Van Lew House

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 :: Van Lew House/Elizabeth Van Lew ::
Information about Elizabeth Van Lew and her home in Richmond, VA during the Civil War.

Once located on the south side of Grace Street, between 23rd & 24th, this beautiful mansion was the home to Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy in Richmond during the Civil War. Her home was reputed to be the meeting place for other Richmond Unionists, as well as a hiding place for escaped prisoners. Van Lew made little effort to hide her Union proclivities, though why she was not apprehended along with other known Unionists is not known. After the war, she was appointed postmistress of Richmond by U. S. Grant, then President. She was resented in Richmond, and died a destitute woman - her large fortune having been expended in her wartime spy efforts. She is buried in Shockoe cemetery under a large boulder donated by "Boston friends." Her home was demolished in 1911, and Bellevue Elementary School now stands in its place.


Elizabeth Van Lew, ca. 1865
Interior of Van Lew Mansion, showing passage in which she hid Unionists and escaped prisoners during the Civil War. Photo by Heustis Cook, ca. 1890.
Interior of Van Lew Mansion, showing the inside of the "secret room" where Unionists and escaped prisoners were hidden. Photo by Heustis Cook, ca. 1890.
Van Lew Mansion, south portico, ca 1890. Elizabeth Van Lew is seated at left.
Van Lew Mansion, from the south, ca. 1890. Elizabeth Van Lew stands at right.
Van Lew Mansion, profile from the west, ca. 1890. Photo by Heustis Cook.
Detroit Publishing Co., Van Lew Mansion, ca. 1900-1910 (LC-D4-500382)
Detroit Publishing Co., Van Lew Mansion, ca. 1900-1910 (LC-D4-33908)

Written Accounts

Richmond Dispatch 4/17/1861; slave of Elizabeth Van Lew has been arrested for having a pass out of date
Richmond Examiner 7/29/1861; condemnation of two ladies, living on Church Hill, who are attending the Yankee wounded [Elizabeth Van Lew and her mother]
Richmond Dispatch 9/23/1861; Elizabeth Van Lew is renting a residence next door to her house
Richmond Whig 1/2/1862; notice from John N. Van Lew (E. Van Lew's brother) that the partnership of Van Lew, Taylor & Co. has been dissolved, and the business will now be conducted solely in Van Lew's name.
Richmond Dispatch 1/6/1862; Elizabeth Van Lew’s mother adv for a good cook
Richmond Dispatch 8/7/1862; “Mrs. Eliza L. Van Lew” on Church Hill adv to hire cook, washer, ironer & seamstress
Richmond Dispatch 10/1/1862; Elizabeth Van Lew adv. For strayed cow
Richmond Dispatch 12/18/1862; 2 vacant lots for sale, north side of Marshall near 23rd. Owned by Mrs. Eliza. L. Van Lew

RG 109, Ch. 9, Vol. 199½, p. 68

2/15/1863; Letter from T. P. Turner, commanding Libby Prison, requesting that Van Lew stop providing meals for a certain prisoner
Richmond Sentinel 9/19/1863; Mary C. Van Lew (related to E. L. Van Lew?) arrested and fined for letting her slave go at large
Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War 1863; prisoner's account of harsh treatment in Richmond. Notes that while at the General Hospital (GH#1) he was well-treated; at the tobacco warehouse he was not. Also notes that "a lady named Van Lew" helped provide for him while in prison until she was stopped by prison authorities
Official Records, Ser. I, Vol. XXXIII, pp. 519-521 1/30/1864-2/5/1864; The only remaining war-time dispatch from Elizabeth Van Lew to Gen. Benj. Butler (USA); discusses situation in Richmond and troop movements
National Archives, RG 109, Ch. 6, Vol. 364, p. 21 3/11/1864; Carrington gives attention to the case of Private Van Lew [Elizabeth Van Lew's brother]. It seems that Priv. Van Lew was attempting to be discharged from the service at Chimborazo
Richmond Whig 7/28/1864; notice that John Van Lew has deserted to the Yankees
Richmond Whig 7/29/1864; more details on the desertion of John Van Lew - notes that he vanished near Studley, during the Battle of Cold Harbor
Van Lew Papers, Virginia Historical Society various dates; several items from Elizabeth Van Lew, including a note from Benjamin Butler and a pass to visit prisoners signed by Lt. Todd (Lincoln's Brother-in-law)
Richmond Daily Dispatch 7/17/1883; "The Richmond Spy," excellent description of Elizabeth Van Lew's efforts and anecdotes about the Richmond spy ring, Libby escape, etc. Extensive mention of Erasmus Ross, Libby's clerk as a Van Lew spy.
National Tribune 4/20/1893, 4/27/1893, 5/4/1893; excerpts from accounts of a Federal scout describing his encounter with John Van Lew, Elizabeth's brother, at Cold Harbor, in which John Van Lew tells the scout that if he can get a message to her, she will provide information from Richmond. Also accounts meeting with a fleeing employee of John Van Lew, in order not to serve in the Confederate army
National Tribune 9/28/1899; “A Union Man in Richmond” part eight of serialized account. Describes the capture and execution of Timothy Webster, the Libby Prison escape (mentions prisoners being aided by Van Lew, and good feeling amongst the Unionists toward her), a shooting of a prisoner at Libby, “the clerk” of Libby being involved in trading with the prisoners (Ross), and being shot at while near Locust Alley. St. Charles Hotel mentioned.
Richmond Chancery Court Records, Will Book No. 7, p. 419 2/29/1900, 6/19/1900, 9/20/1900; the Last Will and Testament of Elizabeth Van Lew, with two codicils
Richmond Dispatch 9/25/1900; Elizabeth Van Lew is near death
Richmond Dispatch 9/26/1900; Elizabeth Van Lew has died, will be buried Friday. Details on relatives and friends attending as well as details on her home
New York Times 9/26/1900; Obituary notice for Elizabeth Van Lew, notes that she was 83 years old
Richmond Dispatch 9/27/1900; Elizabeth Van Lew's funeral will be held tomorrow; has been postponed to allow her relatives to arrive
National Tribune 11/15/1900; description of Elizabeth Van Lew's secret room which has recently been found
National Tribune 7/4/1901; Van Lew mansion to become a club house
Harper's Monthly Magazine (June 1911), pp. 86-99. Beymer, William Gilmore. "Miss Van Lew."
A Chatauqua Boy, in '61 and Afterward (1912), pp. 54-64. Parker, David B. (72nd NY), Parker relates that he was sent to the Van Lew house on April 3rd, 1865 to provide her protection. Van Lew invites him to dinner where he meets several "prominent Confederate officials", including Erasmus Ross, clerk at Libby Prison. Continues with post-war details of Van Lew's service as postmistress of Richmond.
Winchester Evening Star 9/10/1913; decent account of Elizabeth Van Lew and her spying efforts in Richmond
Thomas McNiven recollections no date; highly dubious account of McNiven's part in the Van Lew spy ring - names prominent Confederates as agents

Page last updated on 07/11/2008