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Illustration by the Red Dress

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, WHST.6-8.9, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individual Development and Identity • Civic Ideals and Practices

Enjoy this free article courtesy of Junior Scholastic, the Social Studies classroom magazine for grades 6–8.

FLASHBACK

Civil War

Spying on the South

During the Civil War, a young black woman born into slavery helped the Union defeat the Confederate South—and end enslavement in America.

As You Read, Think About: How did Mary Richards help the Union during the Civil War? What might have motivated her to take risks?

Mary Richards’s heart was pounding. She raised her fist to rap on the door of the mansion. For several seconds, everything was silent. Then the door began to creak open. Her next mission was about to begin.

Throughout much of the Civil War (1861-65), Richards had been spying on the enemy: the Southern Confederacy. Aiding the Union Army was dangerous anywhere in the South, but especially in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, where she lived. Now, in August 1864, she was about to enter a very dangerous place, the White House of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Spying for the North was especially meaningful for Richards. She was black and had been born enslaved in Richmond. The 24-year-old would do anything she could to help the Union forces win the war.

Gaining entrance to the enemy’s headquarters was going to be tricky. When the door to the house opened, she pretended to be a washerwoman and asked if the household had any laundry. After being told to wait, Richards found herself in a room that appeared to be Davis’s study. Quickly, she began searching the drawers of a cabinet for any information that might help the Union Army.

Mary Richards’s heart was pounding. She raised her fist to rap on the door of the mansion. For several seconds, everything was silent. Then the door began to creak open. Her next mission was about to begin.

Throughout the Civil War (1861-65), Richards had been spying on the enemy: the Southern Confederacy. Helping the Union Army was dangerous anywhere in the South. But it was especially so in Richmond, Virginia. That was the Confederate capital. It also was where Richards lived. Now, in August 1864, she was about to enter a very dangerous place, the White House of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Spying for the North was especially meaningful for Richards. She was black and had been born enslaved in Richmond. The 24-year-old would do anything she could to help the Union forces win the war.

Getting into the enemy’s headquarters was going to be tricky. When the door to the house opened, she pretended to be a washerwoman. She asked if the household had any laundry. After being told to wait, Richards found herself in a room that appeared to be Davis’s study. Quickly, she began to search the drawers of a cabinet. She hoped to find information that might help the Union Army.

Richards had been born enslaved. She would do anything to help the Union win.

Could there be Confederate battle plans? A map showing troop movements? Richards was said to possess a photographic memory and could carry away many details of anything that she saw.

Suddenly, someone entered the room: a man—tall, gaunt, and blind in one eye. Richards froze. It was Jefferson Davis himself.

“Who are you? What do you want?” he barked at her sternly.

Richards swallowed hard. But she had a trick up her sleeve. She knew white people like Davis wrongly believed black people were too stupid to be capable of spying. So she played dumb. Mumbling as if she had lost her way, Richards backed out of the room and then out of the house altogether, to safety. She had survived another day as part of a spy ring that would soon help the Union win the Civil War. 

So it was that a young black woman—a nobody, invisible in the eyes of most white people—played a crucial role in one of the great struggles of American history. 

Could there be Confederate battle plans? A map showing troop movements? People said Richards had a photographic memory. So she could carry away many details of anything that she saw.

Suddenly, someone entered the room. It was a tall, thin man. He was blind in one eye. Richards froze. It was Jefferson Davis himself.

“Who are you? What do you want?” he barked at her sternly.

Richards swallowed hard. But she had a trick up her sleeve. She knew white people like Davis wrongly believed black people were too stupid to be spies. So she played dumb. She mumbled as if she had lost her way. She backed out of the room. Then she backed out of the house altogether, to safety. She had survived another day as part of a spy ring that would soon help the Union win the Civil War.

Richards was considered a nobody. She was invisible in the eyes of most white people. But this young black woman played a crucial role in one of the great struggles of American history.

