Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900), Richmond Unionist and Civil War spy.
During the Civil War, General George H. Sharpe of the Bureau of Military Information for the Army of the Potomac remarked that Elizabelth Van Lew embodied “all that was left of the power of the U.S. Government in the city of Richmond.”
Van Lew was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1818 to slaveholding Northern transplants. She was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia and returned home an abolitionist. She convinced her family to free their slaves sometime during the 1850s. She also participated in the Underground Railroad.
After Virginia seceded Van Lew remained staunchly pro-Union. She began visiting Union POWs at the nearby Libby Prison. In dishes of food with secret compartments and sometimes even in the food itself (such as notes hidden in eggshells) Libby smuggled notes to Union prisoners. She bribed guards to transfer prisoners to hospitals, where she was able to visit them. From the POWs she collected valuable information. Using invisible ink, a cipher of her own creation, and other clandestine means she passed intelligence along to Union generals through a spy network of both white and African American agents. She even had a mole, one of her family’s former slaves, in Jefferson Davis’s house.
Lew helped 109 prisoners escape Libby and sheltered many more in her home. She also orchestrated a daring liberation of the body of a Union officer, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, whose corpse had been abused by angry Confederates.
After the war Lew was shunned by Richmond society and was all but destitute. She had spent most of her family’s money on her spying activities and on helping her household’s former slaves. General Grant gave her some protection and appointed her postmistress of Richmond in 1869. After his two terms expired, she was fired. She then worked as a clerk in the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C. She returned to Richmond in the late 1880s.
In her later years she was active in Republican politics and promoted both African American civil rights and woman suffrage. She was supported by the family of a Union officer she had helped during the war, Paul Revere (grandson of Paul Revere the patriot), and other grateful Bostonians. She remained a pariah in Richmond, but took umbrage at being labeled a spy:
“I do not know how they can call me a spy serving my own country within its recognized borders… [for] my loyalty am I now to be branded as a spy—by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest? God knows.”