Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy

Among hundreds of women who acted as spies during the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew stands out as one of the most effective. She was a prominent member of Richmond society who opposed both slavery and secession, but kept quiet among the fervent Confederates around her. Van Lew and her mother volunteered to care for Union prisoners at Libby Prison, where they gained many contacts. Word got back to Gen. Benjamin Butler, who recruited her as a Union spy.
By June 1864, Van Lew’s spy network had grown to more than a dozen people. Along with the agents in government service, she relied on an informal network of men and women, black and white—including her African-American servant Mary Elizabeth Bowser. The group relayed hidden messages between five stations, including the Van Lew family farm outside the city, to get key information to the Union. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant later told Van Lew, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”

Despite her bravery and the Union victory, Van Lew was regarded as a traitor by her neighbors and found it hard to support herself after the war. Read her story at Smithsonian. Link

(Image credit: The Granger Collection, NYC)

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