Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia

By Judith E. Harper | Go to book overview
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Van Lew, Elizabeth (1818-1900)

You asked me my opinion of the cause of this war… He [a fellow spy] has endeavored to convince me that Democracy was the whole and sole cause, but I always told him I thought it was slavery…. Slave power is arrogant—is jealous and intrusive—is cruel—is despotic—not only over the slave, but over the community, the State.

—Elizabeth Van Lew, c. late February 1864, Richmond, Virginia (Van Lew 1996, 63)

Of all spies, male and female of the North and South, Elizabeth Van Lew is considered to have been among the most skilled, innovative, and successful. Operating from her mansion in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Van Lew supplied essential information to Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Sharpe, George G. Meade, and Benjamin F. Butler. She directed an espionage ring of approximately a dozen white and African-American women and men operating in and around Richmond. Van Lew was a fervid abolitionist dating from her school days in Philadelphia. When war was declared in 1861, she was determined to do everything in her power to help the Union cause. Since many pages are missing from Van Lew’s 1861 diary entries, the motivation for her decision to become a Union spy cannot be precisely determined. Those pages that have survived emphasize her intense loyalty to the U. S. government and her passion for freedom for African Americans.

A member of the Richmond elite, Van Lew was raised as a Virginia aristocrat, even though her parents were both born in the North. Her mother and her father, both well-educated intellectuals, cultivated a love of learning in their daughter. They also sent her to be educated in Philadelphia. After her father died, Van Lew persuaded her mother to free

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