Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900)

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Biographical Sketch

Elizabeth Van Lew Photograph, c. 1860-1865. Elizabeth Van Lew Collection, Swem Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900) was born in Richmond, Virginia, on October 15, 1818, the first child of John Van Lew and Eliza Louise Baker Van Lew.[1] Elizabeth Van Lew was an Unionist spy from her home in Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Van Lew's father ran a hardware business and owned several slaves. Van Lew was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was first exposed to abolitionism. After the death of her father, Van Lew and her mother freed the family's eleven even though her father said they couldn't, the slaves included Mary Bowser. Then they bought and freed some of their relatives. Upon the outbreak of the war, Van Lew began working on behalf of the Union. When Libby Prison was opened in Richmond, Van Lew was allowed to 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. Prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders. Van Lew also operated a spy ring of 12 people during the war, including clerks in the war and navy departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. Van Lew was able to have Bowser hired by Varina Davis, which allowed Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy.

Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent 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 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 took tea with Van Lew, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond. Grant said of her "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war." After Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. She persuaded the United States Department of War to give her all of her records, so she could hide the true extent of her espionage from her neighbors. Having spent her family's fortune on intelligence activities during the war, she tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government. Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Richmond.

Materials in the Special Collections Research Center


  1. U. S. Find A Grave Index 1600s-Current, Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900), Memorial #1056, record added January 1, 2001, accessed December 12, 2018,

External Links/Further Reading

Who Buried Elizabeth Van Lew?, article National Institute of American History & Democracy, accessed December 12, 2018.

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A Note About The Contents Of This Wiki
The information available in this wiki is the best available from known documents and sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. Information in this wiki is not complete as new information continues to be uncovered in Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center and elsewhere. Researchers are strongly encouraged to use the Special Collections search tools for their research as the information contained in this wiki is by no means comprehensive.