Illustration by The Red Dress

Hiding in plain sight, black people were especially effective at spying on Confederate officers.

Born Into Slavery

Little is known about Richards’s beginnings. She was born, about 1841, into slavery. From a young age, she was enslaved by a wealthy Richmond merchant. 

When he died in 1843, Richards was left to his widow and their grown daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew. The women hated slavery and may have sought to free the child. But according to Virginia law, anyone they freed would have been required to leave the state, says historian Elizabeth Varon. The Van Lews might have liberated Richards secretly so the girl could still live with them, Varon believes. 

An exceptionally bright child, Richards was very special to Elizabeth Van Lew. Van Lew had Richards baptized in a white church and later sent north to be educated. This was extremely rare for a black child in the South. 

In 1855, Van Lew arranged for the 14-year-old to travel as a missionary to the African nation of Liberia. But Richards was unhappy there, and in 1859, Van Lew brought her home.

When Richards returned, tensions over slavery in the United States had reached a fever pitch. The country was about to come apart in the Civil War.

Little is known about Richards’s beginnings. She was born about 1841, into slavery. From a young age, she was enslaved by a wealthy Richmond merchant.

He died in 1843. Richards was left to his widow and their grown daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew. The women hated slavery. They may have tried to free the child. But according to Virginia law, anyone they freed would have to leave the state, says historian Elizabeth Varon. The Van Lews might have freed Richards secretly so the girl could still live with them, Varon believes.

Richards was an exceptionally bright child. She was very special to Elizabeth Van Lew. Van Lew had Richards baptized in a white church. She later sent the girl north to be educated. This was extremely rare for a black child in the South.

In 1855, Van Lew arranged for the 14-year-old to travel as a missionary to the African nation of Liberia. But Richards was unhappy there. In 1859, Van Lew brought her home.

When Richards returned, tensions over slavery in the United States had reached a fever pitch. The country was about to come apart in the Civil War.

The War Over Slavery

Slavery had once been common throughout the country. But by 1804, states in the North had all passed laws to eliminate it—although some only did so gradually. States in the South became concerned that slavery might be abolished in the U.S. Their economies relied on the labor of enslaved people to grow cotton, the South’s most important crop. 

Over time, the issue became increasingly heated. In the South, some people began to call for states that allowed slavery to secede, or break off, from the Union. Between November 1860 and February 1861, seven states did so and formed their own nation: the Confederate States of America. Many Virginians favored joining the growing rebellion.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Hearing the news, the people of Richmond celebrated in the streets. War had come. 

Within days, Virginia joined the Confederacy. Three more states followed by June—for a total of 11. In the Van Lew household, each day’s news was received with dread.

Slavery had once been common throughout the country. But by 1804, states in the North had all passed laws to end it. Some, however, did so only gradually. States in the South became concerned that slavery might be abolished in the U.S. Their economies relied on the labor of enslaved people to grow cotton. That was the South’s most important crop.

Over time, the issue became increasingly heated. In the South, some people began to call for states that allowed slavery to secede, or break off, from the Union. Between November 1860 and February 1861, seven states did so. They formed their own nation: the Confederate States of America. Many Virginians favored joining the growing rebellion.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on the Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. When the people of Richmond heard the news, they celebrated in the streets. War had come.

Within days, Virginia joined the Confederacy. Three more states followed by June. That made a total of 11. In the Van Lew household, each day’s news was received with dread.

What You Need to Know

George Eastman Museum/Getty Images

Troops operate a cannon on a northern Virginia battlefield in 1861.

The Civil War The bloodiest conflict on American soil erupted in 1861 when 11 Southern states, called the Confederacy, attempted to secede from the rest of the United States, or the Union. The war devastated the young nation. By the time of the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865, the war had taken more than 750,000 lives, about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

The Civil War The bloodiest conflict on American soil erupted in 1861 when 11 Southern states, called the Confederacy, attempted to secede from the rest of the United States, or the Union. The war devastated the young nation. By the time of the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865, the war had taken more than 750,000 lives, about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

The Fight in Richmond

From the start, Richmond was at the center of the war. Northerners thought that if they could capture the Confederate capital, the conflict could be over quickly. By mid-1862, the Union Army had pushed nearly to the outskirts of the city, sending Richmond’s people into a panic.

