Develops expert spy techniques

Over the course of the war, Van Lew developed excellent spy tactics. For example, she often tore secret messages into pieces and sent each piece with a different courier. That way, any single piece would be meaningless if the messenger was captured. She also invented a special code that she used for many of her messages. Sometimes she wrote them in ink that was invisible until it came into contact with milk. She disguised some secret messages as long, newsy letters from a Miss Eliza Jones of Richmond to her Uncle James Jones in Norfolk, Virginia—behind the Union lines. These people did not actually exist. Instead, the letters went to Union officials, who used milk to read the invisible messages between the lines.

Since Van Lew's family owned a farm outside of Richmond, she managed to obtain passes from the Confederate Army that allowed her and her servants to travel back and forth. This route served as the first leg of the journey to the North for many secret messages. She sometimes carried the messages in baskets with false bottoms. She even hollowed out the inside of eggs to carry some messages.

Elizabeth Van Lew's mansion in Richmond, Virginia.

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Elizabeth Van Lew's mansion in Richmond, Virginia.

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Van Lew often visited Union prisoners held in Richmond jails. These men provided her with information about Confederate troop positions and strategy. She also had a safe room in her house to hide escaped Union prisoners until she could arrange for friends to guide them to freedom in the North. None of the prisoners were ever captured in her home, even though she sometimes had Confederate officers staying with her at the same time. Once, when the Confederates came looking for horses to use in the war effort, Van Lew used her safe room to hide her last horse. She wanted to keep the horse, in case she needed to send a fast message to the North.

One of Van Lew's best sources of information was her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew had sent Bowser to Philadelphia for schooling prior to the war. Once the war started, she arranged for Bowser to become a servant to President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889; see entry) in the Confederate White House. Bowser pretended that she could not read, then stole glances at confidential memos and orders while she was cleaning. She also eavesdropped on conversations between Confederate officials while she served dinner. Bowser passed information about troop movements and other Confederate Army plans along to Van Lew, who sent it on to Union officials. Bowser's activities as a Union spy went undetected throughout the war.

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