ECW Weekender: Elizabeth Van Lew

She was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame for her work during the Civil War. Richmond society hated her. She discovered Confederate secrets. Her information influenced General Grant’s decisions during the Overland Campaign. She helped create a spy ring and underground Unionist network that operated in the heart of the Confederate capital and even infiltrated the southern White House.

Meet Elizabeth Van Lew.

Born in 1818 and educated at a Quaker school in the north, Van Lew embraced the abolitionist cause – created a unique conflict since she spent most of her life in Richmond, Virginia – one of the slave trading capitals. At certain times, she may have purchased slaves to free them or at least freed and supported her own family’s slaves, pre-war acts that her neighbors did not appreciate.

Elizabeth Van Lew

During the Civil War began, Van Lew advocated for better conditions for Union soldiers held in the prisons and even sent relief supplies to them. Then she set up an information system to pass messages in and out of Libby Prison, leading to the escape of some Union boys. Van Lew and other pro-Union supporters in Richmond formed a secretive network to gather information to aid their cause. The spy ring had “agents” in the Confederate War Department and Navy Department and even a women who posed as a slave to spy on Jefferson Davis in the executive mansion.

Although her neighbors and Confederate military authorities had a strong suspicion about Miss Van Lew’s loyalties and activities, they failed to catch her with condemning evidence. However, they still made life uncomfortable for her in many ways – ostracizing her from society and offering insults on the street.

That treatment did not change with the war’s end. Van Lew stayed in Richmond, defying her bitter neighbors and apparently paying little attention to the stories that circulated about her. She supported Republican politics and worked for women’s right to vote and civil rights during the Reconstruction Era. During his presidency, Grant appointed her to serve as postmaster of Richmond. However, Van Lew had spent most of her family inheritance during the war and immediately after – caring for former slaves and funding the Union network – leaving her penniless at the time of her death in 1900.

Want to learn more about Ms. Van Lew and her incredible life and work?

Save the date!

The American Civil War Museum is hosting a History Happy Hour on Monday, March 11, 2019, to talk about Elizabeth Van Lew. The free presentation by Terry Botzer titled Elizabeth Van Lew and the “one absorbing desire of her heart” will be held at 23rd and Main Taproom and Kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, at 6:30pm. Van Lew’s life, accomplishments, legacy, and evolving story/image will be discussed.

According to ACWM, the event offers “drinks are on you, history is on us.” So gather for an evening of history at one of Richmond’s favorite taprooms!

For more details, please visit the museum’s event page or happy hour page:

Van Lew Presentation: https://acwm.org/calendar-events/hhh-rva-elizabeth-van-lew-and-one-absorbing-desire-her-heart

Happy Hour information: https://acwm.org/learn-and-do/programs-%26-events/history-happy-hours

While you’re in Richmond, visit the site Elizabeth Van Lew’s house at 2301 East Grace Street. The mansion is long gone, and Bellevue Elementary School stands at the site of her home. The site of Libby Prison is not far from the location of Van Lew’s house, and she regularly sent relief supplies to the Union men there, as well as sheltering them after escapes. E Cary St & S 20th St is the location of Libby Prison and a memorial plaque stands nearby; the building is gone, disassembled in the decades after the war.

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