Early in the war, Van Lew and other Richmond Unionists—including John Minor Botts, F. W. E. Lohmann, and William S. Rowley—banded together to form an underground network, which eventually targeted the Confederate prison system in particular. During the summer of 1861, Van Lew and her mother visited captured Union soldiers being held in Richmond prisons. If their motivation was at first compassionate—they brought the men food and tended to their wounds—it soon turned tactical. Prisoners were an important source of information, and Libby Prison, which housed hundreds of Union officers, often in desperate conditions, was located just six blocks from the Van Lew mansion. Van Lew never was able to gain entrance there, however, and instead bribed guards for various purposes, such as having prisoners transferred to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, as the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler, she may have helped some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former Van Lew family slave, also may or may not have used the "crazy" technique in her spying. Again, according to many histories, Van Lew had arranged for Bowser's education at the Quaker Negro College in Philadelphia and then, during the war, persuaded Jefferson Davis's staff to take her on as a servant in the Confederate White House. There, Bowser pretended to be illiterate and feeble-minded, all the while collecting information and passing it on to Van Lew or other spies. Varon has written of "the sheer improbability" of Bowser's deeds, finding it doubtful, for one, that Davis would hire a servant on the recommendation of a local Unionist. Finding no documentary evidence of Bowser, the historian speculates that she was, in fact, Mary Jane Richards, a freed servant who worked for Van Lew, not Davis, and who spied for the Richmond underground. "She could write a romance from her experience," a journalist gushed about Richards in 1867.
Van Lew remained active in intelligence gathering until end of the war, and when Richmond fell, after the long siege of nearby Petersburg, she came to the aid of wounded civilians, regardless of their politics.
Following the war, Van Lew became involved in Republican politics. In 1869, Grant appointed her postmaster of Richmond, a position she held during his two terms, helping to modernize the city's postal system and employing a number of African Americans. She sponsored a library for African Americans that opened in Richmond in 1876. Van Lew was dismissed as postmaster in 1877, a victim of gender and partisan politics. Partly as a result, in her later years she supported African American rights and woman suffrage.
October 15, 1818 - Elizabeth Van Lew is born in Richmond.
Summer 1861 - Following the First Battle of Manassas, Elizabeth Van Lew begins ministering to Union prisoners.
September 1861 - Elizabeth Van Lew, as a key player in Richmond's Unionist underground, begins providing funds and related assistance for the bribing of Confederate prison guards in order to let Union prisoners escape from Libby Prison and other Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Van Lew keeps up these activities throughout the war.
December 1863 - Elizabeth Van Lew becomes the head of Union general Benjamin F. Butler's spy network, a position she maintains until the end of the war.
March 17, 1869 - U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant appoints Elizabeth Van Lew postmaster in Richmond, an office she will hold until 1877.
1883 - Elizabeth Van Lew is appointed a post office clerk in Richmond. This is her final civil service position.
1887 - Elizabeth Van Lew gives up her clerkship, refusing to accept another civil service position.
September 25, 1900 - Elizabeth Van Lew dies in Richmond.
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First published: January 29, 2009 | Last modified: October 12, 2011