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Filing Cabinet - Civil War

Elizabeth Van Lew,
Federal Spy

Elizabeth Van Lew developed her own, carefully guarded cipher or code and sent important information to the Union generals through trusted individuals that became relay stations for the messages.  Ordinary people such as store clerks, shoemakers, servants, bakers, delivery persons, and seamstresses formed her secret network.

Some of her most trusted spies were those who once had been Van Lew slaves.  After her father died, she persuaded her mother to free their slaves.  Several of these individuals continued to work for wages at the Van Lew farm outside of Richmond.  They drove wagons into Richmond with milk, chicken or eggs to sell and visited Miss Van Lew, leaving Richmond with more than the proceeds of their sales.

Colonel D. B. Parker, a member of General Ulysses Grant’s staff, later explained in a July 13,1883 interview in the New York Tribune, “Shoes were pretty scarce in the Confederacy in those days, but Miss Van Lew’s servants had two pairs each and changed them every day.  They never wore out of Richmond in the afternoon the same shoes they wore into the city in the morning.  The soles of these shoes were double and hollow, and in them were carried through the lines letters, maps, plans, etc., which were regularly delivered to General Grant at City Point the next morning.”

False bottom trays, special soled-shoes, and messages in books were not Miss Van Lew’s only methods of getting messages to the Federals.  Sometimes, the farmhand might insert a thinly rolled message into a tiny hole in the shell of a hollow egg hidden in a basket of eggs to be delivered to the next station.  Or a seamstress with needles and threads might stitch up a secret message inside a pattern.  A store clerk might write a message in invisible ink or tear it in tiny strips to be pieced together later. 

Mary Elizabeth Bowser,  once a Van Lew slave, was one of the most unusually placed spies in the Van Lew spy network.  After Miss Van Lew convinced her mother to free all their slaves, Miss Van Lew sent Mary Elizabeth to Philadelphia to be educated.  Then, through a series of contacts, Miss Van Lew secured a position for Mary Elizabeth as a maid in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  Mary Elizabeth’s photographic memory proved to be a powerful tool in securing important information for the Union.  She cleaned President Davis’ office and memorized what she saw there.  She served dinners and overheard important bits of conversations.  She was keenly observant and reported what she saw and heard to a man who delivered food to the Confederate White House.
Miss Van Lew demonstrated another stroke of genius when she created her “Crazy Bet” persona.  It was already incomprehensible to most Richmond ladies how the Van Lew women could have any interest in helping Federal prisoners.  Elizabeth Van Lew capitalized on that confusion and began dressing and acting crazy, singing her little songs, and drawing curious stares. Now everyone was sure she had gone over the edge.  This ruse served brilliantly to provide her a cover for her secret activities and to help her avoid detection throughout the entire war.

At the end of the war, General Ulysses S. Grant said, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”  When he became President of the United States, he made her Postmaster of Richmond, a position she kept for his two terms as President.

However, many in Richmond despised Miss Van Lew as a traitor to the Southern cause and she lived a very lonely life.  She died nearly penniless in 1900.  Were it not for the donations of relatives of some of the Federal soldiers she had helped, including those of the great-grandson of the Revolutionary patriot Paul Revere, a former Libby prisoner, there would not even be a stone marking her grave.  The inscription on the stone they sent from Boston to mark her grave sums up her life:

     She risked everything that is dear to man–
     friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself,
     all for one absorbing desire of her heart–
     that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.

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