Elizabeth Van Lew

The Scourge of Confederate Richmond

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond, Virginia, in October of 1818. Her father, a former New Yorker, owned a successful hardware business and her mother Elizabeth Baker was the daughter of a Philadelphia mayor. The Van Lew’s were among the wealthiest families in Richmond and lived in a spacious three and a half story mansion at the top of Church Hill. As this was the highest hill in town, it not only provided gorgeous views of the city, but also placed the family prominently in the view of the city’s residents. The Van Lews, also owned a small farm on the James River that was tended by some of the family’s slaves.

When she was old enough, Elizabeth was sent to a Quaker school in Philadelphia for her education. She was not only bright, but also charming and did well in school, embracing many of the Quaker’s political opinions. One such opinion was the abhorrence of slavery. When Elizabeth finally returned to Richmond, she wanted nothing more than to see an end to the institution of slavery, starting with her own family. She tried to convince her father to free their slaves, but he refused. This became an ongoing conflict between father and daughter until his death.

After his death, Elizabeth and her two siblings each received an individual inheritance, but the bulk of the Van Lew estate, including most of the slaves and the mansion on Church Hill, went to Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth took up her quest to free the family slaves with her mother. Despite a stipulation in her father’s will, as well as a Virginia law outlawing the action, Elizabeth’s mother freed the family slaves and hired on any who wanted to stay as servants. Elizabeth then took her $10,000 cash inheritance to buy the freedom of the other slaves owned by her family. Among these newly freed slaves was young girl named Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Elizabeth recognized her latent intelligence and sent her north to be educated. Mary was a gifted student and did well in school.

Many in Richmond began to be wary of Elizabeth and her mother. In their minds, anyone who would free their slaves, then pay them for their work had to be abolitionist Yankee sympathizers. Elizabeth insisted that she was a good Southerner just like the rest of them, she just happened to dislike slavery. This did little to stop the rumors, especially as the country moved closer to a Civil War. States began seceding from the nation and on April 12, 1861, Fort Sumter was fired on, signaling the beginning of the war. By April 17 a Confederate flag flew over Richmond, and citizens happily paraded through the streets. Elizabeth watched these festivities from her home, and feared for the future of the city she loved.

As the men rallied to join the Confederate army, the women rallied to join groups to make clothing for the troops. Elizabeth and her mother were invited to join one such group and, to the shock of the Richmond elite, they declined the invitation. Instead, Elizabeth joined the Underground Railroad and started what would become one of the largest spy rings to operate during the Civil War. Elizabeth recruited friends and acquaintances that she knew had Northern sympathies or abolitionist leanings. Many of these recruits used their everyday jobs – railroad manager, restaurant owner, and seamstress – as their cover for their espionage activities. She recruited her mother, their servants and farm hands, and former slaves. 

Utilizing her family’s hardware business and farm as covers, Elizabeth was able to strategically place black spies around the city, and create a relay system for information to travel safely and quickly to the Union lines. Toward the end of the war, it was said that thanks to the Van Lew relay system, General Grant could read the Richmond Daily Dispatch while eating his breakfast every morning.

All of this activity was obviously done in secret, but Elizabeth still found herself under scrutiny’s eye because of her lack of enthusiastic support for the Confederate cause. It was well known that Elizabeth and her mother had freed all of their slaves, so when they failed to join any emerging lady’s groups it led people to jump to conclusions. What started as whispers, turned into open criticism, then turned into outright threats. To appease these critics, Elizabeth and her mother began delivering religious books to the nearby Confederate camps. This served to not only buy Elizabeth some breathing room for her covert activities, but also bolstered those activities, as she was able to pick up the odd tidbit of information while she was there.

Elizabeth did not let this breathing room go to waste. The infamous Libby Prison had been opened in Richmond, and it housed more than a thousand Union prisoners of war. Elizabeth applied for a nursing position at the prison, but was turned down by the prison commandant. Not one to be deterred, Elizabeth worked her way up the chain of command until her charm, and gifts of fresh buttermilk and gingerbread, won her access to the prison. On her visits, Elizabeth would bring food, medicine and books to the prisoners and she would leave with information.

Criticism of her actions began to fly once more. The Richmond Enquirer even printed articles about the “ladies living on Church Hill” and how their actions were going to get them exposed as alien enemies of the country. At first, the prison commandant and guards turned a deaf ear to these grumblings, because every time Elizabeth came to the prison, she came heavily laden with sweets, gingerbread and buttermilk for them. As time went on and the accusations grew louder, Elizabeth was denied direct access to the prisoners. However, so they wouldn’t lose their gingerbread supply, she was still allowed to bring in supplies. So Elizabeth developed a system of using pinpricks under the letters in the books she brought in to ask the prisoners questions. They would respond using the same method, and swap the book out for a new one on Elizabeth’s next visit.

As much as Elizabeth was able to help the prisoners of Libby Prison, they were still subject to much neglect and abuse. A guard named Ross held the distinction of being one of the most vicious, both verbally and physically. It was well known that Ross would choose a single prisoner to receive the brunt of his violence. At first this took place around all of the other prisoners, but eventually Ross would drag the man off for a private interrogation. No man ever returned from these meetings, which fueled the terror of Ross’s reputation. Little did the prisoners know, or anyone else in the prison for that matter, that Ross was actually working for Elizabeth Van Lew. Instead of torturing the prisoners he drug off, he would outfit them with a Confederate uniform, escort them outside, and direct them to the mansion on Church Hill - their first stop on the Underground Railroad. 

