Elizabeth Van Lew

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Elizabeth Van Lew

Born October 12, 1818
Richmond, Virginia
Died September 25, 1900
Richmond, Virginia

Union spy known as "Crazy Bet"

Escaped detection by pretending
to be a harmless eccentric

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy and refined (cultured) lady of Richmond, Virginia—the city that became the Confederate capital during the Civil War. Her neighbors called her "Crazy Bet" and laughed at her strange behavior. But she only pretended to be eccentric (odd or peculiar). In fact, she was a cunning and highly effective spy for the Union. She sent valuable information to the North through the entire course of the war, and she also helped numerous Union soldiers escape from Southern prisons.

Supports the abolition of slavery

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond in 1818. Her family owned a large farm and several businesses. Their wealth made them part of Richmond's upper class. Like many wealthy Southern families of this time period, Van Lew's family owned slaves. The slaves performed household tasks like cooking and cleaning and also worked on the farm. As a young woman, Van Lew went to the North to complete her education. During this time, she came into contact with abolitionists (people who worked to end slavery).

The basic belief behind slavery was that black people were inferior to whites. Under slavery, white slaveholders treated black people as property, forced them to perform hard labor, and controlled every aspect of their lives. Thanks to the efforts of the abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. They outlawed slavery in the Northern states and tried to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery.

By the time Van Lew returned to the South, she believed that slavery was wrong and felt that black Americans should have the same rights and opportunities as whites. She convinced her family to free all of their slaves and to help them obtain an education in the North. As a result, the freed slaves remained loyal to the family. Most of them stayed with Van Lew throughout the Civil War. In fact, several of her former slaves played important roles in her spy operation.

Decides to help the Union cause

The debate over slavery and other issues caused a great deal of political tension between the North and South. By 1861, the ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Van Lew's home state of Virginia was among those that seceded. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. Before long, the two sides went to war.

Since Van Lew strongly opposed slavery, she supported the Northern cause in the war. Shortly after the war started, she decided to help the Union by keeping its military leaders informed of events in the Confederate capital. At first, she simply wrote letters to President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry). Once Union leaders discovered the value of her information, however, they made her part of the Secret Service—a formal intelligence-gathering network. She then reported to George Sharpe, the main information officer for Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; see entry).

Many of Van Lew's friends and neighbors realized that she did not support the Confederacy. After all, she spoke out against slavery in Richmond, and she refused to join other local women in sewing shirts for Confederate soldiers. But no one ever suspected that this wealthy, refined lady—who had been born into Richmond's high society—would dream of spying for the Union. Van Lew realized that her image worked in her favor and did her best to keep it up. She often appeared in public with her hair messy and her clothing in disarray, and she did strange things like visiting Union soldiers in prison. She also welcomed Confederate officers into her home, which everyone knew a Union spy would never do. As a result, the people of Richmond viewed Van Lew as a harmless eccentric. They even gave her the nickname "Crazy Bet."

Develops expert spy techniques

Over the course of the war, Van Lew developed excellent spy tactics. For example, she often tore secret messages into pieces and sent each piece with a different courier. That way, any single piece would be meaningless if the messenger was captured. She also invented a special code that she used for many of her messages. Sometimes she wrote them in ink that was invisible until it came into contact with milk. She disguised some secret messages as long, newsy letters from a Miss Eliza Jones of Richmond to her Uncle James Jones in Norfolk, Virginia—behind the Union lines. These people did not actually exist. Instead, the letters went to Union officials, who used milk to read the invisible messages between the lines.

Since Van Lew's family owned a farm outside of Richmond, she managed to obtain passes from the Confederate Army that allowed her and her servants to travel back and forth. This route served as the first leg of the journey to the North for many secret messages. She sometimes carried the messages in baskets with false bottoms. She even hollowed out the inside of eggs to carry some messages.

Van Lew often visited Union prisoners held in Richmond jails. These men provided her with information about Confederate troop positions and strategy. She also had a safe room in her house to hide escaped Union prisoners until she could arrange for friends to guide them to freedom in the North. None of the prisoners were ever captured in her home, even though she sometimes had Confederate officers staying with her at the same time. Once, when the Confederates came looking for horses to use in the war effort, Van Lew used her safe room to hide her last horse. She wanted to keep the horse, in case she needed to send a fast message to the North.

One of Van Lew's best sources of information was her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Van Lew had sent Bowser to Philadelphia for schooling prior to the war. Once the war started, she arranged for Bowser to become a servant to President Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) in the Confederate White House. Bowser pretended that she could not read, then stole glances at confidential memos and orders while she was cleaning. She also eavesdropped on conversations between Confederate officials while she served dinner. Bowser passed information about troop movements and other Confederate Army plans along to Van Lew, who sent it on to Union officials. Bowser's activities as a Union spy went undetected throughout the war.

Traitor to the South, hero to the North

Van Lew continued spying for the Union until the end of the war and was never arrested. But her friends and neighbors did spread rumors about her, and most people in Richmond eventually came to believe she was guilty. Shortly before the war ended, an angry mob came to her house and threatened to burn it down. Van Lew stopped them by saying that she would send the Union troops to burn the mob members' houses down as soon as they arrived in the city.

When the Union troops captured Richmond in 1865, General Grant assigned a group of soldiers to protect Van Lew and her property. A few years later, when Grant became president of the United States, he rewarded her loyalty by naming her postmistress of Richmond. But the people of Richmond never forgave Van Lew for spying for the Union. She was lonely and isolated in the years after the war. Since she had used her own money to finance her spy operations, she was also poor. In her later years, she was supported by her loyal servants and by donations from some of the Union prisoners she had helped to escape.

Van Lew was considered a traitor in the South, but a hero in the North. "If I am entitled to the name of 'spy' because I was in the Secret Service, I accept it willingly; but it will hereafter have to my mind a high and honorable signification [meaning]," she once wrote. "For my loyalty to my country I have two beautiful names—here I am called 'Traitor,' farther North a 'Spy'—instead of the honored name of 'Faithful.'"

When Van Lew died in 1900, she remained so unpopular in Richmond that no local residents came to her funeral. But a group of admirers in Boston, Massachusetts, bought a granite marker for her grave. The bronze plaque summed up her service to the Union during the Civil War: "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 might be abolished and the Union preserved."

Where to Learn More

Axelrod, Alan. The War Between the Spies: A History of Espionage during theAmerican Civil War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992.

Elizabeth Van Lew. [Online] http://pixel.cs.vt.edu./aramsey/civil/vanlew.html (accessed on October 15, 1999).

Hall, Beverly B. The Secret of the Lion's Head. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Pub. Co., 1995.

Kane, Harnett T. Spies for the Blue and Gray. Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1954.

Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.

Nolan, Jeannette Covert. Yankee Spy, Elizabeth Van Lew. New York: J. Messner, 1970.

Ryan, David, ed. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "CrazyBet" Van Lew. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996.

Zeinert, Karen. Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy. New York: Dillon Press, 1995.

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