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 (1790-1843) of Jamaica, Long Island, New York and Eliza Louise Baker Van Lew (1798-1875) of Richmond, Virginia.[1] Elizabeth Van Lew was a Unionist who served as a spy for the United States during the U. S. Civil War from her home in Confederate States of America capital of Richmond, Virginia.

"Motivated by her opposition to slavery, Van Lew headed up a Union spy ring in the Confederate capital that aided Federal prisoners there and gathered intelligence for the U. S. Army; its greatest achievements were the breakout of 109 Union inmates from Libby Prison [a few blocks from Van Lew's home] and the clandestine reburial of the slain Union colonel Ulric Dahlgren, both in the spring of 1864."[2]

As a member of the wealthy slaveholding Richmond society, she believed “through individual acts of kindness, charity, and manumission they [slaveholders] could erode slavery gradually, from the inside.”[3] The willingness of southern states to dissolve the union of states led Van Lew to the conclusion that the south will not change of their own accord. Her abolitionist leanings evolved over time beginning with her parents’ northern influence, her Philadelphia education, and her philosophical disagreement with the Confederate States of America.[4]

Van Lew's spy network relied upon the efforts of various Unionist sympathizer's efforts, including African Americans. Mary Richards (incorrectly referred to later as Mary Bowser), was manumitted by the Van Lew family, sent to Liberia and then invited to return to Richmond, resubmitting herself to enslavement, in order to serve as a spy within Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. This clever use of stereotypical perceptions of the enslaved and women, assisted Van Lew in her plans of espionage against the Confederacy. "She was arguably the Civil War's most effective and innovative spy, hiding behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring for the Union Army...She was cunning enough to place a former family slave as a spy in the Confederate White hHouse, she devised ingenious ways to gather and communicate information." [5]

Towards the war's end, in 1864, Van Lew was investigated for her alleged Federalist sentiments, but "Charles Blackford of the adjutant general's office concluded that she was "very unfriendly in her sentiments towards the Government", but did "not appear that she has ever done anything to infirm the cause--Like most of her sex she seems to have talked freely" and no action was to be taken.[6]

Estranged from Virginia society as her work came to light, Van Lew was characterized with the epithet "Crazy Bet". In an attempt to undermine her successful spying efforts, she was portrayed as an insane woman who was unintelligent, poorly dressed, dirty, talked to herself, and who lived on the fringes of society. In fact, "the main weapons in Van Lew's Unionist arsenal...were her family's wealth, which she spent liberally to bribe Confederate prison guards and officials, and her family's social standing, which she parlayed into numerous favors from influential Confederates."[7]In an effort to protect the extent of her involvement being known, 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, and considered a pariah in Richmond, Van Lew tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government. "When Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th president in 1869, he made her postmaster of Richmond, one of the highest federal offices a woman could hold in the 19th century, paying $4,000 a year." She held that post until President Rutherford B. Hayes replaced her with his own appointment, but retained many black and female employees who worked under her.[8]

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried Shockhoe Cemetery in Richmond.[9]

Materials in the Special Collections Research Center


  1. Ancestry.com. U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970 [database on-line. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011
  2. Elizabeth R. Varon, Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Lady, Union Spy (University of Georgia Press: 2015), 305-322.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Scott S. Smith, Elizabeth Van Lew, A Spy Who Lifted Union Cause Dig Deep: She fearlessly fought the institution of slavery", Investor's Business Daily;, Los Angeles, November 26, 2014. ProQuest Document Link, accessed December 13, 2018
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Scott S. Smith, Elizabeth Van Lew, A Spy Who Lifted Union Cause Dig Deep: She fearlessly fought the institution of slavery", Investor's Business Daily;, Los Angeles, November 26, 2014. ProQuest Document Link, accessed December 13, 2018.
  9. 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.
  • Elizabeth R. Varnon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy : The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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