Elizabeth Van Lew, a tiny, birdlike creature with a sharp, peckish nose, bright blue eyes and hair done in ringlets, was a charitable soul; and her beneficence in Richmond took the form of frequent visits to Libby Prison with baskets of "goodies" for "her boys".
Her boys were the Federal prisoners who populated the infamous prison. Those prisoners, especially the more recent arrivals, were filled with valueable information about the strength and dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen while being sent from the fighting fronts to prison in Richmond, Virginia.
Little is known about the specific information contained in her reports to Sharpe and othe Union officers: several years after her death, efforts to examine her War Department dossier drew only a response that "all papers in this department relating to Miss Van Lew were taken from the files on Dec. 12, 1866, and given to her." There the trail ends. However, many of the details of how she obtained that information and passed it on to Union authorities are contained in her long, rambling diary. Found buried outside her mansion, it went beyond her wartime activities to cover her entire life in Richmond, the city she loved - but whose values she loathed.
Of colonial stock, she was the daughter of a prosperous and respected hardware merchant who had built an elegant 3½ story mansion atop Church Hill, the highest of Richmond's seven hills. During her girlhhod, Chief Justice John Marshall was a frequent visitor to the Van Lew home, and the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, later sang in it's parlor.
Sent to a Philadelphia school, she returned a dedicated abolishionist. "Slave power" she wrote in her diary, "is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel is despotic." Exercising her beliefs, she soon persuaded her widowed mother to free the nine slaves owned by the family. Then, as war approached, she wrote that she became "a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania."