Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    Union Spy Elizabeth Van Lew asks for her wartime espionage material: "It belongs to me now."

    Elizabeth Van Lew Collection: Containing Autograph Letters Signed, with Corresponding Letters and Memos, 1866-1867. Included are six letters (four written by Van Lew, three signed "E. L. Van Lew") and five military memos regarding Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew's attempts to receive financial aid from the U.S. government, as well as her attempt to retrieve her espionage records from the U.S. Government. Also included are recollections by Van Lew about some of her difficult operations as a leader in the Union spy network around Richmond.

    Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900), sometimes called "Crazy Bet", was the daughter of a Richmond slave owner. As a teenager, she was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia where she became a passionate abolitionist. During the Civil War, she served as a Union spy gathering vital intelligence within the Confederate capital city of Richmond. She was very successful, sometimes sending information to the headquarters of General Grant and Major General Benjamin Butler. Grant, thankful for her help, paid her a personal after his entrance into the fallen city. It is supposed that Van Lew planted a slave in Jefferson Davis' house to spy on the first family. After the war, Van Lew remained in Richmond, a city which treated her with animosity for her traitorous war-time activities.

    Ostracized and on the verge of poverty by late 1866, Van Lew attempted to secure financial aid from the U.S. Government. Helping her was Benjamin Tatham, a New York Quaker. Two Tatham autograph letters signed, both dated October 1866 and addressed to Isaac Newton of Washington, are included in this collection. According to the letters, Tatham had only recently met Ms. Van Lew and was concerned about her financial straits and social ostracism: "owing to the turn of events the rebellious spirit is again in the ascendant and their [Richmond's] hostility so open and bitter against all loyalists that the Van Lews are in social dissertion[?] with the rebel sympathizers that they have determined to leave Richmond as soon as they can do so" (October 19). In the next letter, Tatham reports to Newton the hopeful news that he has found out that "Gen'l. Comstock & Gen'l. Grant know all about the case." Still, Van Lew's situation was deteriorating: "they [Elizabeth Van Lew and her mother] talk of opening a boarding house! I hope it will not come to that".

    Van Lew was aware that Tatham was lobbying for her aid. Four letters written by Van Lew are included in the collection; three have been signed, while one is a partial letter. On January 15, 1867, possibly referring to an invitation from Newton to plead her case for financial help in Washington, Van Lew wrote to Tatham of her "wounded pride" at the very thought of asking for financial help. But, she reasoned, she had an opportunity to go to Washington "to represent the suffering and insulted condition of the loyal". She found the courage to make that trip by "remembering that through the war humbly to be sure, but as faithfully as I could, I represented the US Govt." (That letter was written on "Bureau of Refugees, freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Head Quarters Assistant Commissioner Department of the Potomac" letterhead.)

    Van Lew was certainly instrumental in the Union's war effort against the Confederacy. In one letter, Van Lew recounts how, working under orders from Union Colonel George H. Sharpe, the head of the Bureau of Military Information (the first formal intelligence agency in the U.S.), she had recruited Samuel Ruth, a Virginia railroad superintendent, as a spy: "The US Government wanted to communicate with Mr. Ruth The Superintendent of the R & Fred. RR. Word was sent to me that it must be done. . . . I finally undertook it myself, and succeeded." She then details events that led up to Ruth's arrest. (Ruth used his position with the railroad, as well as his railroad employees as agents, to work against the Confederacy.) He was eventually arrested, but Van Lew insisted that "He would not be safe now should this be known."

    Likely hoping to protect people like Ruth, as well as herself, Van Lew hoped to get possession of her intelligence records from the U.S. War Department so that the true extent of her activity against the South would not be known. In a January 22, 1867, letter, she informs Benjamin Tatham that she "would prefer to have all my papers sent by express, as then they would be safer." The next day she wrote thanking an unnamed recipient for a $100 loan and asking them "to send me, when you have finished with it, the Washington Package, just as I sent it to you. It belongs to me now." Though Van Lew does not specifically identify the "papers" or the "Washington Package", it is known that in December 1866, she requested all of her intelligence records from the War Department, which did return much of her material to her in early 1867. Much of this returned material was either lost or destroyed by Van Lew; surviving secret intelligence from her are rare. (Elizabeth R. Varon. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press US, 2003.)

    Also included are five memos, one written on an "office wrapper", within the "Head Quarters Dept. of the Potomac", all dated October 30 through November 23, 1866, concerning Van Lew's Richmond situation. The memos show concern for her and her mother, both "notorious for their loyalty and that their present condition is correctly represented by Mr. Totham." The memos are between the offices of Generals John Schofield and Orlando Brown.

    Elizabeth Van Lew never received the government aid she sought. She was later appointed by President Grant as Richmond's postmaster. All letters are in very good or fine condition. (Larry G. Eggleston. Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2003.)

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    October, 2009
    16th-17th Friday-Saturday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 3
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 3,388

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    19.5% of the successful bid (minimum $14) per lot.

    Sold on Oct 16, 2009 for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)
    Track Item

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Consign to the 2021 October 20 Manuscripts Signature Auction.

    Learn about consigning with us

    The department director has the heart of a true and highly knowledgeable collector with the business acumen of someone who has been not only successful but has decades of an impeccable track record
    David Greenburg,
    Chicago, IL
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search