NAME: Elizabeth Van Lew
DATE OF BIRTH: October 17, 1818
PLACE OF BIRTH: Richmond, Virginia
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Only daughter of John Van Lew, the owner of a successful hardware business, and Elizabeth (Baker) Van Lew. John was from a Dutch colonial family in Long Island. In 1816, at 26 years old, he went to Richmond, Virginia, and established a commercial farm with a member of the well-known Adams family. The farm failed, with a debt of around $100,000, of which John paid his share. Then he began his hardware business and prospered. On a trip to Philadelphia, he met and married former mayor Hilary Baker's daughter and brought her back to Richmond. They had three children: John, ------ and Elizabeth. Their magnificent mansion of three and a half stories high sat high on a prominent hill in Richmond, across from the church in which Patrick Henry had called for liberty or death. They acquired the property from the Adams family, after the latter lost it. Many famous people were entertained there while Elizabeth grew up: opera singer Jenny Lind, Chief Justice John Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe, who was said to have recited some of his works in one of the parlors.
EDUCATION: Elizabeth was tutored at home early in her life, then sent to school in Philadelphia. Many of her friends, family and fellow Richmond citizens figured this was where she became an abolitionist, but most likely she was influenced by her mother. As Elizabeth later wrote in her diary:
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: When Elizabeth was 25 years old, her father died and she began to act more on her principles. She and her mother freed all of the family's slaves; most of them stayed on as paid servants. When she heard that the slaves' children or relatives were being sold by other owners, Elizabeth bought and freed them as well. She wrote:
As the Civil War began, Elizabeth bemoaned the fate of her beloved nation, feeling Virginia's seccession was a crime. While watching a torchlight procession, she fell to her knees; "Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me..." She had already begun her help to the Union before the war began, writing Federal officials about everything that was happening. Soon after, hearing of Union soldiers suffering at Libby Prison, Elizabeth connived and charmed her way to being a nurse to the soldiers -- she and her mother would buy and bring clothes, bedding, food and medicines to the prisoners. She even persuaded Confederate physicians to have some soldiers transferred to hospitals.
In these seemingly humanitarian efforts (although her neighbors were aghast that she was helping the enemy), Elizabeth gleaned military information from the soldiers, as well as from the Confederate guards and soldiers at the prison, then passed the information on to Union agents. At first she mailed the information directly! Then, when warned against that, she developed her own cipher code -- it was found hidden in the back part of her watch after she died. Her servants were always ready to run seemingly innocent errands on a moment's notice -- hiding a coded message in the sole of a shoe or a hollowed egg shell. The Van Lews also had a farm outside of Richmond, which provided a simple excuse for errands run out of the city.
At various times, Elizabeth was restricted from bringing the soldiers special meals and even talking to them. In the latter case, she passed out books, and the soldiers passed them back with tiny pin-pricked messages. She would smuggle out letters from the soldiers and even helped several escape; hiding them in a secret space upstairs in her house. The more she visited and comforted the enemy soldiers, the more her fellow Richmond citizens became bitter toward her. Her house was searched on many occasions; she didn't dare keep a full journal, just sketchy comments. She wrote:
At some point, for protection, she began to accentuate the oddity with which her Richmond neighbors already regarded her. She started walking the streets mumbling and humming to herself, with her head bent slightly, as if holding an imaginary conversation. She combed her hair less carefully and dressed in her most worn-out clothes and bonnets. Passers by would look at each other and shake their heads. The prison guards nicknamed her "Crazy Bet." No one suspected her because they assumed spies would keep a low profile; Elizabeth purposely called attention to herself.
But it was about this point when she asked one of the former slaves to return, and help in another way. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, through Elizabeth's connections, became a house servant for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary also feigned a dim-witted, slightly crazy demeanor, allowing her to listen in on conversations and read documents that were left out. (Elizabeth had earlier sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia.) Mary would memorize everything, word for word, then on occasion meet Elizabeth at night near the Van Lew farm, telling all that she'd learned. On these nights, Elizabeth posed as a poor country woman, wearing a huge poke bonnet, leather leggings and a "belt canvas coat."
Elizabeth managed and organized many people in the greater Richmond area of like mind, from all ranks and colors -- farmers, storekeepers, factory workers, slaves, servants, laundresses. These people received Union agents, sometimes escaped soldier-prisoners, and passed along messages. One friend, a seamstress, stitched messages into her patterns. Despite Confederate guards handling the materials, they never discovered the messages.
Elizabeth also began taking in boarders, some she took in to help. One such hungry and homeless milliner she fed and housed for months, but the milliner repaid Elizabeth with a visit to Confederate headquarters and a report of her suspicions. Luckily the milliner had no definite information. Another guest was subpoenaed to give testimony against Elizabeth and her mother, but this guest declined to say anything. But Elizabeth had the neighbors to deal with, as well. The Van Lews were constantly trailed by detectives. She wrote: "I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen peeping around the column and pillars of the back portico."
But through all this, Elizabeth not only continued her espionage, she expanded it. She now was in regular contact with General Ben Butler and had more spies -- even clerks in the Confederate war and navy departments. In February 1864, she helped prisoners following a major escape through a 60-foot tunnel dug under Libby Prison. Around that same time, Elizabeth passed on information about Confederate plans to move thousands of prisoners. Here was an opportunity for a Union attack, freeing their soldiers and possibly taking Richmond. Her original ciphered message is archived with official war records:
Union officials planned a major operation, but unfortunately its secrecy was undermined by too many officers and their wives talking about it. On February 28, 1864, Union troops descended from two points outside Richmond, led by General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. The 22-year-old son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, Ulric had lost a leg shortly after Gettysburg, but still could outride anyone despite his wooden leg and crutch. The raid began on schedule but quickly fell apart -- Confederate foreknowledge and trouble finding a ford across the James River were major factors. As Union troops retreated, Dahlgren was killed. Confederates took from him a memorandum, a finger (for its ring), and his wooden leg, then casually buried him next to a road.
