my sorrow, a Confederate flag flew over my beloved Richmond. I couldn't stand by and do nothing. I had to stand up for what I believed in. So I joined the Richmond Underground and began my intelligence gathering career.
The Spy Ring Forms
I heard you don't grow up to be a spy, but circumstances call you to it. Well, this was true for me. What did I know about spying? I was born to a wealthy established family in the South. With my family ties, there was no reason to suspect me of espionage----a perfect cover!
I found you can do anything when you really need to. I used what was available to me to save my country: my money, my intellect and charm, and a circle of good friends. I surrounded myself with good, trusted people such as other prominent people in Richmond and former slaves. Nobody would suspect these folks of spying. I even involved my mother. I think she enjoyed a little adventure in her old age!
I thought about where and how I would get information to give the Union. Remember Mary Elizabeth? Well, she came back home when I contacted her. She willingly went undercover as a maid and nanny in Confederate President Jefferson Davis' house.
I placed other former slaves in strategic areas around Richmond to gather information. They also staffed my five relay stations between Richmond and the Union lines so the intelligence we gathered moved quickly and safely to its destination. Intelligence has to be timely to be usable.
The other members of my group, which included everyone from housewives to a railroad manager and a restaurant owner, used their real jobs as cover to collect information. One of our folks even ran for mayor of Richmond and almost won! Now that would've been a great cover for our operation.
The Self Taught Spy
As for my mother and I, we decided to gather information at Libby prison where many Union soldiers were held. We took food, medicine and books to the prisoners and gathered information on what they had seen which we relayed north.
A lot of people were very upset mother and I did this. The local newspaper even wrote an article about me and called me "Crazy Bet". Imagine! What they didn't know was they gave me another perfect cover---a crazy woman! I played up the role by dressing very shabby, not combing my hair and walking the streets mumbling to myself. I was quite the good actress.
Our little trips to the prison also gave us an opportunity to help the prisoners escape. The Confederate guards and the head of the prison also gave us much information without knowing it---amazing what a little gingerbread, buttermilk and pleasant conversation can do! My buttermilk and gingerbread tactics also worked on the clerks in the Confederate Navy and War departments. Oh, how we kept General Grant so well informed!
To make sure my information was safe, I developed a cipher code to send the messages. My messages were also written in a colorless liquid which were made visible by milk. I remembered reading about codes and invisible ink when I read about the Revolutionary War and thought it would work for us, too.
Sometimes my messages were hidden in the bottom of vegetable baskets or they were in hollowed out eggs in a basket. Messages were never sent in one piece, either, I always tore them apart and sent them with separate couriers. My messengers quite often carried cheery letters to relatives as a cover for their mission. It was amazing how much I learned in such a short time. I had to learn quickly to help save my country and help free those held wrongly as slaves.
My greatest honor was finally meeting General Ulysses Grant. When he captured Richmond, the first thing he did when he came to town was have tea at my home and thank me for all my help. What a wonderful day that was. We even celebrated with my famous gingerbread!
Life after the Civil War
My country appreciated my intelligence gathering, but I'm sorry to say that the years after the war weren't easy for me. I paid for my beliefs by being shunned by everyone in town. I had no money as my father's business suffered because of the war. All the money from the business went to pay for my intelligence gathering.
When General Grant became president he appointed me Postmaster of Richmond. He also tried to get Congress to award me a gift of money for my services, but the reconstruction of the country after the war had everyone's attention. I was forgotten.
When Rutherford Hayes became President, he didn't re appoint me Postmaster. Without any job or money, my friends and the many people I helped during the war supported me until I died.
As with intelligence officers before and after me, what I did for my country and fellow man was not for personal glory. I did it because it was the right thing to do. That is worth all the buttermilk and gingerbread in the world!
O'Toole, G.J.A., Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage
New York and Oxford: Facts on File, 1988.
Davis, William C., Nevin, David, Spies, Scouts, and Raiders
Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1985.
