Elizabeth Van Lew

Published 2:59 pm Wednesday, April 3, 2019

I have known about Elizabeth Van Lew for a few years and the fact that she was a Union spy during the Civil War fascinates me. On Oct. 12, 1818, Elizabeth was born in Richmond, to John Van Lew and Eliza Baker. During the antebellum era her father built up a prosperous hardware business in Richmond as well as owning several slaves. Elizabeth was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which reinforced the abolitionist views she lived by. After her father’s death in 1843 Elizabeth and her mother freed the slaves who worked for them. Many continued to work as paid servants; one of them Mary Bowser became a Union spy during the Civil War.

In addition, Elizabeth used her entire inheritance to buy and emancipate some of their former slaves’s relatives. In fact, her brother regularly visited slave markets in Richmond buying families who had been separated, bringing them home and giving them manumissions (freedom papers). Consequently, during the Civil War Elizabeth worked along with her mother caring for wounded soldiers at Richmond’s Libby Prison. She was allowed to bring prisoners food, clothes and writing paper. Subsequently, Elizabeth assisted prison escape attempts passing them information about safehouses; even getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Whatever information Elizabeth got from prisoners she passed on to Union commanders. She even went so far as to help escaped Union prisoners and Confederate dissenters hide in her own mansion.

Now, you know this did not sit well with Confederate Richmond and high society. The spy ring Elizabeth operated was called the “Richmond Underground.” Bowser was a part of the network. Elizabeth’s espionage network was so efficient she developed a cipher system smuggling messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs. Her work was highly valued by Union commanders such as George H. Sharpe. In 1864 Elizabeth risked her entire spy network to see that a Union soldier, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren’s, got a proper burial. During the siege of Petersburg Elizabeth aided civilians on both sides. In 1865 when Richmond fell to U. S. forces Elizabeth was the first to raise the U. S. flag in the city.
Ulysses S. Grant visited Richmond after the war ended and met with Elizabeth appointing her postmistress of the city. Elizabeth modernized the city’s postal system employing several African-Americans until Rutherford B. Hayes replaced her in 1877. She was hired back in 1883 serving as a postal clerk until 1887.

After Reconstruction Elizabeth was increasingly ostracized by the Richmond citizens. She tried unsuccessfully to get reimbursed by the government since she used all of her family fortune to finance her spy work. Sadly, she died on Sept. 25, 1900, at age 81 and was buried in Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery. Even now many Southerner’s regard her still as a traitor. Elizabeth’s manuscript detailing her account of the war was entrusted to John P. Reynolds whom in 1911 convinced William G. Beymer to publish the first biography of Elizabeth’s in Harper’s Monthly.

Unfortunately, the city of Richmond acquired and tore down the Van Lew mansion in 1911 when racial tensions reached its peak and Bellevue Elementary School was built there in 1912. Historical plaques detail her abolitionist and philanthropic work. In 1993 Elizabeth was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Elizabeth knew her mind and stood up for her beliefs realizing that high society and the Confederate masses would label her a traitor. She was never deterred from fighting for freedom for all Americans.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at ju.mo39@live.com.