Southern officials claimed Dahlgren carried orders to burn and sack the city, and kill President Davis and his Cabinet. It's never been authenticated that the 'memorandum' he had indeed said these things. The Union soldiers were portrayed as "assassins, barbarians, thugs ... redolent of more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen." The newspapers said no one knew where he was buried; "Friends and relatives in the North need inquire no further." But, in fact, President Davis ordered Dahlgren's body to be placed in a coffin and reburied secretly among thousands of Union graves in Richmond. This was done at night.
But Elizabeth found out where. She wrote that a Negro was "in the burying ground at night ... entirely accidentally, or rather providentially" and he marked Dahlgren's grave. She then managed a stealth job of body stealing and transfer through Confederate lines. Late one night, four men dug up the rough casket, claimed the body and rushed it to W.C. Rowley's farm, where Elizabeth waited. She transferred the body to a new metal coffin, which they reburied on a farm outside Richmond. Afterwards, she ciphered a message about the exploit to General Butler, but Dahlgren's father had already asked for and gained permission for his son's remains to be returned. When Confederate soldiers found nothing in the coffin, Richmond buzzed with a mystery that was not cleared up until after the war.
Elizabeth was almost caught once when an expected Union scout had not arrived to pick up a requested up-to-date report on Richmond's defenses. As she walked down the street wondering how to send her message, a man walked by and murmured, "I'm going through tonight." She thought it odd that the agent didn't identify himself, but maybe he had an urgent reason. She hurried to pass him and again heard, "I'm going through the lines tonight." She thought better of it; too risky. The next day as a Confederate regiment marched by, Elizabeth recognized the man. Belle Boyd had been caught in a similar trap.
As Union troops under General Grant moved closer, Elizabeth could send messages almost daily through a five-point system -- from her mansion to the farm and beyond. Grant would request specific information, which she steadily conveyed. General Sharpe said later that "the greater portion" of information transmitted to the Union army in 1864-65 "in its collection and in a good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss E.L. Van Lew."
In February 1865, Elizabeth was almost caught again. Union officials sent an Englishman named Pole, predicting spying ....... He met many Union sympathizers, including Elizabeth. In her diary, she wrote of her suspicion and anxiety -- this turned to terror when Pole rushed to Confederate headquarters and told all. Two Union agents were arrested and Elizabeth waited for her turn. But it never came; apparently Pole did not have enough to implicate her.
On a Sunday early in April, General Robert E. Lee's lines had given way. Confederates were marching out of Richmond and the town was in a panic. Fires spread, shells exploded, and gunboats and powder magazines were blown up. The prisons were emptied and Union soldiers taken out of Richmond. Elizabeth was determined to make a grand gesture, no matter the cost.
She and her servants got up on her roof and unfurled a smuggled-in 34-star Union flag. It was the first to fly over Richmond in four years. A howling mob gathered, shouting, "God damn the old devil" and "Burn her place down!" Crazy Bet stood on the porch to confront them. "I know you, and you ...," she said, screaming their names and pointing them out. "General Grant will be in town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon!" The mob took her seriously and backed off.
Elizabeth had one last assignment. At the Confederate Capitol, she searched among ashes for secret documents the Union might need. A special guard found her there; he had been sent by General Grant, knowing she would face danger that day. Later, the general paid a visit to Miss Van Lew, drinking tea and talking politics on the porch. For the rest of her life, Elizabeth kept Grant's calling card.
After the war, President Grant appointed Van Lew as postmistress of Richmond from 1869 to 1877, but because of her loyalty to the Union, she was ostracized by the community. She wrote: "No one will walk with us on the street, no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on." She was not re-appointed by President Rutherford Hayes, but did secure clerical work at the Post Office Department in Washington, D.C. When President Grover Cleveland's administration reassigned her, she resigned.
Elizabeth had spent most of her family's wealth on her wartime activities, and so lived in poverty in the Van Lew mansion with her niece and 40 cats. She lived only on an annuity from the family of a Union soldier she had helped in Libby Prison. Still an activist in her late 60s, she continued to fight for women's rights by protesting against paying taxes. She asserted that, since women could not vote, they were enduring unconstitutional taxation without representation. After her niece passed away, she spent her last ten years living alone.
At the age of 81 years old, Elizabeth died in her home on September 25, 1900. She was buried in the Van Lew family plot in Richmond's Shockoe Cemetery. Relatives of Union soldiers whom Elizabeth had helped donated her tombstone, which reads:
[Side Note Connection: Two servants in Elizabeth's mansion -- Elizabeth Draper and William Mitchell -- were the parents of Maggie Walker, who became the first woman bank president in the U.S. She also supervised children's groups through the Independent Order of St. Luke's and was active in groups to improve race relations and civil rights. When she died in 1934, she was very wealthy and living in a 25-room mansion of her own, which was declared a National Historic Site in 1978. See also.]
DATE OF DEATH: September 25, 1900
PLACE OF DEATH: Richmond, Virginia
Buranelli, Vincent. American Spies and Traitors. Enslow, 2004.
Colman, Penny. Spies!: Women in the Civil War. Shoe Tree Press, 1992.
Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Yorkin Publications, 2002.
James, Edward T., editor. Notable American Women, 1607 - 1950. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Kane, Harnett T. Spies for the Blue and Gray. Doubleday, 1954.
Ryan, David D., editor. A Yankee Spy in Richmond : the Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew. Stackpole Books, 1996.
Varon, Elizabeth. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press, 2003.
[Fictionalized Account: Jakober, Marie. Only Call Us Faithful. Forge, 2004.]
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