Markle, Donald, Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War
New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
[Top of Page]
My Humble Beginnings
My name is Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe. That's quite a large name for one person. My mother got the name from three characters in a popular novel by Jane Potter, "Thaddeus of Warsaw." With such a large name I was surely destined to achieve big things.
Greatness was very distant to me when I was born on April 20, 1832 in Jefferson Mills, New Hampshire. My father was a cobbler and we owned a small farm which I and my five brothers and sisters had to help with. I didn't have much time to run and play like kids today do. I only went as far as fourth grade in school because we had to work the farm. My teacher, however, saw I had a great love of books and knowledge and she would often lend me her books to read. I realized very early the more you know, the further you would go. I wanted to go far, maybe all the way to stars!
When I was ten years old my mother died. I was very sad and missed her very much. She gave me the will to meet life's challenges and she encouraged me to read. I didn't have long to feel sad as I was sent to work on another farm to help support our family. This was a common practice when I was younger. Kids had to work like adults. I hated farm work. I hated being treated like a servant. My favorite time was at the end of the day. I would find a place in the field to lie down and gaze at the passing clouds. I made notes of what I saw and I thought about the mysteries of the skies. I wanted to know more about what was up there.
A New Life
On July 4, 1843 I declared my own independence from farm life, and struck out to see the world. I headed for the nearest largest city, Portland, Maine. In Maine I worked many jobs to save passage to Boston where I joined my older brother Joseph. I apprenticed at a local shoemaker and I helped improve their output of shoes with some time-saving ideas. Later, I went to work for my brother in the shoemaking business. Flying was still never far from my mind.
In 1850 I got sick and I returned to New Hampshire where my stepmother nursed me back to health. While at home, I attended a lecture on the wonders of science by a Professor Reginald B. Dincklehoff . It was probably the most defining moment of my life. I was especially interested in how the Professor made hydrogen. I thought this might help my dream to fly. I became the Professor's assistant and traveled everywhere with him. When he retired, I took over the business and shared my love of science with many audiences. Because I could share my love of science in an interesting way, people really learned from my shows. I later settled in New York where I went to school to learn more about science and medicine. The main focus of my studies was on my main interest, aeronautics.
It was in New York that I also met my wife Leontine. Leontine believed in me and my aeronautical studies and she helped me build my first balloon. In 1857 I took my first tethered flight. I finally got to see the world from up high and to study the wind currents I only guessed about on the ground. As I got better at ballooning, I took longer flights. I even took paying passengers for rides to help bring in money for my growing family. Each flight increased my curiosity and my creativity. I began to develop various devices, such as an altimeter to measure elevation, to help me in my studies. I also built and sold balloons and was quite successful at it. Still I saw even more important uses for balloons than for pleasure riding.
My first idea for an important use of balloons was for a national weather bureau. I figured the whole country could benefit from the climate information that the balloons could gather. I discussed the idea of a possible national weather bureau with the government. I was a bit ahead of my time, though. Others later took up the cause and in 1870 the National Weather Service was formed. I had many ideas still forming inside my head. My wife and all my friends were always amazed at how many ideas I had and how I was never afraid to try them, though sometimes my timing may not be right.
High Flying Spy
On April 20, 1861, seven days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, I went on the balloon ride of my life. I wanted to prove that even if the winds were blowing from the West, I could still rise above them and use the upper air current to carry me East. My ultimate goal was to raise money for a Trans-Atlantic flight, crossing the ocean from the skies! My theory was right about the air currents and I ended up in South Carolina, 800 miles from where I started in Ohio. My adventure also put me in Confederate territory where I became one of the earliest prisoners of war. I was almost executed until someone in the town recognized me and knew my scientific background. I was put on a train back to Cincinnati, Ohio, only this trip took five days instead of the nine hours in the balloon. The ride back gave me time to think about a new use for my balloons---high altitude observation of the Confederate Army!
