From the Honolulu (Hawaii) Republican, 12/2/1902, p. 9, c. 3

Elizabeth Van Lew, Grant’s Woman Spy, at the Confederate Capital

As red October closed the quaint and historic town of Richmond, Va., enjoyed a strange red letter day. For the first time in thirty years the grand old Van Lew mansion, capping one of the highest of the seven hills upon which the capital of the late Confederacy stands, as stood Rome of old, was thrown open to the public. It was not for a grand ball or a feast of the finest flower and the proudest chivalry of this home of Southern aristocracy and culture, no fete in honor of conquering nero or a nation’s statesman, as of years gone by.

It was the closing scene of one of the most thrilling dramas of American life, and the society of Richmond were there, not in dinner gowns of point lace and jewels, but in conventional attire, thrusting themselves into the great, gloomy, silent halls, resounding with the babel of many voices; peering into queer nooks as if they expected a ghost of bygones to burst from the grim shadows; handling the quaint old mahogany furniture; gazing with somewhat of an awe upon the cracked canvasses of family portraits, and with lifted skirts wading through the mass of debris, the accumulation of three-quarters of a century, picking up here and there a faded letter, signed perhaps by an illustrious name, and thrusting it into concealment with the avidityy of a miser seizing overlooked nuggets.

Instead of the whisperings of stringed instruments, the shuffle of satin-slippered feet and the ring of spurs over the polished floors, the sound of laughter and the clink of crystal cups from the feast in the great banquet hall, only the whetting drone of the auctioneer and the calls of eager voices in the strife to achieve some relic in the venerable pile so intimately associated with the great personages of the South at a time when the nation was shaken with the vicissitudes of war and threatened disunion. Not a person there but felt the subtle influence of historic suggestion—the unconscious hypnotism of that which breathes from every crack and cranny such thrilling romance, grave dangers, dark mysteries.

For thirty years Richmond had cast a daily glance up toward its seventh hill and felt that peculiar thrill which a child feels in the presence of a haunted house.

For thirty years has conned over the known facts and wondered of the unknown; has told the children of a new generation all that was accessible of truth, and started them dreaming of what might be hidden away in the great black garrets and solemn shuttered chambers, the cavernous cellars, the secret archives, reached through narrow passageways and eryptic man-traps; and when, as on rare occasions, there ventured abroad a gaunt, bent and attenuated figure, with thin face of drawn parchment and a keen, furtive eye which seemed to look out of a mysterious soul down into the depths of other souls—the abiding genius of the place—few indeed there were to recall in her the beautiful Elizabeth Van Lew, the fair spy of General Grant, the Southern girl by adoption who was abolitionist at heart, and who contributed more than the world will ever know to the salvation of the Union—one of the most remarkable personages of the century.

This superficial report is entirely unworthy of her; it should be a volume, written by a Walter Scott, and bound in pure gold.

Founded the Family

During the first quarter of this century there came to Richmond a New Yorker of Dutch descent. His name was John Van Lew, and he was the personification of thrift and integrity. He prospered mightily. Making a pilgrimage to the North in search of new avenues to fortune, and incidentally a wife, Van Lew was entertained by the celebrities as a distinguished compatriot, and promptly fell in love with the daughter of Hillory Paker, the brave mayor of Philadelphia, who died at his post during the yellow fever epidemic when all others who were able had fled the city. Back to his Southern home the fortunate Dutch merchant took his bride, and here built upon one of the proud hills of Richmond a mansion such as struck dumb with awe his fellow townsmen, who for all their prosperity and natural Southern leaning toward luxury and extravagance, had never seen anything approaching it in regal appointments and princely perfection of detail.

Here the bride passed many happy years, adored by everyone from the highest dignitary of the federal government down to the meanest slave of the manor, and here was born the daughter who was destined to wield such a powerful and mysterious influence upon the affairs of the nation in its gravest years of crisis.

In that day of “open house” hospitality there was no mansion below Washington that extended to the distinguished stranger such sumptuous welcome as the house of Van Lew. It was the ideal spot for a day’s repose, to and from the Southern cities in that day of slow travel by coach; and the list of celebrities who sat at the beautiful damask and brought the latest gossip of distant states—as far removed then as foreign countries are from us now—or who lolled under the flowering acacia, oleander and grateful beach, through whose irregular vistas was seen a gorgeous stretch of Southern landscape, down over the terraces flanked by the silvery James—the very catalogue of those honored guests would fill volumes.

And here, like a princess, the fair daughter of the house, Lizzie Van Lew, held sway with the maturing charm of the daughter of the Northern stock developing under the tropical influence of the Southern sun—a lithe, agile creature, with a wit that was dangerous to trifle with and a vivacity that made her the dream idol of every youth within a hundred leagues of Church Hill.

