Union Spies: Elizabeth Van Lew

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Elizabeth Van LewIn the shadowy intelligence war within the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew may have been the most effective spy that the Union had inside the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The Richmond resident built and operated a large and effective spy ring.

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in 1818 in in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew and Eliza Baker, whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth’s father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.

Elizabeth and her brother were dedicated abolitionists and practicing Quakers. They spent large sums of money buying and manumitting slaves. Her brother would go to the Richmond slave market and buy entire families who were in danger of being split up. He would then bring them to his home and issue their papers of manumission.

At the start of the war Elizabeth began working on behalf of the Union. Richmond was the site of the notorious Libbey Prison and Elizabeth began a regular regimen of visits there. She would  bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Prisoners would pass her military intelligence on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.

Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has been widely suggested that Van Lew convinced Varina Davis to hire Mary Bowser as a household servant, enabling Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy

Van Lew’s spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.

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.” On Grant’s first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew. Grant said of her, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

When Richmond fell to the Union Army, Elizabeth was the first person to raise the American flag. Appointed by President Grant as postmaster, served from 1869 until 1877. However, many Richmond residents considered her a traitor and she eventually asked the War Department for all of her records in order to conceal the true extent of her espionage.

She petitioned the Federal government for reimbursement but was turned down. Desperately in need of money, she turned to a group of wealthy Bostonians who gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war donated a tombstone. She is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

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