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.
A Northerner In A Southern City
Born in 1818, Elizabeth Van Lew was educated in the North. It made sense, after-all; her father was a wealthy merchant who’d established a successful business in Richmond, Virginia, but the family ties were north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The family lived in a three story home in a “fashionable district” of Virginia’s capital. They were accepted into society, but the clannish Richmonders still sometimes held the family at arm’s length because of their Northern origins.
Elizabeth’s father had died prior to 1861, and she was the unmarried daughter left to care for her widowed mother. Settled and established in their city home, Elizabeth didn’t leave the state or city when Virginia seceded, but she wholeheartedly opposed secession. Instead, the forty-three-year-old started wondering what she could do for the war effort. She didn’t have to wait long to find her duty.
The Beginning: Libby Prison
Following the first battle of the war (First Bull Run or Manassas), captured Union soldiers arrived in Richmond. Unprepared for these prisoners, the authorities stashed them in an old tobacco warehouse which got the name Libby Prison. It didn’t take long for infected injuries, illness, and the prison conditions to take their toll on the Union men.
Elizabeth Van Lew heard about their suffering. Using flattery, she persuaded the commanders to let her send relief supplies to the Union men. Richmond was outraged and printed the news in the papers. Men pointed at her in the streets and hurled insults. However, Van Lew quietly continued her mission, outwardly maintained her supposed support of the Confederacy and trying to explain her actions to observers by reasoning that perhaps God wouldn’t bless a cause whose people weren’t merciful to prisoners. Society was still suspicious, but Elizabeth played her role well.
This angel of mercy ignored society’s frowns and sent food, books, and medicine. What they didn’t know: Elizabeth passed notes and communications in and out of Libby Prison, using her food dishes and books to carry the messages in hidden code or compartments. She also built a secret, underground network and started helping prisoners escape from Libby Prison, sometimes sheltering them in her own home.
Late in 1863, two Union officers escaped and headed north. They told General Benjamin Butler about the underground communications and network Elizabeth Van Lew had established in the Confederate capital. Butler wanted a spy in Richmond, and he sent one of the officers back with instructions to recruit Elizabeth as an official Union spy who would send information to him for military use.
At the end of January 1864, Elizabeth sent her first official message to General Butler and in the following months continued to send information for attempted raids to free the prisoners in Richmond.
Six months later, Elizabeth had over twelve people official recruited into her spy network, and she fed information from the Confederate capital directly to General Ulysses S. Grant who was battling his way toward the city. Grant later praised her, saying the most valuable information he from inside Richmond during the war was collected and sent by Elizabeth Van Lew and her spy network.
The Union Spy In The Confederate White House?
Elizabeth’s spy network may had an advantage over other Union espionage because of well-placed agents, and some of her agents and informants were slaves or freedmen. She praised these agents and informants for the correctness of their information, indicating her trust and respect for their observations.
One of Elizabeth’s spies – Mary Richards Bowser – watched, listened, read, and followed war news one of the best locations for information on Confederate war plans and strategy: The White House of the Confederacy. Mary worked for the Jefferson Davis Family during the war, but she had been one of the Van Lew Family’s slaves. Interestingly, Elizabeth had sent Mary to the North for education and then encouraged her to go to Liberia (Africa) as a missionary in the 1850’s. Mary seemed unhappy in Liberia and returned to America; her arrival in Richmond caused a flurry of conversation and newspaper articles. Despite gaining her “de facto freedom,” Mary decided to stay with the Elizabeth, and she became a key-player in Elizabeth’s spy network.
A Reburial & A Tale Of Unforgiveness
While plenty of folks probably suspected Elizabeth Van Lew was doing something to hinder the Confederate Cause, she wasn’t caught or arrested during the war. She played the role of a merciful, sympathetic Southerner well enough and maintained a clever deception to keep her and her agents safe.
However, Elizabeth’s actions went beyond spying on at least one occasion. In an ill-fated 1864 raid toward Richmond in an unsuccessful attempt to liberate prisoners, a Union officer – Ulric Dahlgren, the son of a Union admiral – was killed. Confederates found orders in his effects detailing his mission to assassinate Jefferson Davis and attempt to burn Richmond. Outraged, they displayed and mutilated the officer’s body before Davis sent orders to bury the corpse.
Elizabeth was furious when she heard what had happened. She mustered her spy network, discovered the burial place, exhumed the officer, and reburied him in a secret location until his body could be sent to his family. Historians have noted that this action risked the safety of her spy network, but she carefully and patriotically did what she thought was right.
She didn’t get caught during the war. But after the war, defeated Richmond wasn’t going to forgive Elizabeth Van Lew for whatever she’d done. (Sensibly, she didn’t tell them, keeping her diary buried in her backyard.) Elizabeth wasn’t welcomed in Richmond society, literally shunned by her neighbors and pre-war friends while parents told their children Miss Van Lew was a crazy witch.
Elizabeth lived until 1900, and she stayed in Richmond. The city that had rejected her and the city she’d helped the Union armies capture was her home. During Grant’s presidential administration, she served as postmistress for the city, but after his executive terms she lost the job and had to rely on charity from the families of Northern officers she’d helped escape from prison.