Union Spy in the Confederate Capital
Elizabeth Van Lew was a well-to-do resident of Richmond, Virginia who recruited and organized an extensive network of spies for the Union in the shadow of the Confederate White House. Van Lew was also an Angel of Mercy for Union captives at Libby Prison near her home. Her gifts of food and clothing meant the difference between life and death for many inmates there.
Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900) was born into privilege in Virginia. Her home was an elegant three-and-one-half story mansion on Church Hill, the highest of Richmond's seven hills, with slaves available to indulge her every whim. Not the kind of lady one would suspect of operating an extensive spy ring for the Union during the Civil War, which is probably why she was so successful.
Childhood and Early Years
Elizabeth Van Lew was born October 25, 1818 in Richmond, Virginia, the eldest daughter of John Van Lew, a prominent Virginia businessman. Her father sent her to a Quaker school in Philadelphia, and she came home a flaming abolitionist and a die-hard patriot. She was extremely outspoken about her beliefs. She had a good heart and could not bear the suffering caused by the institution of slavery.
Her father died when Van Lew was 25 years old, and she convinced her mother to free their nine slaves. When she learned that her slaves' family members were to be sold, she purchased them, and liberated them as well.
Elizabeth Van Lew never married. She was petite with a pointed chin and a long thin nose. She wore her hair pinned up in the back, with ringlets falling around her face. Her brilliant blue eyes shone like quartz.
Espionage for the Union
When Virginia seceded in the spring of 1861, Van Lew did not succumb to Confederate patriotism as so many other Southern Unionists did. In her opinion, she was a loyal Virginian, and the secessionists were traitors. She remained loyal to the Union after the Civil War began.
Ms. Van Lew was 43 years old when she began to spy for the Union, and quickly assembled a circle of a dozen or so accomplices: slaves and farmers, seamstresses and storekeepers, black and white, working in plain sight for the North.
From her garden, Van Lew could see the old ship chandler's warehouse six blocks away - a huge rectangular building with four floors, which the Confederates converted into the infamous Libby Prison. She heard of the suffering of the hundreds of Union officers who were housed there, often in desperate conditions, and managed to get permission to bring baskets of food, medicines and books to them. Though her fellow Richmonders scowled at her, they did not interfere.
She gathered information about Confederate troop movements from the new inmates, who passed messages to her by faintly underlining certain words and scribbling hen scratches in the margins of the books they borrowed from her. The Confederate prison guards never caught on. She then relayed information about Confederate operations to Union generals and assisted in the care and sometimes escape of Union prisoners of war.
Van Lew had used part of her inheritance to send her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, to a Quaker school in Philadelphia. Van Lew arranged for Bowser to work as a servant for Confederate president Jefferson Davis at the Confederate White House in Richmond. It was probably assumed that she was an illiterate slave. However, Bowser had a photographic memory, and was able to gather critical information about the Confederacy from documents left in plain view in Davis' study.
Bowser and Van Lew would meet after dark near the Van Lew farm to exchange information. Hiding her curls under a huge bonnet, Van Lew passed herself off as a poor countrywoman riding about in her buggy. Some of her former slaves had stayed on as paid servants, and Van Lew used them as couriers. They carried secret messages in the soles of their shoes and baskets of eggs and produce they sold on the streets of Richmond.
Ms. Van Lew was viewed as an eccentric, so she began to play up the part, hoping she would appear harmless. But her espionage activities increased, and she bribed officials when necessary. In fact, she used most of her inheritance to finance her espionage activities. Van Lew remained active in intelligence gathering until end of the war, and when Richmond fell, she came to the aid of wounded civilians, regardless of their politics.
In 1865, when General Ulysses S. Grant was finally able to visit her and thank her for her service to the Union cause, Elizabeth Van Lew raised the Union flag above her home for the first time in four years. Grant told her, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war."
After the war, Van Lew needed a job to supplement what little was left of her family fortune. In 1869, President Grant rewarded Van Lew's wartime service by appointing her postmaster of Richmond, a position she held during his two terms (1869-1877), helping to modernize the city's postal system and employing a number of African Americans.
Van Lew also sponsored a library for African Americans that opened in Richmond in 1876, and supported African American rights and women's suffrage. She lost her position as postmaster in 1877, after Grant was defeated by Rutherford B. Hayes. She tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government for the money she had spent during her espionage activities.
Van Lew lived out her days in the family mansion, but the citizens of Richmond never forgot about her support of the Union during the war. As an elderly lady, she was still treated as a pariah by Richmonders, who, according to her family doctor, "shunned her like the plague."
Elizabeth Van Lew lived to the ripe old age of 82, but she paid dearly for her spying activities - she died nearly penniless on September 25, 1900. She was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave remained unmarked until the relatives of a soldier she had aided during the war donated a tombstone.
Van Lew's work was highly valued by the United States. George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65." She has been inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which was established by the Military Intelligence Corps of the United States Army in 1988 to honor soldiers and civilians who have made exceptional contributions to Military Intelligence.