Elizabeth Van Lew Wild Women Wednesday Cowgirl Magazine
Photo courtesy of American Civil War Story.

Southern belle Elizabeth Van Lew stared sadly out the window of the hospital at the Libby Prison near Richmond, Virginia, at the current of disheveled, emaciated, Union soldiers milling about a small, barren enclosure.  The scene inside the facility was equally as distressing.  Beds, almost touching one another, were crowded together and filled with sick and dying patients.  Diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, and gangrene were the diseases which had been the main course of the unfortunate inmates’ existence for some time.

The place was swarming with flies.  Elizabeth, dressed in a modest skirt, blouse, and bonnet, fanned the insects away from the invalid to whom she had been reading.  The ailing man caught her eye, forced a smile, and motioned to the book in her lap.  She returned his smile, wearily passed her hand over her furrowed brow, and studied the opened page of the novel.  Certain words and parts of words had been underlined in a seemingly random pattern.  Read together in just the right order they revealed a message: the location of Confederate camps, the number of Rebel forces that were in a specific area, and what artillery they possessed.  

Federal prisoners in and out of the hospital furnished Elizabeth with information vital to the North’s fight against the South.  From the multi-windowed prison, they accurately estimated the strength of the passing troops and supply trains, the destination they were headed when they left town, and conversations overheard between surgeons, orderlies, and guards about planned attacks and casualties.  Elizabeth dispatched the coded communication to secret service officials in Washington.  The hospital and her prison ministries were a cloak to cover her real mission.  Miss Van Lew was a spy.  

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1818, Elizabeth’s family was wealthy and lived in a grand, three-and-a-half story mansion.  The attractive and amiable Miss Van Lew frequently attended lavish balls, garden parties, and elegant receptions.  Great men and distinguished families were guests at the Van Lew home; General Ulysses S. Grant, songstress Jenny Lind, author Edgar Allan Poe, and John Adams to name a few.  Like other young ladies with her societal background, Elizabeth was educated at a prestigious school in Philadelphia.  Although steeped in Southern tradition, neither Elizabeth nor her parents embraced the idea of owning slaves.  They were abolitionists, influenced strongly by John Brown and the belief that the slave system could not be overthrown without force.  

Life for Northern sympathizers changed substantially when, shortly after the Civil War began, Richmond was made the capital of the Confederate states.  Friends and neighbors in support of the South disapproved of Elizabeth and her family.  The Van Lews had given freedom to the slaves they had and publicly denounced the ownership of any human being.

While the ladies of Richmond sewed and knitted for the Confederacy, Elizabeth was writing letters to contacts in Washington describing conditions in the South and providing information of troop numbers and their movements.  In the beginning she sent letters through the mail, but just prior to the first Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, she used special messengers to deliver the dispatches.  

The first Battle of Bull Run was a Confederate victory.  The Rebels took a number of Union soldiers as prisoners and marched them to Richmond where they were interned at Libby Prison, a three-story, brick warehouse on the waterfront of the James River.  The sight of the many wounded and crippled soldiers crammed into such a small facility moved Elizabeth.  She petitioned key Confederate military personnel to allow her to care for the inmates and bring the men books, food, and clothing.  The provost marshal general of Richmond granted her permission to play nurse to the prisoners.  Elizabeth was forty-three and the Libby Prison was now her focus.

Lieutenant David H. Todd (Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother) was in command of the prison.  Elizabeth won his favor with gifts of buttermilk and gingerbread.  From the moment she gained access to the prisoners, her dispatches to the government increased a hundred-fold in accuracy and value.

Southern sympathizers resented the kindness Elizabeth and her mother showed the Union prisoners.  Threats were made against her and her family, and letters of criticism were submitted to newspapers.  The July 29, 1861, edition of the Richmond Examiner contained an article condemning the two women attending to the wounded Northerners.  “Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners confined in the city,” the report noted.  “Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles of comfort or necessity for our troops, or administering to the wants of the many hundreds of sick, who, from their homes, which they left to defend our soil, are fit subjects for our sympathy, these two women have been expending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rape, murder, the desolation of our homes and sacred places, and the ruin and dishonor of our families.  

“Upon all pretexts of humanity!  The largest human charity can find ample scope in kindness and attention to our own poor fellows who have been stricken down while battling for our country and our rights.  The Yankee wounded have been put under charge of competent surgeons and provided with good nurses.  This is more than they deserve and have any right to expect, and the course of these two females, in providing them with delicacies, stationary and papers, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsing of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.”  

