Elizabeth Van Lew

Southerner Who Spied for the Union

Elizabeth Van Lew mansion, Richmond, Va
Elizabeth Van Lew mansion, Richmond, Va. Courtesy Library of Congress

About Elizabeth Van Lew

Known for: Pro-Union Southerner during the Civil War who spied for the Union
Dates: October 17, 1818 - September 25, 1900

"Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state." -- Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia.

Her parents were both from the northern states: her father from New York and her mother from Philadelphia, where her father had been mayor. Her father became wealthy as a hardware merchant, and her family was among the wealthiest and most socially prominent there.

Abolitionist

Elizabeth Van Lew was educated in a Philadelphia Quaker school, where she became an abolitionist. When she returned to her family's home in Richmond, and after her father's death, she convinced her mother to free the family's slaves.

Supporting the Union

After Virginia seceded and the Civil War began, Elizabeth Van Lew openly supported the Union. She took items of clothing and food and medicine to prisoners at the Confederate Libby Prison and passed information to U.S. General Grant, spending much of her fortune to support her espionage. She may also have helped prisoners escape from Libby Prison. To cover her activities, she took on a persona of "Crazy Bet," dressing oddly and acting strangely; she was never arrested for her spying.

One of the Van Lew freed slaves, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, whose education in Philadelphia was financed by Van Lew, returned to Richmond. Elizabeth Van Lew helped get her employment in the Confederate White House. As a maid, Bowser was ignored as she served meals and overheard conversations. She was also able to read documents she found, in a household where it was assumed that she would not be able to read.

Bowser passed what she learned to fellow slaves, and with Van Lew's aid, this valuable information eventually made its way to Union agents.

When General Grant took charge of the Union armies, Van Lew and Grant, though Grant's military intelligence head, General Sharpe, developed a system of couriers.

When the Union troops took Richmond in April, 1865, Van Lew was noted as being the first to fly the Union flag, an action that was met with an angry mob.  General Grant visited Van Lew when he arrived in Richmond.

After the War

She had spent most of her money in her pro-Union activities. After the war, Grant appointed Elizabeth Van Lew as postmistress of Richmond, a position that allowed her to live in some comfort amid the poverty of the war-torn city. She was largely shunned by her neighbors, including anger from many when she refused to close the post office to recognize Memorial Day. She was reappointed in 1873, again by Grant, but lost the job in President Hayes's administration. She was disappointed when she also failed to be reappointed by President Garfield, even with support for her plea by Grant.  She retired quietly in Richmond.  The family of a Union soldier she had helped when he was a prisoner, Colonel Paul Revere, raised money to provide her with an annuity which allowed her to live in near poverty but stay in the family mansion.

Van Lew's niece lived with her as a companion until the niece's death in 1889. Van Lew refused at one point to pay her tax assessment, as a statement for women's rights since she was not permitted the vote. Elizabeth Van Lew died in poverty in 1900, mourned mainly by the families of the slaves she had caused to be freed.  Buried in Richmond, friends from Massachusetts raised the money for a monument at her grave with this epitaph:

"She risked everything that is dear to man -- friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart, that slavery be abolished and the Union be preserved."

Connections

The black businesswoman, Maggie Lena Walker, was the daughter of Elizabeth Draper who had been an enslaved servant in Elizabeth Van Lew's home. Maggie Lena Walker's stepfather was William Mitchell, Elizabeth Van Lew's butler.)

Print Bibliography

  • Ryan, David D. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew. 1996.
  • Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy 2004.
  • Zeinert, Karen. Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy. 1995. Ages 9-12.