But Southern troops under General Robert E. Lee rallied to defend their capital. In a series of clashes in June, they pushed the Northern troops back nearly to the Union’s capital in Washington, D.C. Richmond was soon flooded with thousands of Union soldiers who’d been taken prisoner. Overwhelmed, the city converted old warehouses into makeshift prisons to hold them. 

A secret Union sympathizer, Van Lew bribed Confederate officials so that she could deliver food and medicine to the prisoners. She even helped some prisoners escape, hiding them in her attic before speeding them on their way north. 

At the same time, Van Lew began assembling a full-fledged spy ring to aid the Union. No one would prove more important to this secret society than Mary Richards. 

From the start, Richmond was at the center of the war. Northerners thought that if they could capture the Confederate capital, the conflict could be over quickly. By mid-1862, the Union Army had pushed nearly to the outskirts of the city. This sent Richmond’s people into a panic.

But Southern troops under General Robert E. Lee rallied to defend their capital. There was a series of clashes in June. Lee’s troops pushed the Northern troops back nearly to the Union’s capital in Washington, D.C. Richmond was soon flooded with thousands of Union soldiers who had been taken prisoner. The city was overwhelmed. It turned old warehouses into makeshift prisons to hold them.

Van Lew was a secret Union sympathizer. She bribed Confederate officials so that she could deliver food and medicine to the prisoners. She even helped some prisoners escape. She hid them in her attic, then sped them on their way north.

At the same time, Van Lew began putting together a well-organized spy ring to aid the Union. No one would prove more important to this secret society than Mary Richards.

Richards in the Spy Ring

Spying was essential to the efforts of both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. In the South, black people were especially valuable in gathering intelligence for the Union. White officials and military officers would speak or work openly in the presence of black people, unable to imagine that they could understand what was happening. Black spies could effectively hide in plain sight.

In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, a black housekeeper named Mary Touvestre worked for a white engineer who was designing an early kind of submarine. Touvestre stole a set of his plans and made the perilous journey to deliver them to Union officials in Washington, D.C.

Spying was essential to the efforts of both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. In the South, black people were especially valuable in gathering intelligence for the Union. White officials and military officers would speak or work openly in the presence of black people. They could not imagine that black people could understand what was happening. So black spies could effectively hide in plain sight.

In Norfolk, Virginia, for example, a black housekeeper named Mary Touvestre worked for a white engineer. He was designing an early kind of submarine. Touvestre stole a set of his plans. She made the dangerous journey to deliver them to Union officials in Washington, D.C.

Richards was everywhere, taking coded messages to and from members of the spy ring.

By late 1863, the Richmond spy ring had grown to include men and women, both white and black. “The Van Lew mansion became the nerve center of the underground network, reaching beyond the city and into the neighboring counties,” Varon has said. The ring’s operatives gathered information on Confederate troop movements. They used code names and carried secret messages—some of them written in invisible ink and hidden in their clothing—to Union commanders on nearby battlefields.

Richards was everywhere, taking coded messages to and from Van Lew and members of the spy ring. Other times, her mission was to uncover fresh intelligence. Time and again, she delivered the goods. “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’” Van Lew wrote in her diary. Richards “never fails,” Van Lew noted.

By late 1863, the Richmond spy ring had grown to include both white and black men and women. “The Van Lew mansion became the nerve center of the underground network, reaching beyond the city and into the neighboring counties,” Varon has said. The ring’s operatives gathered information on Confederate troop movements. They used code names. And they carried secret messages to Union commanders on nearby battlefields. Some of the messages were written in invisible ink and hidden in their clothing.

