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Elizabeth Van Lew — A Daughter of the South With the Spirit of a True Hellion

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Willing to put it on the line for her country and her friends.

Willing to put it on the line for her country and her friends.

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in October of 1818 in Richmond, Virginia. During her childhood, Elizabeth was considered to be the most stubborn of the three Van Lew children. Her parents were John and Eliza Van Lew.

John Van Lew had come to Richmond at the age of sixteen, and by his mid thirties had built a successful hardware business. His new-found wealth made the Van Lew family one of the most prominent in the city.

As a teenager, Elizabeth was sent to a Quaker school for girls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, she became convinced that slavery was wrong and should be abolished. She took this belief back to Richmond, where it became her most defining feature.

Upon her fathers death, Elizabeth inherited about 10,000 dollars (roughly equivalent to 200,000 dollars today). She immediately spent all of it buying and freeing relatives of her family’s former slaves.

Elizabeth Van Lew soon a five station relay line by which her messages were quickly carried from her home in Richmond to the Union high command. One popular story concerning her message-line, tells that she would sometimes deliver fresh flowers and a Richmond morning paper directly to General Grant.

She often used her former slaves to carry her messages. Sometimes they would be hidden in a shoe, sometimes sewn into the work of a seamstress, sometimes hidden in a hollowed out egg in a basket of regular eggs. Whatever the case, her messages always got through unmolested.

One of her former slaves was Mary Bowser, a very intelligent young lady whose schooling Miss Van Lew had paid for before the war. Somehow, Mary Bowser managed to get a position as a servant in the Confederate White House.

There she was able to read secret papers, and listen in on important meetings. All the information that she gathered in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was passed, through Miss Van Lew, straight to the Union high command. These ladies were probably the most successful and effective spy team of the Civil War. It is even believed that the two worked together to try to burn down the Confederate White House on one occasion.

During the war, Elizabeth Van Lew was somewhat of an outcast because of her anti-secession, pro-Union positions; but when it became known that she had been a Union spy, she was treated as a complete social pariah. Penniless and nearly destitute, some family and friends of a Union officer whom she had helped during the war heard of her plight. These folks put together an annuity which supported Miss Van Lew for the rest of her life.

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