Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew


DJ Name: Van Lewdacris

Nestled in Richmond’s oldest neighborhood of Church Hill sits the grand Bellevue Elementary  School where the littles show up everyday ready to learn but more eager for recess to get their sticky hands on those monkey bars. This school sits where the home of Union sleuth, Elizabeth Van Lew, once stood. Hidden in the hills of the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth Van Lew thought it was (van) lewdacris when she learned that her posh neighbors celebrated their resident president, Jefferson Davis, and instead she said, “I Spy with my little eye that these Confederates love lunchin’ at The Hill Cafe so let me tell Ulysses S. Grant real quick.” 

For four years, Elizabeth Van Lew sent Confederate intel to Union troops, provided food and medicine to prisoners of war, assisted with their escape from the capital city and eventually ran her own ring of spies. She was just one of many women who were recruited during the Civil War to dabble in espionage. While Miss Van sLEWth packed her shoes, dresses and hollow eggs (she didn’t get those at the farmers market, silly!) with messages written in invisible ink, she made sure to shuffle up this playlist to get her into stealthy spy mode:

Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 12, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia (moment of appreciation for a Virginia shufflette, please). A native of Long Island, her father, John Van Lew, came to the River City in 1806 at the age of 16 and over the years built up a successful hardware business. He married Eliza Baker and they settled into their home in Church Hill with their daughter Elizabeth, their son, John, and the enslaved laborers her father purchased. 

As a young girly, little Lizzy was sent to Philly to attend Quaker school. There she learned the importance of holding the door for others (we learned that at JMU, not the Quaker school) and saying “pretty please,” and “thank you very much,” as well as abolition. Though her family owned enslaved laborers, Lizzy and her Mama opposed slavery and upon her father’s passing in 1843, freed the family’s enslaved. Many of the enslaved did stay with the Van Lew ladies as paid servants. 

Living in the capital city of the Confederacy meant that Elizabeth was surrounded by Southern folk who supported slavery which she believed made them anti-democratic and arrogant. These neighbors weren’t Elizabeth’s biggest fans when they learned that she was an abolitionist, and felt even more disdain toward her when she supported the Union. When the Southern states said “Boy Bye!” to the North and seceded to protect slavery and their states’ rights, Elizabeth Van Lew found herself living in a tricky spot. But she didn’t leave her beloved home in Richmond and used that to her advantage to assist the Union. 

During the first two years of the Civil War, Van Lew provided aid to Union soldiers who were miserably held in Libby Prison. It was an old tobacco warehouse that the Confeds transformed into a place where they held captured Union troops. It was overcrowded, which led to disease, malnutrition and (you guessed it!) a very high mortality rate (and a low morality rate). At first, Elizabeth tried to volunteer to become a nurse there, but her application was denied by Lt. David H. Todd AKA the lead guard and half brother to Mary Todd Lincoln. But Van Lew wouldn’t take no for an answer and went above Lt. Todd to woo a different guard with a little flirtation here and a little flaunt of her family status there which ultimately worked. Yankee doodle dandy! Elizabeth was now in. She could bring homemade snackies, books and medicine to the soldiers as well as help them escape. 

Visiting Libby Prison was how Elizabeth collected a lot of intel. Newly captured troops shared information about Confederate movements, which she passed on to Union officers. She also shared details about safe houses with prisoners who wanted to escape and formed a relationship with a prison staff member on the inside to help her relay messages. In 1862, though, “President” Jefferson Davis declared Martial Law in RVA. This meant that there was complete military control and all rules were off when it came to arresting folks that Confederates believed were Union sympathizers. It became a little too risky for Lizzy to go to Libby Prison anymore, especially since her neighbors took notice and called her out in the Richmond Enquirer saying, “Two ladies, a mother and a daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners…. these two women have been expending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil.” 

After that bit of Page 5 gossip, Elizabeth and her mother were a bit scared for their lives. They got death threats, with townsfolk threatening to burn down their home, kill them or – the ultimate scary threat – finger-wagging in their faces. The Richmond Times Dispatch wrote that if the Van Lews didn’t stop their efforts to help the Union, they would be “exposed and dealt with as alien enemies of the country.” Very objective journalism there was those days!

