Sunday, January 22, 2012

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew (October 25, 1818 – September 25, 1900) was a well-born Richmond, Virginia resident who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the United States during the American Civil War.

Early life

Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 25, 1818, in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew[1] and Eliza Baker, whose father was Hilary Baker, mayor of Philadelphia from 1796 to 1798. Elizabeth's father came to Richmond in 1806 at the age of 16 and, within twenty years, had built up a prosperous hardware business and owned several slaves.
Elizabeth was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where her family's abolitionist sentiments were reinforced. Upon the death of her father in 1843, Elizabeth's brother John Newton Van Lew took over the business and the family freed their nine slaves, even though John had been somewhat opposed to the idea. Those slaves included the young future Union spy Mary Bowser. In the depths of the 1837-44 depression, Elizabeth used her entire cash inheritance of $10,000 (nearly $200,000 in current money) to purchase and free some of their former slaves' relatives. For years thereafter, Elizabeth's brother was a regular visitor to Richmond's slave market, where, when a family was about to be split up, he would purchase them all, bring them home, and issue their papers of manumission.

The American Civil War

Upon the outbreak of the war, Van Lew began working on behalf of the Union. When Libby Prison was opened in Richmond, Van Lew was allowed to bring food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there. She aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. Prisoners gave Van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders.

Van Lew also operated a spy ring during the war, including clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. It has even been suggested that Van Lew was able to have Bowser hired by Varina Davis, which allowed Bowser to spy in the White House of the Confederacy. However, Varina Davis adamantly denied ever hiring Bowser, and no hard evidence exists for either side. Van Lew's spy network was so efficient that on several occasions she sent Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant fresh flowers from her garden and a copy of the Richmond newspaper. She developed a cipher system and often smuggled messages out of Richmond in hollow eggs.

Van Lew's work was highly valued by the United States. George H. Sharpe, intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac, credited her with "the greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65." On Grant's first visit to Richmond after the war, he had tea with Van Lew, and later appointed her postmaster of Richmond. Grant said of her, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war."

The end of the war and her later life

When Richmond fell to U.S. forces in April 1865, Van Lew was the first person to raise the United States flag in the city. After Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. She persuaded the United States Department of War to give her all of her records, so she could hide the true extent of her espionage from her neighbors. Having spent her family's fortune on intelligence activities during the war, she tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government. When the government failed to provide sufficient aid, she turned to a group of wealthy and influential Bostonians for support. They gladly collected money for the woman who helped so many Union soldiers during the war.

Grave of Elizabeth Van Lew

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond. Her grave was unmarked until the relatives of Union Colonel Paul J. Revere, whom she had aided during the war donated a tombstone. She is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. Even into the twentieth century, however, Van Lew was regarded by many Southerners as a traitor.

In her will, Van Lew bequeathed her personal manuscripts, including her account of the war, to John P. Reynolds, nephew of Col. Revere. In 1911 Reynolds was able to convince the scholar William G. Beymer to publish the first biography of Van Lew in Harper's Monthly. The biography indicated that Van Lew had been so successful in her spying activities because she had feigned lunacy, and this idea won Van Lew the nickname "Crazy Bet". However, it is unlikely that Van Lew actually did pretend to be crazy. Instead, she probably would have relied on the Victorian custom of female charity to cover her espionage.
The 1987 television movie A Special Friendship tells a fictionalized story of the friendship and pro-Union collaboration of Van Lew (who is presented as a young, rather than middle-aged, woman in the film) and her former slave Mary Bowser.
Her story was also fictionalized in 1995 children's book The Secret of the Lion's Head by Beverly Hall, and in the 2006 novel, Only Call Us Faithful: A Novel of the Union Underground by Marie Jakober.

Learn more about the American Civil War Espionage

Non-Fiction Books

Fiction Books


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