The public outcry and reports in the Richmond Dispatch and the Richmond Examiner newspapers prompted the Confederate Congress to pass a sequestration act in early August 1861.  The act provided for confiscation of all Union “lands, tenements, goods, and chattels, rights and credits” and the transfer of debt obligation on the part of Confederate citizens; the act also applied to the Southerners who gave excessive aid and comfort to the Federals.  Disapproving, Richmond citizens suggested the Van Lews should be made to surrender all they had to the cause.  “The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community who can write of them?” Elizabeth recalled about the time in her journal.  “I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things.  We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, and threats of death.”

Despite the hatred and resentment, Elizabeth soldiered on.  She maintained that her actions were that of a Christian woman and was honor bound to continue.  Of course she was only referring to helping the prisoners and not necessarily the spying.  In the spring of 1862, the Union army was nearing Richmond, and she hoped they would overtake the city, but such was not the case.  Still she schemed, planned, and conferred secretly with the handful of Richmond Unionists.   According to a Harper’s Monthly Magazine report from June 1911, she disguised herself as a common farm hand in buckskin leggings, one-piece skirt with waist of cotton, and a huge calico sunbonnet, and stole about the night on her secret mission.  “Through the blazing days of summer she worked the ill-stocked markets; bargained for the food sick men needed; paying for it with money that after a time she could ill afford to give,” the article recounted.  “In the stark prisons and the fever-ridden wards; in the unfriendly crowds of the city streets among those of the Confederate officers and officials themselves who still remained friendly despite the suspicions of the townspeople, she sought the recompense of her toil, the ‘information’ that she required.”  

Elizabeth had several contacts in key locations in Richmond, one of whom was a woman employed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.  The former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, spied on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and shared what she learned with Elizabeth who in turn passed the intelligence along to Allan Pinkerton’s secret service operatives.  Elizabeth utilized a number of techniques to forward the information to Washington.  Large baskets of eggs were often used, of each lot one egg was but a shell that contained a ciphered message; concealing a report in the sole of a shoe was also a favored method.  Elizabeth reconciled herself to the fact that she would eventually be caught and tried for espionage.  “The likelihood of such an occurrence was inevitable,” she noted in her journal.  “From the commencement of the war until its close, my life was in continual jeopardy.”  

In December 1863, Elizabeth and the ring of spies she had assembled were called upon by the government to help determine the number and disposition of Rebel forces within Richmond.  Secret service operatives working directly with General Ulysses S. Grant desperately needed the information in order to plan to overtake the city.  No agent was able to enter Richmond.  Elizabeth would be responsible for securing a way to secret the information out and into the hands of the general’s aid.  The messages were not only to be coded but written in colorless ink made visible only by coating the dispatch with milk.  Elizabeth and the other Unionists she associated with divided their time between acquiring details about Southern troops and orchestrating an escape of Union officers held at Libby Prison.  

For several months, Elizabeth’s colleagues and inmates within the prison and agents who visited the men worked at digging a tunnel from the cellar at the prison to the outside world.  Using chisels to dig and wooden spittoons to transport the dirt, more than a hundred men dug a sixty foot pass to an open spot between two buildings beyond the gates of the prison.  The majority of the men escaped.  Several were hidden away in a secret room at the Van Lew mansion.  When the time was right, Elizabeth helped the officers get to the Union lines.  

News of the “great escape” was reported in the February 11, 1864, edition of the Richmond Examiner.  “One of those extraordinary escapades of prisoners of war which have been very frequent on both sides, occurred at Libby Prison on Tuesday evening and at daylight yesterday morning,” the article began.  “The discovery of the missing prisoners was first made at the daily morning count, when the number of prisoners fell alarmingly short.  The roll was then restarted, as it always is when the count does not correspond with the number booked.  The calling of the roll consumed nearly four hours.

“At first it was suspicioned that the night sentinels had been bribed, and connived at the escape; and this suspicion received some credence from the statements of the Yankee officers who said the guards had passed them out by their posts.  The officer of the guard and the sentinels on duty the night previous were accordingly placed under arrest by Major Turner, and after being searched for money or other evidence of their criminality.

“In the meantime a thorough inspection of the basement of the prison, which slopes downward from Cary Street toward the river dock, began.  This basement is very spacious and dark, and rarely opened except to receive commissary stores….  Once the dirt and stone was rolled away from the mouth of the sepulcher, revealed an avenue, which it was at once conjectured led to the outer world beyond….  So nicely was the distance gauged, that the inside of the enclosure was struck precisely, which hints strongly of outside measurement and assistance.

