Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The name's Van Lew. Elizabeth Van Lew. (Photo: National Park Service/Graphic: Mike Vago)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Elizabeth Van Lew

What it’s about: One hundred fifty-five years ago, Americans were in open revolt over a president elected with a minority of the popular vote, and an open white supremacist was one of the most powerful men in America. It was a different time. But while 11 states were in open revolt during the Civil War, loyal Americans in the South helped the Union cause, often in secret. One of the most successful was Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist living in Richmond who became a spymaster, giving crucial information to Ulysses S. Grant and other Union generals.


Strangest fact: While Van Lew contributed much to the cause of abolition, she was at one time a slave owner. Her father owned a thriving business in Richmond and had several slaves. He sent his daughter to Philadelphia to attend a Quaker school, and she returned a committed abolitionist (Quakers were central to that movement). When her father died, she convinced her brother John (who inherited the family business) to free the family’s slaves, many of whom continued to work for the family afterward, and one of whom would become her most important intelligence asset. (More on that below.)

Elizabeth then used her inheritance ($200,000 in today’s money) to buy and free relatives of her former slaves. From then until Emancipation, John would visit Richmond’s slave market and prevent families from being broken up by buying and freeing them.

Biggest controversy: One of the most important figures in Van Lew’s life and work is someone very little is known about for sure. Mary Richards was probably born in or near Richmond, and was probably born a slave of the Van Lew family, but neither of these things are certain. She was owned by the Van Lews at some point, and they thought highly enough of her that Elizabeth sent her north to be educated (whether to New Jersey or Pennsylvania is in dispute), presumably after she was freed, but again the time frame isn’t clear. It is established that as a free woman, she did missionary work in Liberia (a country that, at that time, was being settled with freed slaves). She returned to Richmond and married John Bowser four days after the Civil War broke out, and then, as Mary Bowser, became one of the most important spies in American history.

So little is known about Bowser that her Wikipedia entry includes this photo, which Wikipedia acknowledges is of a different woman with the same name. The photo was once believed to be authentic, despite being dated 1900, several decades after Mary Bowser’s death. (Photo: Library Of Virginia)

Van Lew was an acquaintance of Varina Davis, the Confederate first lady, and convinced her to take on Bowser as a household servant in the Confederate White House. Bowser pretended to be illiterate, but was not only well-educated, she’s also believed to have had a photographic memory. As such, she had constant access to sensitive information, which she passed, via Van Lew, to America’s military leadership. An apocryphal story says Bowser attempted to burn down the Confederate White House as the war was coming to a close, but in fact, she began working as a teacher to freed men only days after Richmond fell to the Union. She spent the rest of her life teaching (she founded a school in Georgia in 1867, for which she taught day and night classes and Sunday school) and speaking on political issues and recounting her contributions during the war.

(Author’s note: Because Bowser was such a good spy, very little reliable information exists about her. If you’re interested in reading more about her wartime exploits, I first learned about her from the book Spy On History: Mary Bowser And The Civil War Spy Ring, a middle-grade book that’s full of history and interactive puzzles. Full disclosure: The book shares a publisher with my own book, Train: A Journey Through The Pages Book. See how I subtly managed to combine full disclosure and shameless self-promotion?)


Thing we were happiest to learn: As a spy, Van Lew was no slouch herself. When war broke out, she managed to get permission to bring food, clothing, and paper to prisoners of war in Richmond’s famously harsh Libby Prison. From talking to the prisoners, she learned of Confederate troop movements, which she was able to pass on. She also helped prisoners escape, even hiding them (and Confederate deserters) in her home.

Besides Bowser, Van Lew also had moles in the Confederacy’s War and Navy Departments feeding her information. She used ciphers to pass information north, and sometimes hid messages in hollowed-out eggs. Her network was so effective she routinely sent Gen. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and the local paper. George H. Sharpe, head of the Bureau Of Military Information, claimed Van Lew’s network provided, “the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65.”


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While Van Lew’s actions during the war were heroic, she wasn’t always treated as such afterward. She did well in the immediate aftermath—she was the first person to fly the American flag in Richmond after the city fell, and Grant personally appointed her postmaster of the city. However, when Wiki Wormhole’s favorite mediocre president, Rutherford B. Hayes, ended Reconstruction, she was demoted to postal clerk.

She was not a popular figure in Richmond, which was still largely populated by Confederate sympathizers. “No one will walk with us on the street, no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years go on,” she wrote, and neighborhood children were told that she was a witch. Van Lew also lobbied unsuccessfully to get the government to reimburse her for the considerable amount of money she spent on her intelligence operations. She wasn’t even able to secure a pension from the War Department, and turned in desperation to Paul J. Revere, a Union colonel (and grandson of the Revolutionary War hero of the same name) who she had helped as a prisoner of war. Revere raised funds to support Van Lew in her old age, and his family even paid for her tombstone and had her memoirs published posthumously.

Van Lew’s grave in Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery (Photo: Wikipedia/AlbertHerring/goo.gl/JSgof2

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of the women freed by Van Lew, and employed by her afterward, gave birth to a daughter just after the Civil War was won. That baby, Maggie Walker, grew up to be a teacher, newspaper publisher, humanitarian, and the first woman in America to found a bank.


Further down the Wormhole: Readers interested in more espionage and derring-do can peruse Wikipedia’s list of female wartime spies. Alongside Van Lew and Bowser is the mysterious “Agent 355,” a woman who was one of America’s first spies, reporting to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. She was part of the Culper Ring, a group of spies who monitored British activity in New York City during the war (New York was redcoat-occupied for more or less the entire duration). One of Washington’s daring, if less successful tactics, was the world’s first combat submarine, the Turtle. We’ll see what life beneath the waves was like in 1775, next week.

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