Van Lew was born on October 25, 1818, the oldest daughter of John Van Lew, a prominent Richmond, Virginia businessman, and Elizabeth Baker Van Lew. Her father ran a hardware business and owned several slaves. She was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was first exposed to abolitionism. After she finished school, she returned home to Virginia, and a short time later, her father died. Though he had expressly forbidden it before his death, she and her mother freed the family’s nine slaves, one of whom was Mary Bowser, who would later work with Van Lew as a spy. Van Lew and her mother also bought and freed some of their former slaves’ relatives.
When the Civil War broke out, she began working on behalf of the Union. At first, she brought food, clothing, and other necessities to the Union soldiers held at Libby Prison in Richmond. She then began to help prisoners to escape, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison. In exchange, prisoners gave her information on Confederate troop movements, which she passed on to Union commanders.
Running and operating a spy ring of 12 people, Van Lew was even able to have Mary Elizabeth Bowser hired by Varina Davis, which allowed Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy. Her work was highly valued by the United States, so much so that George H. Sharpe, an intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with “the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65.” On Ulysses S. Grant’s first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond.
When Richmond fell to the United States, Van Lew was the first person to raise the U.S. flag in the city. She kept an “Occasional Journal” of her activities but buried it for a time in fear of recrimination.
After Reconstruction, she became increasingly ostracized in Richmond, and having spent her family’s fortune on intelligence, she was destitute. Finally, a group of wealthy and influential Bostonians collected money for the woman who helped many Union soldiers during the war.
She died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war, donated a tombstone. Even into the 20th century, she was regarded by many Southerners as a traitor.