This story is part of series highlighting people whose personal beliefs conflicted with the prevailing sentiment of their regions.
It was nearly incomprehensible that the Union's most successful spy, a women Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed had sent him “the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” was one of their own. Elizabeth Van Lew was not a northerner who moved to Richmond to become a secret agent for the Union. Nor was she born north of the Mason-Dixon, brought at a young age to live in Virginia. No, Elizabeth Van Lew was born a Richomonder, lived a Richmonder and died a Richmonder, ferociously loyal to the Virginia of the founding—a Virginia that was instrumental in the forming of the Union and all the prosperity that came from it. In fact, historian, author and University of Virginia professor Elizabeth Varon said that Van Lew believed “Virginia's distinct and special role as the architect of the Union required it to do whatever it could to preserve and sustain the county.” To say she was disappointed with the vote Virginia held on April 17, 1861 to secede from the Union, is likely an understatement, and it was compounded by the despair that followed when that decision was ratified by the populace of Virginia on May 23 by overwhelming numbers.
Her career as a spy started by trying to help the Union prisoners of war kept in slum-like conditions in Libby Prison, a former tobacco warehouse that had been converted to a prison. The Confederate government was not inclined to use its scarce resources on the enemy, so food and medical care was minimal. Van Lew, first rebuffed by the prison's overseer, David H. Todd (Mary Todd Lincoln's half-brother), eventually convinced General John Winder to allow her in to see the Union prisoners by claiming she was only doing her Christian duty to be merciful to those least worthy of mercy. She brought food to supplement their meager diets, blankets and bedrolls, books, and in exchange often found out information. It was the beginning of a spy ring that would be responsible for assisting the daring escapees of the Libby Prison Break (of the 109 Union POWs to escape, 59 reached the safety of the north), and the exhumation and reburial of the body of Union Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, who had died in a raid on Richmond in March 1864 and was buried without honors in an unmarked grave because of his thwarted mission (most historians now believe the authenticity of the papers Dahlgren carried, which indicated Dahlgren's mission upon freeing Union POWs from Richmond's prisons was to execute members of the civilian Confederate government including Jefferson Davis himself, though some still believe the papers were planted to indict the Union in the eyes of the public, especially the those watching in England).
Union Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren was buried in an unmarked grave without military honors after a failed raid aimed at releasing prisoners and killing high ranking Confederate officials including President Jefferson Davis. Elizabeth Van Lew was instrumental in exhuming his body and reinterring it for his family.
By the time the Union army had settled into its siege around Petersburg, just 24 miles south of Richmond, Van Lew was in contact with General Grant daily. When Richmond finally fell to Union forces on April 3, 1865 and her home was being threatened by the citizens of Richmond, she continued her compassionate care by treating the wounds of the civilians of Richmond, regardless of their loyalties.
The money that the Van Lew family had spent to ease the sufferings of Union POWs and run the Richmond spy ring was never fully compensated by the Federal government. She would be granted the prestigious and lucrative post as the Postmaster of Richmond by President Grant in recognition of her loyalty during the war. Besides being prestigious and lucrative, the position of Postmaster was extremely political, and Van Lew found herself the target of political conspiring and was only able to hold the post until 1877 despite her abilities and success at the position. Sporadic employment followed, but in September 1900, Elizabeth Van Lew would die destitute at her Richmond home, despised by her Richmond neighbors and largely forgotten by the country she gave all to save.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.