But the finger-wagging and the death threats didn’t scare Lizzy Loo, who never cried boo hoo. She grew more determined to help the Union, passing along information to prisoners using a custard dish (yum!) with a secret compartment (wait, so no custard..?) and communicated with them through messages hidden in books. She bribed the prison guards to give prisoners extra food and clothing and to transfer them to hospitals where she could talk to them. She even plotted with some prisoners to plan their escape and hid many of them briefly in her home.

Elizabeth and other lady spies during this era were at a bit of an advantage because of how society viewed them. How could women be espionaging around town, engaging in such non-lady-like behavior? For shame! And so as long as these lady spies could keep mum about their activities, people often didn’t suspect them as having any significant impact on war efforts.

But word about Elizabeth’s elusive talents got around, in a good way. Two escaped prisoners regaled Union General Benjamin Butler about Elizabeth and he was, how you say, very impressed. General Gerard Butler sent one of the men back to Richmond with orders to recruit her an Official Spy to help Team Union. She said “I accept!” as soon as he offered the job, but tbh we think she should have negotiated for better pay and benefits. Only two percent matching on her 401(k)?? Hm, they could’ve done better. Anyway, Elizabeth thereby became Gen. Butler’s Head of Spy Network, as was printed on her business cards, as well as his Chief Source of Information About Richmond. That one was a bit harder to fit on the business cards.

Elizabeth took to her job with ease and confidence, as her six-month evaluation reads. She wrote her dispatches in code and in a colorless liquid which turned black when combined with milk, although not almond milk because the consistency is all off with that one.

Though her first dispatch on January 30, 1864, was met with little success, her second dispatch, on February 14, looked rosier. That day, 100 Union officers escaped Libby Prison by digging a tunnel under the street, which was, to date, one of the most daring prison breaks of the war, and fewer than half were recaptured. The victory was a relatively small one, but Northern morale lifted and Elizabeth grew even more dedicated to freeing men from prison, particularly those in Belle Isle Prison in Richmond, held captive by the mighty river.

By June of that year, Elizabeth’s Super Special Spy Ring had grown to include more than a dozen others. She relied on a whole web of sources to inform her dispatches, including agents in government service and an informal network of men and women, both Black and white, including her African-American servant Mary Elizabeth Bowser. The group passed on hidden messages between five stations, including the Van Lew family farm outside Richmond, to get all the hot gossip to the Union. General Ulysses S. Grant later told Elizabeth, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” Whaaaat, go off, Girl Boss.

Though Elizabeth was on the payroll for her espionage efforts, much of her personal fortune was gone by the end of the war, and her social standing had plummeted. It was like she was a contestant on The Bachelor who was sent home on week one. Irrelevant. Worse, she was now labeled a spy (gasp!) and she didn’t understand why. She was only aiding her home country, she thought, and now she was being punished for it. Her fellow Richmonders never forgave her for not being a Robert E. Lee fan girl, and she lived in ostracization in the Commonwealth, even though they say Virginia is for Lovers! What gives! 

Things got a little bit better when Grant was elected president in 1869 and he appointed his ol’ pal Elizabeth as postmaster (postmistress?) of Richmond, which she held for eight years. But when Rutherford B. Hayes frauded his way into the presidency, she lost her job and had no one to turn to for help. So she set up a GoFundMe and asked the Union Boys to donate so she could make a student film, or just make breakfast, maybe both things. Just kidding, but also kind of not. What she really did was write to the Paul Revere fam, which had roots in the Union war effort, and asked them for money. They, along with other wealthy Boston folk, regularly sent her money until she passed away at home in 1900, still an outcast.

Just goes to show, people be rude and they hold grudges forever, but at least there’s an elementary school and historic plaque now that has kind of cemented her memory. Next time you Richmonders find yourself on a stroll through ole’ Church Hill, think of Lizzie Loo Van Lew, your favorite super spy for the Union during the Civil War.

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