Special Report

Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy

A member of the Richmond elite, one woman defied convention and the Confederacy and fed secrets to the Union during the Civil War

One of the most effective Union spies was Elizabeth Van Lew. Over a course of four years she quietly sent valuable intelligence to Union officers and even ran her own network of spies. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

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After a long, exhausting campaign, Grant finally captured Richmond and Petersburg in April 1865. Van Lew’s work as a Union spymaster was without reproach, and she received personal thanks from Grant and several other Union officers. She was also given some money as payment for her efforts, but much of her personal fortune and all of her social standing were gone.

She was now labeled a spy—a term she thought cruel and unfair. “I do not know how they can call me a spy serving my own country within its recognized borders… [for] my loyalty am I now to be branded as a spy—by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest? God knows.”

Her fellow Richmonders couldn’t forgive her. She wrote, “[I am] held in contempt & scorn by the narrow minded men and women of my city for my loyalty … Socially living as utterly alone in the city of my birth, as if I spoke a different language.”

Her difficulties slightly improved after Grant became president in 1869 and appointed her postmaster of Richmond, a position she held for eight years. But when Rutherford B. Hayes took office as president, Van Lew lost her job and had almost no one to turn to for help.

Desperate, Van Lew, who was now in her 70s, contacted the family of Paul Revere, one of the Union officers she’d helped during the war and grandson of the famous Paul Revere. The family, along with other wealthy people in Boston whom Van Lew had helped during the war, regularly gave her money.

Van Lew survived on that income until she died at her home, still an outcast, in 1900.

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