From the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Tuesday, 7/17/1883
The Richmond Spy.
Miss Van Lew and other Richmond Citizens Aided General Grant.
Secrets not Heretofore Thoroughly Disclosed – A Strange Story of Young Ross and
How He is Said to Have acted Against the Confederacy.
The following Washington special is from yesterday’s New
York Tribune, and dated the 13th:
The appointment by the Postmaster General of Miss Van Lew,
of Richmond, Va., as a clerk, at a salary of $1,200 a year, has opened a rich
vein of war reminiscences in the minds of men who were actors in the scenes
before Richmond during the last sixteen months of the rebellion. One of those
men is Colonel D. B. Parker, who is now chief inspector of the Post-Office
Department. He enlisted as a private soldier in a volunteer company in Chatauqua
county, N. Y., early in 1861, was promoted, and afterward he organized the
postal service of the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Parker was with General Grant
after he assumed command of the armies of the United States, and made his
headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.
In recent conversation Colonel Parker said: “I know Miss
Van Lew very well. I made her personal acquaintance the day Richmond fell, but I
had known of her long before that. When General Grant had his headquarters at
City Point we used to receive the Richmond newspapers in time for breakfast
every morning through the kindness of Miss Van Lew. Of course the newspapers
were very interesting, and to a considerable extent valuable, but other
intelligence received from the same source was of much greater importance. Miss
Van Lew had a friend – a trusty Union man – who was a clerk in the
Adjutant-General’s Department at Richmond, where he had access to the returns
showing the strength of the rebel regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps,
their movements, and where they were stationed. From him invaluable information
found its way to General Grant regularly through Miss Van Lew’s instrumentality.
She also had a man in the Engineer Department, and he made beautifully-accurate
plans of the rebel defences around Richmond and Petersburg, which were promptly
forwarded to General Grant.
A Union Agent in Libby Prison.
“Then Miss Van Lew got young Ross, a nephew of Franklin
Stearns, the rich Unionist of Richmond, appointed to an office in Libby Prison.
Ross helped a great many of our officers to escape from that horrible place, and
so well did he play his part that not only was he not suspected by the
Confederates, but the most of our boys in the prison who did not escape
considered him one of the most brutal of their jailers, and when the end came
would have been very glad to put an end to him. Several years ago I met Captain
Lounsbery, who had been confined in Libby, and he asked me about Ross, who died
several years ago. [He was burnt up in the Spottswood Hotel.] Lounsbery said
that one afternoon Ross came into the prison as usual to call the roll, cursing
the d- Yankees, and as he passed him said in a low tone, ‘Be in my office at
9:30 to-night.’ Lounsbery did not know what to make of this, but he determined
to find out what it meant. To his surprise he had no difficulty in getting to
the office past several guards. Once there he found Ross, who gruffily said :
‘See here, I have concluded to try you and see if you can do cooking. Go in
there and look around. See what you can find, and I will see to your case after
awhile.’ Lounsbery went into a back room, where he found a Complete Confederate
uniform hanging over a chair. He took in the situation instantly, and donned the
uniform as speedily as possible and walked back into the office, which he found
vacant, and stepped out into the street. The guard did not stop him, and he had
walked only a few steps from the door when a black man accosted him and asked if
he desired to find the way to Miss Van Lew’s house. He replied that he did, and
was guided to her residence, on Church Hill, where he was secreted until an
opportunity was found to get him out of Richmond. He got off safely and came
into our lines.
Colored Guides for Escaped Prisoners.
“Miss Van Lew kept two or three bright, sharp colored men
on the watch near Libby prison, who were always ready to conduct an escaped
prisoner to a place of safety. Not all of them were secreted at her house – for
there were several safe places of refuge in Richmond supported by her means.
When Colonel Streight, of Indiana, and his companions dug their way out of
Libby, he and several of his comrades were secreted for several days in the
house of a man named Quarles, which was situated across a ravine only a few
hundred yards from and in full view of the mansion occupied by Jefferson Davis.
But Miss Van Lew was the guiding spirit, and she it was who took upon herself
the dangerous duty of providing means of maintenance and escape for such of our
men as were so fortunate as to escape from the horrible walls of Libby.”
War Secrets Concealed in Brogans.
“How did she manage to open and keep up correspondence with
“Well, she had a farm in the country on the other side of
the James river from us and below Richmond. Every day two of her trusty Negro
servants drove into Richmond with something to sell – milk, ckickens,
garden-truck, etc. The Negroes wore great, strong brogans, with soles of immense
thickness, made by a Richmond shoemaker, whose name I will not give because he
is still living and doing business in that city. Shoes were pretty scarce in the
Confederacy in those days, but Miss Van Lew’s servants had two pairs each and
changed them every day. They never wore out of Richmond in the afternoon the
same shoes they wore into the city in the morning. The soles of these shoes were
double and hollow, and in them were carried through the lines letters, maps,
plans, etc., which were regularly delivered to General Grant, at City Point, the
next morning. The communication was kept up at our end – by means of a
steam-launch, which used to land a scout – usually Kearney – on the opposite
side of the James early in the night. Before daylight he would communicate with
Miss Van Lew’s messenger and return to our side of the river.
Miss Van Lew’s Services Recognized.
“When we got the news that the Confederates were evacuating
Richmond, General Grant, who was at the front, before Petersburg, sent back a
dispatch to Colonel Ely S. Parker, of his staff, to go into the city at once and
see that order was preserved and that all of Miss Van Lew’s wants were supplied.
I accompanied him, and went immediately to Miss Van Lew’s house to carry out
General Grant’s orders. The house was filled with many Union people. Among them
was young Ross, who said he wanted to keep out of sight, as some of our men who
had been prisoners in Libby had declared they would kill him on sight. Miss Van
Lew had also another refugee. She was the possessor of a “buckskin” horse, a
sorry animal, and when the rebel authorities issued an order during the last
days of the siege to seize all private horses and mules for artillery service,
she had secreted this animal in her roomy mansion, having carefully padded the
walls of the room with bed-clothing, so that no noise should betray his
presence. A day or two before the surrender a mob went to her place determined
to destroy her house. She appeared and soon recognized some of the men in the
crowd. She addressed them, admitting that she had been in communication with
‘Mr. Grant,’ ‘I can tell you, too,’ said she, ‘that Mr. Grant will be in this
city within twenty-four hours, and if you harm me or burn a single stick of my
property you will suffer. Your house, Mr. Dabney – yours, Mr. Johnson, will have
to go.’ And so she went on calling the names of individuals and defying them
until the mob finally dispersed without carrying out any of their threats.”
Rewarded with Office.
After General Grant became President he appointed Miss Van
Lew postmaster of Richmond, an office which she filled acceptably to the people
for eight years. She was formerly in very comfortable circumstances, but has met
with reverses which have exhausted her means, and is now glad to accept a
Government clerkship, which will yield a support for herself and a brother, who
is dependent upon her. Her long and successful experience in the postal service
is probably a sufficient guarantee that Miss Van Lew will make a faithful and
[The Mr. Quarles mentioned is dead or long since removed
from this city. None of his descendants remain here.]
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