Born to a prominent slave-holding Richmond family with Northern roots, Elizabeth Van Lew attended a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where she developed a strong attachment to the antislavery cause. Unlike other Southern Unionists, Van Lew did not get swept up in the initial tide of Confederate patriotism following Virginia's secession in April 1861. She joined with other Richmond Unionists to create an underground network to hinder the Confederate war effort and give aid and comfort to captured Union soldiers. The infamous Libby Prison, which held scores of Union officers in deplorable conditions, was located only blocks from Van Lew's home.
As the war ground on her aid mission to Union prisoners evolved into a full-fledged intelligence gathering operation. From Union prisoners Van Lew gathered information on Confederate troop strength and movements, which she passed on via couriers to Gen. Grant and his intelligence officer, Col. George H. Sharpe. Both officers later acknowledged both the quantity and quality of the information she provided to them. Van Lew also successfully operated a spy ring, which included clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments.
Four years after the war ended, President Grant appointed Van Lew postmaster of Richmond, a position she held until 1877. She was largely ostracized by Richmond society for her beliefs, including her involvement in Republican politics, women's suffrage and African American rights. In her remaining years Van Lew relied on the largesse of her friends; she had spent the bulk of her inheritance on caring for her family's former slaves and her espionage activities during the war. Dying penniless, the cost of her funeral was paid by the family of a Union officer she assisted. For her work on behalf of the Union army Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.