Belle of Richmond.

Already in her early teens the girl displayed the talents and indomitable courage even to audacity which during the rebellion kept a hundred officers of the Confederacy and President Davis himself in a mighty quandary. The educational advantages of Richmond being inadequate, as her father believed, Miss Lizzie was sent North to school in one of the fashionable districts of Philadelphia, as befitting one destined to hold forth in the splendor of her Southern surroundings.

This education had more than one effect. It made the naïve and rouguishly winsome girl a woman of unerring intuitions, of dauntless determination, and of such original charm in coquetry that brought to her feet every eligible in the land. Why it was that with scores of offers from men who have since become factors in the affairs of the nation she allowed sighing gallants to lurk about the princely domains, fight duels and curse their rivals, ready to let blood for the very favor of her smile, and still remained uncaught will never be known.

Some Frenchman has said that the ideal coquette never marries—that the homage of hundreds is preferable to the yoke even with a paragon of manly chivalry and power. Be that as it may, if fair Lizzie Van Lew ever loved, and a little corner of her heart was clipped off by disappointment after she had shattered completely so many others supposed to be stronger and braver, she nursed her wound well, and to her dying day her few lifelong intimates never knew why “Aunt Lizzie” remained an Van Lew instead of amalgamating her family history with that of almost any illustrious name in the nation with those bearers she and her people were on terms of intimacy.

But it is in the stirring events of the inevitable conflict between the North and South that the wilful little creature showed her consummate diplomacy. Northern education had made Miss Van Lew a staunch abolitionist, and with utter disregard of consequences, she took up the firebrand in behalf of the negro, combatting in hot argument the young Southrons, who fumed and chafed under her lash, while they ate at her father’s board, gallantry forbidding them to make reply to arguments and strictures which, in a man, would have been the death of any one that uttered them.

Feeling herself protected under her own home, encouraged by lifelong veneration, Miss Van Lew dared what no man or woman ever dared before in that hotbed of cecession and pro-slavery sentiment, she “spoke right out in meetin’” and made her influence tell with often blood-letting effect.

“The negroes have black faces, but white hearts,” she was often heard to say, and as if to carry conviction to a point by practical example she gave one of the cleverest of female slaves her freedom, sending her North to be educated. When the war broke out, perceiving the advantage of having a faithful ally about her, this former slave was recalled to Richmond and installed again in the old hill mansion till some time later, when the Davises, who occupied the White House of the Confederacy at Richmond, and were on intimate terms with the Van Lews, desired a trusted servant. What more natural than for Miss Van Lew to offer them her educated negress, and what more natural than that, in gratitude for her freedom and many other benefits, she should make the very best use of her opportunities and her education in gaining accurate and authentic information with regard to the secret workings of the Confederacy—information which by some means, let no man at this late date cavil how, was promptly communicated to the White House of the Union at Washington?

Historic Fireplace.

In the library of the Van Lew mansion there is a quaint old fireplace. On either side is an iron support, surmounted by a couchant lion. One of these is fixed, the other so constructed that it may be lifted like the cover of a secret chest. Deep in the recess of that pillar was deposited the cipher messages, often in sympathetic ink, which were brought from Washington or from Grant’s headquarters by forlorn old negroes, who bore them in the wadding of their shoes or between patches of their miserable rags, and there these never suspected messengers found other communications which they bore in return, though Miss Van Lew might never so much as give them a glance, and though the house at all times was filled with officers of the Confederacy watching the fair spy’s every move.

Through Miss Van Lew General Grant and the whole North were constantly appraised of the movements of the Southern army. Through her information many a plan of attack was abandoned and another substituted.

The maneuvres of the troops, the secrets of the Richmond White House, the changes in the official staff and the plans for concerted action—all was communicated through that little repository under the couchant lion, while spies were ripping up carpets and forcing bureau drawers with the hopes of discovering evidence enough to compel the fair unionist to leave the country, but all to no avail.

Straight into the camp of the nonplussed General Winder, provost marshal of the district, the fearless spy would ride audaciously and say:

“Sir, your ordering your underling officers to search my home for evidence to convict me in league with the enemy is beneath the conduct of an officer and a gentleman!”

Whereupon the general would turn livid, bite his mustache and say nothing, but with mighty thinkings in his heart all the same.

Horses were nearly as valuable as men in and about Richmond at that time and there was little scruple with regard to seizing them wherever found. Many a lady was stopped in her carriage, the horses cut from the traces and the victim for the exigencies of war left stranded on four wheels. Miss Van Lew had six magnificent horses, much coveted by the officers of the Confederacy, and fearing that they would be appropriated, she gave out the information that they had been disposed of, when in reality she brought them from the stable and installed them in her cellar.