Amazingly enough, Ross was not Elizabeth’s best-placed spy. That distinction belongs to Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Mary was freed from slavery as a child by the Van Lew’s. Recognizing that Mary was not just intelligent, but gifted, Elizabeth sent her north to be educated. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Mary returned to Richmond and at the request of Elizabeth became a spy. Working through a friend, Elizabeth got Mary placed as a maid in the White House of the Confederacy. Since Mary was black, and at that time it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, everyone assumed that she was illiterate. Since she was black and a woman, they assumed she was dumb as well. Mary let them believe this, and fell into the role of the perfect southern servant – servile and industrious.

Mary was so industrious, she made sure that everything in President Davis’s office was dust free and polished at all times. If that meant she had to linger while a meeting was going on, or rifle through maps and correspondence to get to the surface of a desk or table, then she did what had to be done, and the powerful men all around her were blinded by their prejudice. She read and overheard all that she could, and using her photographic memory, copied it out later to pass on. 

It quickly became obvious that there was a leak in the White House. However, the investigation into that leak focused on the most likely suspects, white men. This provided Mary months to continue collecting data. When the investigation finally turned its focus to the servants, Mary was forced to flee, but she took the time to set fire to the White House before she fled. This provided her with time to escape, but was put out before any real damage could be done. Because Mary’s actions and escape were so high-profile, she was moved out of the south via the Underground Railroad.
As more and more information leaked out of Richmond, Elizabeth found herself under ever-increasing scrutiny. Her house was regularly searched – they never found the documents which she kept buried in the backyard or her secret room upstairs – and the Confederates laid several traps for her. They tried to catch her accepting information, they tried to catch her passing information, they even sent one their agents, dressed as a Union soldier, to her back door in the middle of the night seeking refuge. None of their traps worked.

In an attempt to quiet her harshest critics, Elizabeth offered to provide room and board for the new Commandant when he was installed at Libby Prison. After all, how could she possibly run a spy ring if she had a Confederate officer living in her home? In truth, this did nothing to slow her down. She created her own Polybius Table to cipher messages and continued to spread her information via hollowed out eggs and false heels in shoes. The mansion even remained a stop on the Underground Railroad, with Elizabeth hiding escaped prisoners in her secret room upstairs while she dined with the prison Commandant downstairs. 

Elizabeth was even able to set up a direct communication line with General Butler at Fortress Monroe. Through this connection, Elizabeth relayed the information that there was a move of a large number of prisoners scheduled. It was decided that Union forces would make a move to capture Richmond, while a smaller force was tasked with disrupting the transfer and freeing the prisoners. Some of the prisoners escaped, but on the whole the mission was a dismal failure. 22 year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgreen was killed, and since his father was a well-known Rear Admiral, Ulric’s body was desecrated, buried in an unmarked shallow grave, and his prosthetic leg was kept as a trophy.

This didn’t sit well with Elizabeth, so she sent out her network of spies to find the exact location of Ulric’s body. Once found, she sent men to exhume the body, and then had it moved north of Richmond for a proper burial. All of this would have gone completely unnoticed, except Rear Admiral Dahlgren petitioned President Davis for the return of his son’s body. Davis conceded, and ordered that the body be sent north. However, when his men dug up the grave, it was empty, leaving President Davis looking rather foolish. Elizabeth waited until after the war to contact the Dahlgren family with the actual resting place of their son.

As the Union Army moved closer to Richmond, Elizabeth’s intelligence grew even more vital, and her network to pass information was so good it is said that she sent Grant a copy of the Richmond Daily Dispatch to read while eating breakfast each morning. From 1864 – 1865, Elizabeth is credited for providing the bulk of all intelligence received by Grant. He was so appreciative, the first thing he did after capturing Richmond, was to visit Elizabeth Van Lew for tea at the Church Hill mansion. The first thing that Elizabeth did, was to raise the American flag she had smuggled into the city.

These two acts were enough to prove to Elizabeth’s neighbors, and all of Richmond, that everything they had suspected her of, and more, were true. A crowd gathered around the mansion screaming insults and threatening to burn the house down. Elizabeth stood defiantly on her front porch and stared them down. As she personally knew most of the people in the crowd, she pointed them out by name, and told them that if they burned her house, she would have the Union Army burn their houses in retaliation. As there were already fires blazing throughout Richmond, the crowd accepted Elizabeth’s threat as earnest and they dispersed. Elizabeth was able to save her house that day, but the damage had been done.

In the months following the fall of Richmond, more and more became known of Elizabeth’s activities during the war, and the residents of Richmond shunned her. Her father’s business had suffered during the war, and did even worse after. During the war, Elizabeth had spent all of her money to fund her espionage activities, and with her father’s business floundering she was in danger of becoming destitute. Elizabeth turned to the newly elected President Grant for help. 

Grant appointed her Postmaster of Richmond from 1869 – 1877, and attempted to get Congress to award her a gift of money for her service during the war. This request was lost in the shuffle of reconstruction, so Elizabeth relied on her meager Postmaster salary to live. Sadly, when Rutherford Hayes was elected president, he did not reappoint her. So Elizabeth moved to Washington D.C. for a time to work as a clerk, until those jobs dried up and she returned to her beloved Richmond. 

Despite the years that had passed, Elizabeth was still a pariah in Richmond. With no job, no money and no friends, Elizabeth was reliant upon the people she had helped during the war to support her, which they did until her death in September of 1900. Elizabeth Van Lew is buried in Shockoe-Hill Cemetery. The family of one of the soldiers that she helped escape Richmond during the war, Colonel Paul Revere, purchased a headstone for her grave. On it is inscribed, “She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself. All for the one absorbing desire of her heart – that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”
*Originally appeared on Patreon