Friday, November 16, 2012

The Union Spy Ring in Richmond: Black Spy in the Confederate White House

Elizabeth Van Lew

The White House of the Confederacy

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, although from a good family, was an ardent Unionist who refused to leave town even as the Confederate government took up residence. Her continued devotion to the Union cause was considered just another of the eccentricities of the woman her neighbors came to call “Crazy Bet”. Van Lew began to accentuate her eccentricities. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Her disguise served her well as she set up a wide reaching spy ring within the Confederate capital, and some say within the Confederate White House itself.

Van Lew began visiting Richmond’s Libby Prison, where Union POWs were imprisoned. As a humanitarian gesture, Van Lew brought food, medicine, and books to the prisoners. She came out with military information. Newly arrived Union prisoners secretly recounted the strength and dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen on their way from the front to Richmond. As the war progressed Van Lew was able to place fellow Union sympathizers within the Confederate War and Navy Departments, and regularly smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs. General Grant would later say of her efforts, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Van Lew’s most daring purported accomplishment remains shrouded in mystery and involved insinuating one of her former servants, Mary Elizabeth Bowser (also known as Mary Jane Richards) into the Confederate White House. Bowser had been a slave of the Van Lew family, but Van Lew freed her and sent her North to be educated many years before the war. When Van Lew established her spy ring she asked Bowser to return and work with her for the Union. Van Lew obtained a position for Bowser as a servant in the Confederate White House through the recommendation of a "friend" who provided supplies to that household. Bowser reported conversations she overheard and the content of documents she was able to read while working in the house. Another Union spy, Thomas McNiven, noted that Bowser had a photographic memory and could report every word of the documents she saw. Stories about Bowser appeared as early as May 1900 in Richmond newspapers. In a 1910 interview with Van Lew’s niece, Bowser was revealed as being part of the spy ring. Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina, publicly denied that a black female spy could have infiltrated the Confederate White House and denied any knowledge of such a person as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on 30 June 1995.

When the Union army captured Richmond in April 1865, Van Lew was the first person to raise the U.S. flag in the city. After the war she insisted, “I'm not a Yankee”, maintaining that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

John Quincy Marr: First Confederate Officer Killed in the Civil War

Fort Sumter fell on April 14, and on April 17 Virginia adopted an “Ordinance of Secession” in the form of a repeal of Virginia’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution, to take effect upon ratification by the vote of the people. This election took place on Thursday, May 23, 1861, and Virginia seceded from the Union.

Before dawn on Friday, May 24, Union troops invaded Virginia, seizing Alexandria and Arlington Heights across from Washington City. On Friday afternoon, miles away at Fox’s Mills, north of Fairfax Court House, seventeen year old Sally Summers was minding the afternoon recess in front of her schoolhouse when she saw a surrey coming down the road from the direction of Alexandria. The driver was her uncle, Amos Fox. As he passed he shouted, “You better dismiss your school right away and go home to your mother. The Union army is advancing!”

Three Virginia militia units (the Rappahannock Cavalry, the Prince William Cavalry, and the Warrenton Rifles) had taken up positions around the strategic village of Fairfax Courthouse. These units were still a part of the "Virginia Army," even though the secession of Virginia was ratified by a popular vote on May 23, 1861. Virginia’s forces were not transferred to the Confederacy until June 6, 1861.

Before dawn on June 1st, Lt. Charles Tompkins, 2nd U.S. Cavalry led a raid on Fairfax Courthouse. After charging through lines of the Virginians twice, the Union cavalry was finally driven off. In the morning, the body of Captain John Quincy Marr of the Warrenton Rifles was discovered. Marr had been hit by a spent round ball. He had a large bruise above his heart but his skin had not been penetrated.

Captain Marr's body arrived in Warrenton that evening and he was buried the next afternoon in the Warrenton Cemetery after a ceremony in the clerk's office yard before a large crowd of mourners. Marr became a Southern martyr.

Charles Henry Tompkins received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Fairfax Court House. His was the first action of a Union Army officer in the American Civil War for which a Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded, although it was not awarded until 1893. His citation reads: "Twice charged through the enemy's lines and, taking a carbine from an enlisted man, shot the enemy's captain."

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Sid Grauman and the celebrities of Hollywood

No single individual did more to create the Hollywood cult of celebrity than theatrical genius Sid Grauman.  As a youth, Grauman worked in the ramshackle towns of the Alaska Gold Rush as a paperboy.  Newspapers were scarce and expensive, costing up to one dollar each.  Grauman met a store owner who purchased one of his newspapers for $50. The store owner then charged admission to local miners to whom he read the paper aloud in his store. Grauman learned that people would pay handsomely to be entertained.

Grauman built a series of theaters that would define the “movie palace” of Hollywood’s Golden Era.  The Egyptian theater, built in 1922, was the setting for the first-ever Hollywood premiere, Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks, on Wednesday, October 18, 1922.  The exterior and interior walls of the theater contained Egyptian-style paintings and hieroglyphics. The four massive columns that mark the theatre's main entrance are 4+12 feet wide and rise to a height of  20 feet, the large courtyard in the front, complete with a fountain and palm trees, was specifically designed to host the theater’s famous red carpet ceremonies.

 Grauman built an even more magnificent theater in 1927 further up Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theater. The Chinese Theater was modeled on a Mandarin palace. Not satisfied with the fusion of opulence and stardom, Grauman imbued the Chinese Theater with a mystic aura for millions of movie fans: it was Grauman’s brainchild to invite movie stars to place their hands and feet in the wet cement of the theater’s patio. The dried imprints became like holy relics to movie fans, the imprints also allowed fans to measure their own hands and feet against these relics of their saints.

The hand and feet prints of Marilyn Monroe are said to be the most popular relics.

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