“All the labor must have been performed at night, and all traces of the work accomplished at night was closed up or cleared away before the morning light.  The tunnel itself is a work of several months, being about three feet in diameter and at least sixty feet in length, with curvatures worked around rock.  Upon the testimony afforded by the revelation of the tunnel, the imprisoned guards were at once released and restored to duty, the manner of the escape being too evident.

“Couriers were early dispatched in every direction, and the pickets double posted on all the roads and bridges.  It is quite evident that the escaping prisoners have scattered and are traveling singularly or in pairs, or lying up in houses, or hiding places, provided for by the disloyal element to be found in and about Richmond, and will seek to steal off one by one in various guises other than that of the Yankee.”

Fifty-eight of the prisoners that escaped from Libby Prison safely reached the Union lines.  Elizabeth wrote in her journal that the news of their successful arrival “gladdened her heart,” but she was distressed that forty-eight of the escapees were recaptured.  She was determined to secure the freedom of those recaptured officers and the thousands of others held and suffering.  Confederate soldiers suspected Elizabeth played a part in the Libby Prison incident and were watching her every move.  Undeterred she continued to make regular visits to the Libby Prison as well the Belle Isle Prison.  She was able to charm her way inside both facilities using bribes and gifts.  

Five days prior to the prison breakout, Elizabeth had compiled the intelligence requested by General Grant’s command and sent her first dispatch.  The coded report noted that no attempt should be made to attack the Confederate capital and surrounding area with less than thirty thousand cavalry and between ten thousand and fifteen thousand infantry to support them.  “Do not underrate their strength and desperation,” Elizabeth wrote.  “All women ought to be kept from passing from Baltimore to Richmond.  They can do a great deal of harm.  There is a Mrs. Graves who carried mail through to Portsmouth.  Hope you watch her.  The last time she brought mail into Portsmouth she came in a wagon selling corn.”

The spy’s warning went unheeded.  Major General Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina, chose to strike the city with less than six thousand troops, and the result was catastrophic.  More than three hundred thirty Northern soldiers were killed or captured, and the loss served to bolster the diminishing spirits of the southern people.

Plans to burn Richmond to the ground after capturing Jefferson Davis and releasing the officers at Libby Prison were found on twenty-one-year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren.  Dahlgren had lost his leg two months prior and was traveling with his crutches strapped to his saddle and artificial limb in his stirrup.  Colonel Dahlgren and his small command were nearly wiped out in an ambush.  In an account of the tragedy in her journal, Elizabeth wrote about the colonel’s death and what followed:

“A coffin was made, and the body of Dahlgren placed in it and buried, where he was killed, at the fork of two roads, one leading from Stevensville and the other from Mantua Ferry.  After a few days it was disinterred by order of the Confederate government, brought to Richmond, and lay for a time in a box car at the York River Railway station.  It was buried, as the paper said, at eleven o’clock at night, no one knew where and no one should ever know.”

Elizabeth did not mention in her reminiscences that it was her idea to steal Colonel Dahlgren’s body; it was also her money used to purchase the metallic casket which was used to hide Dahlgren’s remains.  

According to the June 1911 edition of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Colonel Dahlgren’s body was located by Mr. F. W. E. Lohmann and an unnamed slave.  The unnamed slave was out walking late one evening when he saw Rebels burying a handicapped soldier.  When he heard Mr. Lohmann was searching for the deceased, he took him to the plot where he’d been laid.  Under cover of darkness, the two men unearthed the body and opened the coffin.  Dahlgren was identified by the missing limb.  The coffin was then loaded into a wagon and transported to an abandoned work shop.  Mr. Lohmann sent for the metallic casket, and with the help of a handful of Union soldiers, transferred the colonel’s remains to the casket.  

“A few friends saw the body,” the Harper’s Monthly Magazine noted.  “Colonel Dahlgren’s hair was very short, but all that could be spared was cut off and sent to his father.  The coffin was then placed in the back of a wagon which was then filled with young peach trees packed as nurserymen packed them – the coffin, of course being covered and concealed.  A wagon driver named Mr. Rowley transported the brave Dahlgren through several pickets, one of which was then the strongest around Richmond.  It was at this place the day before his death Dahlgren fought for hours.   Wary and vigilant were our pickets, if one had run his bayonet into the wagon only a few inches, death would have certainly been the reward of Rowley.      

