Elizabeth Van Lew

History of War - Spies




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Elizabeth Van Lew is an enigma, even today she is known to be a very special lady because of her espionage past.

Born in an upper class family it is surprising to find that this intelligent and well organized lady was not only a spy during the American Civil War, but actually ran a massive spy ring in the American Civil War for the United States.

For her efforts during the war it seems in life after the war life became hard for Elizabeth Van Lew. Today let us take a moment and remember such an important and influential lady in the times after she has left this earth.

Elizabeth Van Lew Early Years

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in to a fairly wealthy family with her father having been Mayor of Philadelphia and was still a good businessman. Val Lew was actually born on the 25th October in the year 1818 in Richmond.

In her younger years Van Lew attended a Quaker school to gain her education, during this time her father passed away and her brother took over the family business. At this time Van Lew and her family set about freeing slaves, including their own.

Life changed for Van Lew when the American Civil War broke out.

Van Lew and the American Civil War

Initially when war broke out Van Lew took bread and food to imprisoned Union soldiers at a prison in Richmond where she lived. Over time her work with the prisoners grew to that of aiding their escape and passing information to support their ventures once outside the prison walls.

By supporting the prisoners, Van Lew gained their trust and they started giving her information on Confederate troops and their movements, this information was then passed to Union commanders outside the prison.

Van Lew’s work grew to that of her being a pivotal commander of a highly efficient spy ring that ran all the way into the core of the Confederate chain of command. The unique way of talking through code was never found by the Confederates and involved messages being sent in hollow eggs.

During the Civil War years of 1864 and 1865 Van Lew’s spy network was so well oiled that they provided most of the intelligence the Union had during this period of the war.

In carrying out her visits to prison and managing her spy ring Van Lew used all of her own money, thus by the end of the Civil War she did not have any money left.

Van Lew after the Civil War

Once the war ended Van Lew set about trying to gain some money back from the government given she spent all her savings on the war effort by paying for her own spy ring. The government never supported her financially and left Van Lew to fend financially on her own.

In a time of desperation Van Lew turned to rich folk on the side of the Union during the Civil War, these people rallied to her aid given the tireless work she carried out during the war, this supported her until her death at 82 years of age in 1900.





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