Richards was everywhere. She took coded messages to and from Van Lew and members of the spy ring. Other times, her mission was to uncover fresh intelligence. Time and again, she delivered the goods. “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’” Van Lew wrote in her diary. Richards “never fails,” Van Lew noted.

The End of the War

By the summer of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army’s top commander, had laid siege to the town of Petersburg, only 25 miles away. Union troops had cut off supplies to Richmond. How long could Confederate forces defend it?

The spy ring scoured the city for information about Confederate plans to give to the Union commanders. Richards did her part. She even managed to slip into the chambers of the Confederate Senate, where she hid in a closet and eavesdropped on a secret session. Later, in nearby Fredericksburg, Richards gave Union forces the information they needed to capture two Confederate officers. 

On April 2, 1865, Grant’s Union troops pushed through the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Lee’s Confederate Army abandoned Richmond—and Northern troops soon marched triumphantly through the streets. “Richmond at last!” one white woman heard a black Union soldier shout, much to her horror.

A week later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, near Richmond. The Civil War was all but over. The following December, slavery was finally abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

General Ulysses S. Grant was the Union Army’s top commander. By the summer of 1864, he had laid siege to the town of Petersburg. That was only 25 miles from Richmond. Union troops had also cut off supplies to Richmond. How long could Confederate forces defend it?

The spy ring scoured the city for information about Confederate plans to give to the Union commanders. Richards did her part. She even managed to slip into the chambers of the Confederate Senate. She hid in a closet and listened in on a secret session. Later, in nearby Fredericksburg, Richards gave Union forces the information they needed to capture two Confederate officers.

On April 2, 1865, Grant’s Union troops pushed through the Confederate lines at Petersburg. Lee’s Confederate Army abandoned Richmond. Soon afterward, Northern troops marched triumphantly through the streets. “Richmond at last!” one white woman heard a black Union soldier shout, much to her horror.

A week later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, near Richmond. The Civil War was all but over. The following December, slavery was finally abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Life After Wartime

After the war, the U.S. government showed its appreciation to Van Lew. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” Grant wrote to her. But left largely unknown to him—and to generations of Americans since— were the scores of people, many of them enslaved, who had risked death to serve as the eyes and ears of the Richmond spy ring. 

They included Mary Richards. Now legally free after the war, she left Van Lew’s house to strike out on her own. Since the fall of Richmond, she had been teaching black people there. Later that year, she traveled to New York City to give lectures on her adventures as a Union spy. 

Her audiences were spellbound. According to one account, “She urged the educated young men and women to go South” and establish schools to help formerly enslaved people on the “road to freedom.” Even though slavery was over, she said, there was much work to be done to bring justice to black people.

Richards practiced what she preached. In 1867, she ran a school in Georgia for the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency created by Congress to aid poor Southerners, both black and white, devastated by the war. But faced with a lack of funds and anger from local white people, the school had to close after several months. 

After the war, the U.S. government showed its appreciation to Van Lew. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” Grant wrote to her. But still largely unknown to him were the scores of people, many of them enslaved, who had risked death to serve as the eyes and ears of the Richmond spy ring. They have remained unknown to generations of Americans since.

The people who risked their lives included Mary Richards. After the war, she was legally free. She left Van Lew’s house to strike out on her own. Since the fall of Richmond, she had been teaching black people there. Later that year, she traveled to New York City. There, she gave lectures on her adventures as a Union spy.

Her audiences were spellbound. According to one account, “She urged the educated young men and women to go South.” She urged them to set up schools to help formerly enslaved people on the “road to freedom.” Slavery was over. But there was much work to be done to bring justice to black people, she said.

Richards practiced what she preached. In 1867, she ran a school in Georgia for the Freedmen’s Bureau. That agency was created by Congress to help poor Southerners, black and white, who were devastated by the war. But the school was faced with a lack of funds and with anger from local white people. It had to close after several months.

The Most Fabled Spy