“Rowley was chosen well; Miss Van Lew’s account shows him to have been a man of iron nerve and a consummate actor.  At the picket post he listened without a quiver to the unexpected order that his wagon be searched; an inbound team drew up, and the picket, perceiving that Rowley gave no sign of being in a hurry, thoroughly searched it.  The lieutenant of the post having re-entered his tent, and one of the guard at that moment having recognized in Rowley a chance acquaintance, recalled to him their former meeting, there at once commenced a lively conversation.  More wagons came, were searched, and went on.  The lieutenant, looking out from his tent for an instant, gave orders each time to ‘search that man.’  The suspense must have been terrible it seemed now that nothing would avert the discovery of the casket.

“Your face is guarantee enough,” the guard said to Rowley, in a low voice; ‘go on!’  And so the body of Colonel Dahlgren resumed its journey to the farm of a German named Orrick.  The grave was quickly dug and the coffin placed in it; two German women helped to fill it in and to plant over it one of the peach trees which had so successfully prevented discovery.”

Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the Federal government during the Civil War was recognized by the secret service and General Grant after he became president.

In 1864, the Union army made another attempt to invade Richmond and overtake the city.  This time they were successful.  Residents in the Rebel capital fled the city when Federal troops invaded.  The doomed Confederacy was in a panic to find horses to help their fighting men flee the area.  Rather than see the North move in and seize their sacred domain, Southerners and Rebel soldiers set fire to houses, landmarks, and businesses.  General Grant ordered men to find Elizabeth and help protect her home from the perils of the evacuation.  When Union troops arrived at Elizabeth’s house they found her sitting in her living room on top of a stack of historic documents with her horse by her side.  She wasn’t going to let anyone take her mount.

President Grant appointed Elizabeth Van Lew postmaster of Richmond, a position that paid $12,000 a year.  The position proved to be a vital necessity for Elizabeth as she had used all her family’s funds in her service for the Union and had no viable means of support.  Her parents had passed away, and she was caring for her brother, a disabled, former soldier.  “I live –  and have lived for years as entirely distinct from the citizens as if I were plague stricken,” Elizabeth recalled in her journal about her financial circumstances and reputation among Southern sympathizers.  “Rarely, very rarely, is our doorbell ever rung by any but a pauper or those desiring my service.  My mother was taken from me by death.  We had not friends enough to be pallbearers.”    

In 1877, Elizabeth was dismissed from her job as postmaster by President Rutherford B. Hayes.  He succumbed to political opposition that was critical of a Federal spy and a woman being appointed to such a prestigious position.  Life was difficult for Elizabeth after her job came to an end.  According to the June 1911 edition of the Harper’s Monthly Magazine, “After her removal from office there followed years of distressing poverty and unavailing efforts to procure any sort of government appointment.  Her salary during her time as postmaster had been spent chiefly on charities,” the article elaborated.  “I tell you truly and solemnly,” she later wrote in her journal, “that I have suffered for necessary food.  I have not one cent in the world.  I honestly think that the government should see that I was sustained.”  

Government officials, aware of the sacrifices Elizabeth had made during the Civil War, disagreed with President Hayes’ decision to dismiss her.  Many felt a sense of obligation to her.  Officials saw to it that she was made a clerk at the Post Office Department in Washington.  Sixty-five-year-old Elizabeth left her Richmond home to take the job which turned out to be another heartbreaking experience.  A vengeful supervisor made her work environment difficult.  He berated her in front of her coworkers, demoted her rank, and reduced her pay.  Elizabeth eventually resigned and returned to Virginia.  She appealed to friends in the North to aid her in her time of need.  Friends and relatives of the men Elizabeth had helped while serving at Libby Prison came to her rescue.  

Elizabeth Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, at her Richmond home at three o’clock in the morning.  The obituary that ran in the September 26, 1900, edition of the New York Times noted that she was eighty-three years old.  “Miss Van Lew was the daughter of a wealthy Northern man,” the article read, “who for a great many years was one of the principal hardware merchants of Richmond.  She was a Union woman all during the war, and took no care to conceal the fact.  She was constant in her ministrations to the prisoners confined in Libby Prison, and unknown to the Confederate authorities, was in frequent communication with General Grant’s army.”

Among the items tucked into the pages of the journal Elizabeth maintained until the day she died was a torn piece of paper that summarized her life.  “If I am entitled to the name of ‘Spy’ because I was in the Secret Service, I accept it willingly; but it will hereafter have in my mind a high and honorable signification.  For my loyalty to my country I have two beautiful names – here I am called a ‘Traitor’; farther North a ‘Spy’ – instead of the honored name of Faithful.”  

Elizabeth was laid to rest at the Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.