A roughly cut boulder marks an unkempt grave in Shockoe Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. The inscription reads: ‘Elizabeth L. Van Lew, 1818-1900: 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.’
This is the only surviving tribute to a woman to whom Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Union Army of the James, referred as ‘my correspondent in Richmond.’ Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commander in chief of the Union Army, considered her valuable enough to order personal protection for her when he entered Richmond.
Elizabeth Van Lew was born in 1818 to a prominent Richmond merchant family. She grew up across the street from the mansion the family later purchased on Church Hill. Upon the death of her parents, she inherited the family estate. Well before the American Civil War began, she was considered an abolitionist, and the Van Lew estate was a station for the Underground Railroad.
Even before the war, she was considered eccentric by Richmond society, of which she should have naturally been an integral part, because of her outspoken abolitionist beliefs and practices. Social leaders in Richmond assumed she had acquired her Northern ideas when she went to Philadelphia for schooling. They also tended to discount her as a true Southerner because her parents had both come from the North.
After her father’s death in 1843, she and her mother freed the nine family slaves. Most of them stayed with the family as paid servants, and several were important links in the communications network she established with the Union Army headquarters during the final years of the war. She also tried to reunite separated family members by purchasing them from her neighbors.
Van Lew was considered pretty in her youth, but by the time she was in her forties she was the classic ‘old maid,’ with a sharp nose and piercing blue eyes. Her unmarried state, at a time when all women were expected to marry, further embellished her reputation for eccentricity.
Whatever the original source, the nickname ‘Crazy Bet’ allowed her to straightforwardly pursue her goals in aiding the Union officers who were incarcerated at Libby Prison and communicating information obtained from them to the Federal lines undetected. By the time anyone in Richmond truly believed that she was a successful spy for the enemy, Grant had arrived in the city and it was too late to do anything about it.
Shortly after the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, Van Lew learned of the appalling conditions in Libby Prison, the former ship chandler’s warehouse just down the hill from the Van Lew home, where Union officers were being held. She approached the prison’s commandant, Lieutenant David H. Todd (First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s half brother), and asked for permission to minister to the prisoners. He was horrified at the very suggestion and denied her permission to enter the prison.
She then contacted Confederate Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger, an acquaintance of hers. She reminded him of a sermon he had given on Christian charity. ‘It said that love was the fulfilling of the law, and if we wished ‘our cause’ to succeed, we must being with charity to the thankless, the unworthy,’ she wrote. Memminger gave her a note to the provost marshal, who in turn was flattered into giving her a pass to the prison.
Van Lew visited the prisoners regularly, bringing supplies and medicine purchased with her own funds and with profits from her brother’s hardware store. At first, she simply mailed military information given to her by the officers to Union headquarters. Surprisingly, some of it actually arrived.
As a result of her visits to Libby Prison, Van Lew persuaded Confederate doctors to transfer seriously wounded Union officers to Confederate hospitals in Richmond. She purchased food, bedding and clothing on a regular basis and, on occasion, furniture for the men in prison. In return, the Federal prisoners carved studs and a ring for Van Lew out of bones or buttons and gave them to her in token of their appreciation. The mementoes remain with the Van Lew Papers in the New York Public Library. More important, the men gave her current and valuable information about the Confederate troop movements they had observed before being taken prisoner. She immediately conveyed that information to Union intelligence. Messages were written in code in a clear ink that looked like water but, when dipped in milk, appeared black.
Once the messaged were encoded, various methods were used to get them across enemy lines. Servants had a ready alibi for movement because the Van Lews owned a small farm on the outskirts of town. In a basket of eggs carried by a servant girl, one egg would be empty except for a coded message torn into strips of paper and rolled up into little balls. One trusted servant had a pair of shabby old shoes with a hollow heel. Confederate sentries did not stop old black retainers to examine the soles of their muddy shoes. The servants’ travel through the lines became so regular that Van Lew joked that her service beat the Confederate postal delivery.
One of Van Lew’s most successful ventures gave her direct access to Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ household. Before the war she had sent Mary Elizabeth Bowser, one of her freed slaves, north for an education. At Van Lew’s request, Mary Bowser returned to Richmond and was able to obtain a position as a dining room servant in the Davis household. She reported directly to Van Lew all the information she overheard while serving dinner parties.
After Grant set up headquarters at City Point, Va. In 1864, communication with his spy in Richmond became so regular that flowers cut from the Van Lew garden appeared on the general’s table before nightfall. ‘The war advanced and the army closed around Richmond,’ she wrote in her journal. ‘I was able to communicate with General Butler and General Grant, but not so well and persistently with General Butler, for there was too much danger in the system and persons. With General Grant, through his chief of Secret Service, General Georges H. Sharpe, I was more fortunate.
