From the Richmond Daily Dispatch, Tuesday, 7/17/1883

The Richmond Spy.

How Miss Van Lew and other Richmond Citizens Aided General Grant.

War Secrets not Heretofore Thoroughly Disclosed – A Strange Story of Young Ross and How He is Said to Have acted Against the Confederacy.

The following Washington special is from yesterday’s New York Tribune, and dated the 13th:

The appointment by the Postmaster General of Miss Van Lew, of Richmond, Va., as a clerk, at a salary of $1,200 a year, has opened a rich vein of war reminiscences in the minds of men who were actors in the scenes before Richmond during the last sixteen months of the rebellion. One of those men is Colonel D. B. Parker, who is now chief inspector of the Post-Office Department. He enlisted as a private soldier in a volunteer company in Chatauqua county, N. Y., early in 1861, was promoted, and afterward he organized the postal service of the Army of the Potomac. Colonel Parker was with General Grant after he assumed command of the armies of the United States, and made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac.

In recent conversation Colonel Parker said: “I know Miss Van Lew very well. I made her personal acquaintance the day Richmond fell, but I had known of her long before that. When General Grant had his headquarters at City Point we used to receive the Richmond newspapers in time for breakfast every morning through the kindness of Miss Van Lew. Of course the newspapers were very interesting, and to a considerable extent valuable, but other intelligence received from the same source was of much greater importance. Miss Van Lew had a friend – a trusty Union man – who was a clerk in the Adjutant-General’s Department at Richmond, where he had access to the returns showing the strength of the rebel regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps, their movements, and where they were stationed. From him invaluable information found its way to General Grant regularly through Miss Van Lew’s instrumentality. She also had a man in the Engineer Department, and he made beautifully-accurate plans of the rebel defences around Richmond and Petersburg, which were promptly forwarded to General Grant.

A Union Agent in Libby Prison.

“Then Miss Van Lew got young Ross, a nephew of Franklin Stearns, the rich Unionist of Richmond, appointed to an office in Libby Prison. Ross helped a great many of our officers to escape from that horrible place, and so well did he play his part that not only was he not suspected by the Confederates, but the most of our boys in the prison who did not escape considered him one of the most brutal of their jailers, and when the end came would have been very glad to put an end to him. Several years ago I met Captain Lounsbery, who had been confined in Libby, and he asked me about Ross, who died several years ago. [He was burnt up in the Spottswood Hotel.] Lounsbery said that one afternoon Ross came into the prison as usual to call the roll, cursing the d- Yankees, and as he passed him said in a low tone, ‘Be in my office at 9:30 to-night.’ Lounsbery did not know what to make of this, but he determined to find out what it meant. To his surprise he had no difficulty in getting to the office past several guards. Once there he found Ross, who gruffily said : ‘See here, I have concluded to try you and see if you can do cooking. Go in there and look around. See what you can find, and I will see to your case after awhile.’ Lounsbery went into a back room, where he found a Complete Confederate uniform hanging over a chair. He took in the situation instantly, and donned the uniform as speedily as possible and walked back into the office, which he found vacant, and stepped out into the street. The guard did not stop him, and he had walked only a few steps from the door when a black man accosted him and asked if he desired to find the way to Miss Van Lew’s house. He replied that he did, and was guided to her residence, on Church Hill, where he was secreted until an opportunity was found to get him out of Richmond. He got off safely and came into our lines.

Colored Guides for Escaped Prisoners.

“Miss Van Lew kept two or three bright, sharp colored men on the watch near Libby prison, who were always ready to conduct an escaped prisoner to a place of safety. Not all of them were secreted at her house – for there were several safe places of refuge in Richmond supported by her means. When Colonel Streight, of Indiana, and his companions dug their way out of Libby, he and several of his comrades were secreted for several days in the house of a man named Quarles, which was situated across a ravine only a few hundred yards from and in full view of the mansion occupied by Jefferson Davis. But Miss Van Lew was the guiding spirit, and she it was who took upon herself the dangerous duty of providing means of maintenance and escape for such of our men as were so fortunate as to escape from the horrible walls of Libby.”

War Secrets Concealed in Brogans.

“How did she manage to open and keep up correspondence with General Grant?”

“Well, she had a farm in the country on the other side of the James river from us and below Richmond. Every day two of her trusty Negro servants drove into Richmond with something to sell – milk, ckickens, garden-truck, etc. The Negroes wore great, strong brogans, with soles of immense thickness, made by a Richmond shoemaker, whose name I will not give because he is still living and doing business in that city. Shoes were pretty scarce in the Confederacy in those days, but Miss Van Lew’s servants had two pairs each and changed them every day. They never wore out of Richmond in the afternoon the same shoes they wore into the city in the morning. The soles of these shoes were double and hollow, and in them were carried through the lines letters, maps, plans, etc., which were regularly delivered to General Grant, at City Point, the next morning. The communication was kept up at our end – by means of a steam-launch, which used to land a scout – usually Kearney – on the opposite side of the James early in the night. Before daylight he would communicate with Miss Van Lew’s messenger and return to our side of the river.

Miss Van Lew’s Services Recognized.

“When we got the news that the Confederates were evacuating Richmond, General Grant, who was at the front, before Petersburg, sent back a dispatch to Colonel Ely S. Parker, of his staff, to go into the city at once and see that order was preserved and that all of Miss Van Lew’s wants were supplied. I accompanied him, and went immediately to Miss Van Lew’s house to carry out General Grant’s orders. The house was filled with many Union people. Among them was young Ross, who said he wanted to keep out of sight, as some of our men who had been prisoners in Libby had declared they would kill him on sight. Miss Van Lew had also another refugee. She was the possessor of a “buckskin” horse, a sorry animal, and when the rebel authorities issued an order during the last days of the siege to seize all private horses and mules for artillery service, she had secreted this animal in her roomy mansion, having carefully padded the walls of the room with bed-clothing, so that no noise should betray his presence. A day or two before the surrender a mob went to her place determined to destroy her house. She appeared and soon recognized some of the men in the crowd. She addressed them, admitting that she had been in communication with ‘Mr. Grant,’ ‘I can tell you, too,’ said she, ‘that Mr. Grant will be in this city within twenty-four hours, and if you harm me or burn a single stick of my property you will suffer. Your house, Mr. Dabney – yours, Mr. Johnson, will have to go.’ And so she went on calling the names of individuals and defying them until the mob finally dispersed without carrying out any of their threats.”

Rewarded with Office.

After General Grant became President he appointed Miss Van Lew postmaster of Richmond, an office which she filled acceptably to the people for eight years. She was formerly in very comfortable circumstances, but has met with reverses which have exhausted her means, and is now glad to accept a Government clerkship, which will yield a support for herself and a brother, who is dependent upon her. Her long and successful experience in the postal service is probably a sufficient guarantee that Miss Van Lew will make a faithful and efficient clerk.

[The Mr. Quarles mentioned is dead or long since removed from this city. None of his descendants remain here.]

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