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Elizabeth Van Lew told the secrets of the Confederacy. But she took her own to the grave.

The Secrets of the Union Spy


To the end of her life, Elizabeth Van Lew never did understand why everyone in Richmond still held against her the fact that she'd been a Yankee spy.

But hold it against her they did. By the time Van Lew died in 1900 at the age of 82, the once-wealthy society woman was penniless and friendless. Richmond children threw rocks at her and called her a witch. Even after her death, city leaders refused to mark her grave in the Shockoe Cemetery. A decade later her house was demolished, though it arguably was the most stunning home in Richmond.

Her mystery lingers, however. Why would a woman of society give up everything to help the enemy? And how much damage did she and her secret assistants do to the Confederacy? No one knows. She destroyed much of the evidence of her spying and took her secrets to her grave.

Elizabeth was the oldest of three children in the Van Lew family, prosperous hardware store owners who lived in Church Hill at the site of today's Bellevue Elementary School.

Remarkably, the Unionist affinities held by both Elizabeth and her mother were shared openly with anyone who'd listen. Most disquieting to Richmond society was the fact that the Van Lews just couldn't be discredited as ignorant women.

Ideas, passions, and opinions were as much a part of the Van Lew family as hammers and nails. They were extremely articulate and bookish, with $50 allotted annually for the family library, a rarity at the time. Edgar Allan Poe once read "The Raven" in the family parlor, according to Ruth Ann Coski, library manager at the Museum and White House of the Confederacy.

What's amazing, of course, is that a woman so openly known to be a Union supporter could get a spy ring off the ground, even as Confederate generals tried everything to catch her red-handed.

That's one reason she kept a fire burning in her bedroom chambers every night, explains David Ryan, author of "A Yankee Spy in Richmond" (Stackpole Books, 1997). Van Lew never knew when it might come in handy for destroying her diary and the names of the scores of high-level people she had hired or bribed throughout the Confederate hierarchy, all with her own money.

"She'd decided to throw it in the fireplace if they raided," says Ryan. "Even after the war, she was very fearful that someone would find her diary and find out how much damage she'd done to the Confederacy. So she buried it for a while in her yard. Today, we have about only 400 pages out of the original 800, and many of those have burnt edges." Ryan spent four years deciphering the document for his book.

Unfortunately, more revealing documents weren't spared. At the end of the war Van Lew asked the U.S. government to return all her confidential wartime correspondence. And then she burned each letter.

With that act, she took with her all physical evidence of the fact that she had actually managed to place a former servant, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, inside the Davis White House. Bowser, who posed as an illiterate slave, is believed by some historians to have reported on all of the comings and goings she saw.

"What did [Bowser] find? We have absolutely no idea," Coski laments. "It's absolutely crushing to historians because they can't hang their hat on anything. As best we can understand, relations of Ms. Bowser say that back in the 1950s there was some sort of journal in existence. But someone in the family, not realizing what it was, just threw it away."

In the end, the women of Richmond vilified Van Lew with a rancor even worse than that of the men who had served with the Confederacy. As her government job as postmistress ended under the Grant presidency, Van Lew fell into poverty and died alone, despite what she felt was a great personal sacrifice for her country.

Luckily, others agreed. The Revere family (of "The British are coming!" fame) helped sustain her financially in her later years, partly in gratitude for getting Paul Revere's great-great-grandson out of jail during the war. After her death the Reveres had Van Lew's grave marked with a New England boulder — a Yankee rock.