Elizabeth L. Van Lew (1818-1900) was an American abolitionist and federal agent during the U.S. Civil War. She aided the Union cause by providing intelligence reports from Richmond, Virginia, where she lived. She helped Union prisoners escape from their captors and also was involved in the "underground railroad". After the war, President Grant appointed her Postmaster of Richmond; then in 1877 she went to Washington, D.C. to work in the U.S. Post Office Department. She returned to Richmond during the Cleveland administration and spent her remaining years working for women's rights. Collection consists of correspondence, Van Lew's personal narrative, notes, photographs, artifacts, and clippings. Correspondence, 1862-1901, contains letters to and from Van Lew as well as letters relating to her activities. Bulk of the collection is her personal narrative of the war in Richmond. Also, notes on her ancestry and spying; photographs; artifacts, such as rings and studs carved by federal prisoners and given to her in gratitude for her services in their behalf; the cipher she used to send messages to Union commanders; and newsclippings concerning her death.
Biographical/historical: American abolitionist and federal agent during the Civil War She was born on October 17, 1818 into a family of high social standing in Richmond, Virginia. For her education, she was sent to Philadelphia where her pro-Union leanings may have had their beginnings. When the war came, she was back in Richmond and was openly loyal to the Union which she relentlessly supplied with intelligence reports through relay stations run by her servants. She was reported to have freed her slaves and helped Union prisoners escape from their Southern captors Van Lew was also involved in the "Underground railroad". After the war, Pres. Grant appointed her Postmaster of Richmond and remained in that capacity until 1877. She was then appointed to the Post Office Department in Washington, finally resigning her post during the Cleveland administration. She returned to Richmond where she spent the remaining years of her life working for women's rights. Van Lew died at the age of 82 on September 25, 1900 and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond.
Content: The collection contains letters to and from Van Lew together with letters relating to her (1862-1901, undated). The more substantial portion of the collection is in the form of her personal narrative of the war in Richmond, touching on such issues as the treatment of federal prisoners, treachery and espionage among the citizenry, and the Southern attitude towards the war. There are notes on her ancestry and spying; photographs of herself and the Van Lew mansion; artifacts such as rings and studs carved out of animal bone by the federal prisoners in Libby Prison and presented to her in gratitude for the services she rendered in their aid. The cipher that she used to send coded messages to Union commanders is also present. Finally, there are newspaper clippings about her death (1900).