From the Richmond Dispatch, 7/6/1902, p. 4, c. 1
“THE SECRET CHAMBER.”
In the New York Press and a number of other Northern papers of last Sunday appeared a handsomely illustrated article on Miss Bettie Van Lew and the Van Lew homestead, written by Miss Gilberta S. Whittle.
The mansion is now the home of the Virginia Club, and a most delightful home it is, too, with its spacious porticos, pleasant grove and charming walks and vistas showing the winding river and, in the distance, the fertile fields of Chesterfield. So far, certainly, as the summer season is concerned, we know of no other club so happily housed or so picturesquely environed. And then, too, the visitor there has something to talk about and think about. The premises are associated with the great war, and the proprietress of them was not only a Unionist, but a Union spy, in so far as she was qualified to fill that position. Her services as a spy, however, must pale into insignificance in comparison with her devotion to the prisoners who were held in the Libby.
It was quite natural that Miss Whittle should adopt the long circulated story that prisoners escaping from the Libby Prison were temporarily concealed in the attic of the Van Lew house – in a secret chamber – but our own recollection is clear and positive that Miss Van Lew told us the story was “without foundation.”
She said her house was under surveillance constantly, and that it was sometimes searched, and, therefore, she had to provide for escaped prisoners elsewhere.
As to the information Miss Van Lew furnished the enemy, we cannot think it was very valuable. Unfortunately for us, Grant had far better sources of information as to Confederate military movements. It is well known now that one of the clerks in our War Department was his spy, and there is reason to believe that an officer who had extraordinary opportunities for acquiring military secrets – he was not in the War Department – betrayed us. And from time to time Pinkerton and other Federal secret service men came to the city and conferred with the local spies and carried away budgets of news. One of these fellows, Webster, fell into our hands and was hanged at Camp Lee “Old Fair Grounds”) now the Exposition grounds. When taken from the prison to be conveyed to the place of execution he gave evidence of abject fear, but braced up a little when abjured by his wife to “be a man.” His wife was not with him when he was captured, but we suppose was allowed to come through the lines and visit him in his time of immeasurable terror and woe. However, that be, she was with him here in Richmond on that day.
The operations of the Federal spies in Richmond during the ’61-’65 period would make a thrilling story if properly told. There is much reason to believe that there were many more of them than we dreamed of then. And, as we have hinted in the foregoing paragraph, at least one of those who incurred suspicion – to put it mildly – held a commission and knew what news was valuable and how to get it; but it was not until the war was over that the enormity of his transgressions was known.
The Confederates had their spies in Washington, too, but none in high places. One was a woman in a government office, who furnished such secrets as she was able to obtain, but her budge had to be sent for; she could not manage to send it through the lines. She was a lover of the South, and her work was done without pay.
We had many good friends, too, in Maryland, who sent us news when they could get it. One of these had his home on the banks of the Potomac, and when he had information to impart he would write it out, put the paper into a jug, cork the jug and sink it in a creek a designated place. Then he would go up to his garret and so arrange the red calico window-curtain of the end room as to convey a signal that the jug was in position. That night, if everything favored the enterprise, a boat would put off from the Virginia shore to the Maryland shore, and the paper in the jug would be secured for the use of the Confederate commander. All of which was attended with great trouble and danger, so closely watched were those shores. But to return to Miss Van Lew.
Miss Van Lew was willing enough to aid Grant, but her facilities for collecting news about the movements and designs of our armies were poor. What she obtained was at best second or third hand, and oftener, we suspect, from public rumor merely. There can be no doubt, however, about her visiting the prisoners, and comforting them and aiding them to escape. Nor any doubt either about the high estimation in which she was held by General Grant (who made her “postmaster” of Richmond) and the Union soldiers general. Some of these, Boston men of means, Colonel Revere and others, lightened the unhappiness of her old age by giving her a pension of $1,000 per annum.
But all these things aside, we cannot but challenge the existence in the Van Lew house of any secret chamber “where escaped Union prisoners were confined,” and that, too, upon Miss Van Lew’s own say so.