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NSA Historical Figures

Elizabeth Van Lew

When the Civil War broke out Elizabeth Van Lew an abolitionist in Richmond felt obligated to do her part for the Union cause. She had already freed her slaves but then asked several of them to return and assist her in her espionage work. 

She gathered information from the Union soldiers held in the Richmond prison as well as detailed plans from one of her former slaves Mary Bowser who was employed as a servant by Jefferson Davis president of the Confederacy. Ms. Van Lew ciphered the information she had gathered and sent it across the river to General Sharpe's forces. In many cases she tore the paper up into strips and hid it inside hollowed out vegetables or eggs. General Sharpe reported that the greater portion of the information he received was due to the "intelligence and devotion of Ms. Van Lew."