When I returned I immediately contacted President Abraham Lincoln's office and volunteered my services to the Union's cause. President Lincoln was a bit unsure about my proposal until I gave him a demonstration. We went to a field where I took one of my balloons 500 feet in the air and , with the help of a battery, sent the President a message of my observations on a Morse code instrument. This was the first telegram ever sent from the sky. Needless to say, President Lincoln was impressed and Aeronautic Corps (or Balloon Corps as it was often referred to) was born.
Some folks have a hard time adjusting to new things and a lot of military officers in the Union Army felt that way about the Aeronautic Corps. Generals, such as Winfield Scott, were not sold on the idea of getting intelligence from the sky, but they had to listen to their Commander- in- Chief, President Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln wanted to use new techniques to bring this war to a speedy end. Finally the balloon corps was up in the air and we were gathering intelligence and making the most accurate maps ever made. I got money to build more balloons and even established a balloon camp at Edward's Ferry just outside of Washington, D.C.
The balloons often proved useful and , in some cases, necessary. In the battle of Fair Oaks the Balloon Corps helped turn the battle in the North's favor by getting information about troop movements to the commanders on the ground. The Union Army also relied on our information as they advanced on Richmond and they cut off supplies to the Confederate capital in Mechanicsville.
As the war continued on, the armies became even more mobile and the balloon corps was used less and less. I could see there was still some underlying resistance to the corps despite its successes. I decided it was time to leave, but I would leave behind my ideas, my equipment and the desire by some to see the balloon corps continue. I was glad to serve my country and to show others the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance.
The Dreams Continue
My wife, children and I later moved to Pasadena, California in 1887. My mind was filled with a lot of ideas for inventions. I developed the first ice-making machine and safer ways to use gas for heating and lighting homes. Even with all these inventions, my head was still "in the clouds" as Leontine used to say. I still believed in bringing science to the people and that the skies held so many answers for us. I helped an astronomer in New York by building an observatory at the top of Echo Mountain. The lights in New York were too bright for his work, but the clear high altitude of the mountain was much better. I went one step further and built a railroad for everyone to use and visit the observatory and see its work. I also built hotels, a zoo and even tennis courts on the mountain. I guess you could say I almost had my own city in the clouds. Windstorms and fire eventually destroyed it all, but it was so beautiful and exciting, while it lasted, to touch the sky.
I died in 1913, but my work still lives on. Mt. Echo was eventually renamed Mt. Lowe in my honor. My dream of observatories all over the world looking into the mysteries of the stars still continues. Of course, the world has gone a lot higher than my balloons ever could…all the way to the moon! My idea of using great heights for intelligence gathering evolved into eventually satellites which go farther up than my balloons ever could.
All these great things came from the dreams of a kid who gazed at the sky and questioned what he saw. Next time someone tells you to stop dreaming and to get your head out of the clouds, remember my story and work hard to make your dreams come true.
The Early Days of Thaddeus Lowe
Echo Mtn. Echoes
v4n3TheEarlyDaysofThaddeusLowe.htm [external link disclaimer]
25 September 2002.
Observations from Above
Echo Mtn. Echoes
v3n2ObservationsFromAbove.htm [external link disclaimer]
September 25, 2002.
Professor T.S.C. Lowe and his Mountain Observatory
Echo Mtn. Echoes
http://www.aaaim.com/echo/v3n4/v3n4rippens.htm [external link disclaimer]
September 25, 2002.
Lieutenant Colonel Norman S. Marshal
Mark J. Denger
Californians and the Military: Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, Aviation Pioneer
http://www.militarymuseum.org/Lowe.htm [external link disclaimer]
September 25, 2002.
McCarthy, Linda, Spies, Pop Flies and French Fries
Markham: History is a Hoot, 1999.
Karr, Kathleen, Spy in the Sky
New York: Hyperion, 1997.
[Top of Page]