The bullying only made Van Lew more determined to help the Union. She passed information to prisoners using a custard dish with a secret compartment and communicated with them through messages hidden in books. She bribed guards to give prisoners extra food and clothing and to transfer them to hospitals where she could interview them. She even helped prisoners plan their escape, hiding many of them briefly in her home.
“One of the things that made women so effective as spies during this time period was that few people expected them either to engage in such ‘unladylike’ activity, or to have the mental capacity and physical endurance to make them successful,” said historian Elizabeth Leonard, author of All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies.
In December 1863, two Union soldiers who had escaped from Libby Prison with the help of Van Lew’s underground network told Union Gen. Benjamin Butler about Van Lew. Impressed with the stories, Butler sent one of the men back to Richmond with orders to recruit Van Lew as a spy. Van Lew agreed and soon became the head of Butler’s spy network and his chief source of information about Richmond. As instructed, Van Lew wrote her dispatches in code and in a colorless liquid, which turned black when combined with milk.
Her first dispatch, on January 30, 1864, informed Butler that the Confederacy was planning to ship inmates from Richmond’s overcrowded prisons to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Her note suggested the number of forces he would need to attack and free the prisoners and warned him not to underestimate the Confederates. Butler immediately sent Van Lew’s report to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who ordered a raid, but the Confederate Army had been warned by a Union soldier on its payroll and successfully rebuffed the attack.
Though this attempt to free the prisoners failed, another one—this time by the prisoners themselves—had a better outcome. On February 14, 1864, one hundred Union officers escaped Libby Prison by digging a tunnel under the street—one of the most daring prison breaks of the war. Fewer than half were recaptured. The victory, however small, rallied the hopes of Northerners. Van Lew, however, became even more dedicated to helping the men still suffering in Richmond prisons, particularly those in Belle Isle Prison, which she visited after the Libby Prison escape. Of her stop there she wrote, “It surpassed in wretchedness and squalid filth my most vivid imagination. The long lines of forsaken, despairing, hopeless-looking beings, who, within this hollow square, looked upon us, gaunt hunger staring from their sunken eyes.”
On March 1, Union soldiers once again attempted to free Richmond’s prisoners but failed. Twenty-one-year-old Col. Ulric Dahlgren and Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick led the raid. Dahlgren, who had lost his right leg at the Battle of Gettysburg, was killed in the skirmish and most of his men were captured. Confederate soldiers buried Dahlgren in a shallow grave the following day, but went back and dug up his body after hearing that papers found on Dahlgren proved he and his men were on a mission to kill Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The outraged men put Dahlgren’s body on display at a railroad depot, where crowds of onlookers gawked at it. His wooden leg and the little finger on his left hand were missing. After several hours, his body was taken down and, on orders of Confederate President Davis, secretly buried.
Van Lew was disgusted by the mutilation of Dahlgren’s body and promised “to discover the hidden grave and remove his honored dust to friendly care.” She asked her most trusted agents to help. Though the Confederates didn’t know it, one man had witnessed the secret burial and was able to tell Van Lew’s operatives where it had taken place. They dug up the body and reburied it until they could return it safely to Dahlgren’s family.
Grant’s Greatest Source
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.”