portrait of elizabeth van lew

Elizabeth Van Lew
Photo Credit: National Park Service
Click on image for larger view

Elizabeth Van Lew

  • Union spymaster operating in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
  • Worked with fellow spy, Mary Elizabeth Bowser.
  • Used her eccentric personality as a cover; led some to label her “Crazy Bet."
  • Supplied clothes, medicine, and food to captured Union troops held in Libby Prison; helped many of these prisoners escape.
  • Was instrumental in positioning Mary Elizabeth Bowser as a spy at President Jefferson Davis’s home.
  • For more photos of Van Lew as well as links to some of her letters and newspaper articles about her, visit Civil War Richmond.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1840 -?)
  • Born a slave in the Van Lew household; emancipated with other household slaves by Elizabeth Van Lew in 1851.
  • Remained as a freed Van Lew family servant.
  • With Elizabeth Van Lew, spied for the Union Army.
  • Became a valued “agent in place” assigned to the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
  • Davis incorrectly assumed Bowser was illiterate; left important dispatches on his desk, which she read and memorized.
  • This information was provided to Van Lew, who passed it along to grateful Union officers.
  • Bowser's clandestine work for the Union was never compromised.








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