One day the officers came with the information that she had concealed the horses in the cellar, to which the smiling Miss Van Lew demurred, while she fed them on the daintiest of cakes and the rarest of Southern vintages in the great dining room. Afterward she bade a servant show the gentleman into the cellar by a roundabout outer way, giving them the wrong set of keys.

While they were haggling at the outer door Miss Van Lew was leading the horses, one by one, up the broad cellar stairs and over the heavily carpeted floor to the dining room, and while the searchers were at last engaged in exploring the cellar Miss Van Lew was keeping her pets quiet by feeding them cake.

Friend of Libby’s Prison

But it was when Libby Prison began to fill with Union prisoners that Miss Van Lew showed herself the staunchest Unionist. She was in constant communication with the leading Union officers within the prison. All the world remembers the thrilling plan which was decided upon to gain freedom from that place of living torment—tunneling seventy feet under the vacant lot beyond the lines, and with no other implements than an old knife and a chisel, the working hours being from 10 o’clock at night till 4 in the morning, the dirt withdrawn to be cleverly concealed.

In this daring and remarkable enterprise the plotters were advised and encouraged from without by Miss Van Lew by secret messages. On that thrilling night of February, 1864, Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania volunteers, who was captured at Chicamauga the autumn previous, and who planned the escape with his fellow officers, gained his freedom, with more than a hundred others, including eleven colonels and seven majors, sixty-five of whom, including Colonel Rose, were recaptured.

The others, with some exceptions, were met at the dead of night by brave Lizzie Van Lew and escorted to the old mansion on the hilltop, and there concealed in the attich chambers, which were entered by a secret door and so arranged that while officers were searching one part of the attic the fugitives slipped through the rear passage to the other part unseen. There the escaped prisoners were fed in secret until the storm blew over, when they were liberated, one by one, to make their way over to the Union lines.

A Noble Deed

Another incident proves the fair Unionist’s utter fearlessness of the demons of the night as well as of war, when, after the defeat and death of Colonel Dahlgren in his effort to take Richmond, Miss Van Lew, with one of two trusted companions, repaired to the spot where the colonel’s body was buried, exhumed it, reburied it in a spot known only to herself and those with her, and after the war was over sent the body North to the grateful admiral, the colonel’s distinguished father, for which act of courage and kindness the admiral was more than grateful.

And so the war passed, Miss Van Lew ever in the thick and turmoil of the conflict, keeping accurate record of both sides of the strife. When Richmond was finally taken it was Miss Van Lew who raised the first flag of the saved Union that floated over the city from the proud hilltop. Had Miss Van Lew left the South then and made her home with those in sympathy with her sentiments in the North, she would have been feted and adored to her dying day.

But matters went differently in the South after the great struggle was passed. The brilliant woman perceived herself to be in a strange position—a position such as few women in any century find themselves in. Her old associates strongly Confederate, began to pass her by, and the great people who used to make the mansion on the hill their headquarters while sojourning in Richmond came fewer and far between.

This forced solitude did not contribute to her spirits, and with all sorts of petty inflictions upon her she settled back in the grim old pile to write her memoirs and tell the astounding truths of the great conflict as she was identified with them. The memoirs, together with letters from General Grant, Salmon P. Chase, Horace Greely, and hundreds of others, were pilfered time after time, so that the small remains, according to the competent authority, represent no more than a tenth part of the original collection. They were found in one of the secret chambers of the attic and turned over to the executor, John P. Reynolds, Jr., of Boston.

Appointed by Grant.

And not alone did social ostracism follow the friend of the nation through the vale of years. When the father died the mansion was left to “Aunt Lizzie,” together with the vast adjoining property upon which hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent; but unfortunately there was no outside revenue to perpetuate it. When General Grant became president he showed his gratitude by appointing Miss Van Lew postmaster of Richmond for both terms, eight years, at $4,000 a year, and afterward recommended President Hayes to continue her in office.

Political feeling against her was too strong, however, and she was forced to resign. From that period she became more of a recluse than ever.

One Friendly Comment.

“And yet,” said Mr. Otis H. Russell, former collector of the port of Richmond, and a lifelong friend of Miss Van Lew, in an interview, “’Aunt Lizzie’ had the heart of a child whenever suffering appealed. She was literally land-poor and every year was obliged to dispose of some of the original estate to keep the wolf from the door. Then piece by piece the old family silver plate went to the curio dealers—a rare collection, valued at thousands of dollars; and then, sadder than all the fine old bits of antique furniture, the pictures and bric-a-brac followed. Still “Aunt Lizzie” continued to give right and left, and every little kindness she repaid with “souvenirs” of the historic place, till almost everything of value was dispersed.”

Go to top