(An archive post for Friday – I wrote this for the Unusual Historicals website last year.)
She was the very last person in the world whom anyone in Richmond, Virginia, would have suspected of being a spy … well, almost the last person, as her abolitionist sympathies were not a secret. But she was a genteel lady of certain years – and a very Southern sense of gentlemanly chivalry ensured that her activities went unsuspected and unhampered all during the Civil War. Elizabeth van Lew, if not a classical Southern belle in the Scarlett O’Hara mode was pious, eccentrically addicted to doing good works, and from a wealthy and well-established old Richmond family. Of course she couldn’t possibly be up to anything more than visiting the captive Union officers held as prisoners of war in a comfortless converted tobacco warehouse, bearing genteel gifts of food, books, clothing and writing materials, or being a regular Lady Bountiful towards the families of Richmond’s freed slaves. Everyone knew of her families’ eccentricities – her mother was a Quaker from Philadelphia, don’t-cha-know.
Elizabeth van Lew was born in 1818; her father had built up a prosperous hardware business in Richmond and a grand mansion on Church Hill. In spite of the family’s abolitionist sympathies, he also had owned slaves. But when the senior van Lew died in the mid 1840s, Elizabeth’s brother took over management of the firm and household – and he freed the families’ nine household slaves. Around the same time, Elizabeth used her own allowance to purchase and free the relatives of those family slaves. For some years afterwards, John van Lew routinely visited Richmond’s slave market to purchase whole families who were at peril of being sold to different owners and separated from each other. Then he would formally free them. And this would likely have been seen as no more than a peculiar eccentricity … until the beginning of the Civil War, when the aftermath of the battle of Manassas brought Union Army officers to a squalid and overcrowded imprisonment in the tobacco warehouse.
The middle-aged Elizabeth and her elderly widowed mother began visiting the Union officers, bearing their lady-visitor charitable gifts.
Eventually there would be more than a thousand of Union prisoners crammed into the two top floors of the warehouse – and turnover at Libby would be constant, primarily because of a high death rate. Although barred, the windows were left open to the elements of weather and the prisoners suffered accordingly. For deaths from exposure, disease and malnutrition, Libby Prison eventually became second only in notoriety to Andersonville. For that kindliness to the prisoners, Elizabeth and her mother were publically criticized for disloyalty to the Confederate cause; little did the critics realize that while Elizabeth might have felt the sting of neighborly disapproval and public bullying, she did not give two pins for the Confederacy … and in fact resolved to do whatever she could do in order to bring about its’ downfall. Chatty, eccentric and seemingly harmless, Miss van Lew proved to be a woman of infinite nerve and resource. For she began helping the prisoners even more actively; smuggling messages in a dish with a hidden compartment, and through notes hidden in books, or with key passages in those books underlined faintly in pencil. She had a tiny cipher key on a scrap of paper hidden in her watch – and a secret diary outlining her activities, buried in the garden. She bribed the guards to permit the prisoners to have food and clothing over and above what they had been allowed. She helped organize escapes, even hiding escaping prisoners in her family home.
In the early days of the war, she began sending letters bearing information of military knowledge to Union commanders, gleaned from newly-arrived prisoners who would have observed Confederate fortifications and troop dispositions on their way to Richmond and captivity. Before many months had passed, Elizabeth van Lew was a full-fledged spymaster, and one of the most valued Union assets within Richmond, sending coded messages, requested specific intelligence – as well as flowers from her garden directly to General Grant. Many of her couriers were freed slaves, and often her messages were concealed in hollowed-out eggs. She cultivated the friendship of the Confederate commander of Libby Prison; she even saw to it that one of the Lew family’s former slaves, a young woman named Mary Bowser, was hired by the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary, who worked serving meals at the Jefferson home, was privy to much interesting mealtime conversation.
And when the war ended and Union troops were about to enter the defeated Confederacy’s capital city, Miss van Lew was the first to raise the American flag over Richmond with her very own hands, to the anger and chagrin of her neighbors. A mob formed before the Lew family mansion, but Grant’s lady spy was undeterred by it. “I know you, and you, and you!” She shouted, pointing at them one by one and addressing them by name. “General Grant will be in this city within the hour; if this house is harmed, your houses shall be burned by noon!” The mob dispersed – and General Grant came to take tea with her – almost his first act upon entering Richmond.
The story of Miss van Lew and the remainder of her life is an equivocal one. The fortunes of her family – no less than those of many of Richmond’s old elite – were ruined by the war. She was socially ostracized by her neighbors, once it came out how she had aided the hated Yankees. The Union which she had served with such commitment could not or would not reimburse her for the expenses which she had borne during the war, nor offer any kind of pension other than a sinecure for a few years as postmistress. But she was generously supported for the remainder of her life by those former prisoners of war, or their families, whom she had aided at great personal risk to herself during the war. But knowing that slavery was ended and the Union restored – and that she had been no less a soldier than any of the captives in Libby Prison in bringing about that conclusion – must have been of considerable comfort to the lady spymaster during the rest of her life. She died in 1900, and is buried in a Richmond cemetery, under a stone monument paid for by the families of soldiers she had assisted during the war.