Grant was probably the most unpopular man in Richmond, but Van Lew did not hesitate to flaunt her association with him. Early in the morning of April 3, 1865, as Federal troops were advancing on the city, she assisted her servants in raising a smuggled Stars and Stripes above the Van Lew mansion. This was going too far for the crowd in the streets, and a mob soon threatened to burn down the house. But Van Lew stood defiantly on the balcony. ‘I know you, and you and you!’ she cried. ‘General Grant will be in this city within the hour; if this house is harmed, your houses shall be burned by noon.’
Shortly after the war was over, Grant paid a visit to the proud spinster. They drank tea together on the columned porch of the Van Lew house. Perhaps Van Lew felt this recognition culminated the restoration of the Union and made her sacrifices worthwhile. She kept his calling card among her prize possessions until the end of her life.
Besides providing supplies and conveying information from incarcerated Federal officers, the Van Lews assisted in hiding escaped prisoners. The most famous escape from Libby Prison was led by Colonel Thomas E. Rose on February 8, 1864. A few officers dug a tunnel from a storeroom in the basement under the wall and under the adjoining street. The night of the planned break, the news spread throughout the prison, and 106 prisoners were able to escape before the guards discovered the tunnel.
Among the escapees was Brig. Gen. Abel D. Streight, who had been captured by Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest after a daring raid into Confederate territory. Van Lew him in his escape and hid him and several other officers in her house. Years later her niece recalled seeing her aunt touch a secret panel and a gaunt, unshaven man reach out toward the plate of food she was carrying. The niece later found the secret room under the eaves.
One of Van Lew’s most famous exploits remained a mystery until after the war. Even then, she was not usually given full credit for masterminding the removal and reburial of Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, the son of Rear Adm. John A. Dahlgren. The younger Dahlgren led Union troopers in a raid on Richmond that rapidly disintegrated, primarily because of Confederate foreknowledge. Dahlgren was killed in the retreat, and Confederate troops searched his body, cut off a finger for its ring, removed his valuable wooden leg and found orders to burn and sack Richmond and kill President Davis and his cabinet. The Richmond newspaper said no one knew where the body was, but that ‘It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service.’ Actually, Dahlgren was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in a section set apart from Federal soldiers.
Admiral Dahlgren personally requested the return of his son’s remains from President Davis. When the Confederates tried to disinter the body, they found the grave empty. Van Lew had enlisted her agents to remove it, place it in a metal coffin and smuggle it outside the city to a hidden resting place. After the evacuation of Richmond, it was delivered to Admiral Dahlgren and buried in Pennsylvania with great ceremony.
Although most of Richmond did not believe Crazy Bet to anything more than an eccentric Union sympathizer, she was often trailed by detectives seeking to confirm their suspicions that she was something more. At one point the grand jury issued warrants for Van Lew and her mother for ‘trafficking in greenbacks.’ Elizabeth’s mother became ill when she heard that a warrant had been issued against her, but nothing could be proved against either woman.
Although espionage was never proved against them, public sentiment soundly condemned both Mrs. and Miss Van Lew’s pro-Northern sympathies. The Richmond papers reported early in the war: ‘Whilst every true woman in this community had been busy marking articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil.’
Harassment continued. ‘I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things,’ Elizabeth wrote. She even went to President David himself to request protection. When it was not forthcoming, she persuaded Lieutenant Todd’s successor as Libby Prison commandant, a Lieutenant Gibbs, to board his family in the Van Lew house.
On at least one occasion Van Lew’s connection with General Butler was almost betrayed. She had a report on Richmond’s defenses ready to dispatch, but the expected courier did not arrive. As she walked along the street, a man approached her, whispered, ‘I’m going through tonight,’ and continued walking. When she passed the stranger again, he repeated his message, but she considered the risk too great and did not acknowledge him. The next day she recognized the man in his gray uniform as a Confederate regiment marched by.
In February 1865, the Union Secret service sent an English agent named Pole to Richmond. Along the way he met with numerous Union sympathizers and supposedly was to meet with Van Lew. Her journal records her anxiety and suspicion regarding this meeting. Pole went straight from Richmond to Confederate headquarters to betray his Union employers. Van Lew waited in terror as at least two other Union agents were arrested, but apparently Pole had not discovered enough to implicate her, because no charges were brought against her.
The day Richmond fell to the Union Army, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel to immediately place a guard around the Van Lew mansion. The aide-de-camp sent to personally protect Van Lew had to do some searching; she had gone to the Confederate capital to dig among the ashes of the archives for any documents that might be useful to the Union government.
In her voluminous journal, Van Lew maintained that she did not consider herself a spy nor wished to be referred to as such. ‘A person cannot be called a spy,’ she wrote, ‘for serving their country within its recognized borders. Am I now to be branded a spy by my own country for which I was willing to lay down my life…. God knows there is no vocation more ennobling, more honorable, and even the disgraceful word cannot stain my record.’
After the war, both Van Lew and her brother needed to find employment in order to save the tatters of the family fortune. General Sharpe did what he could to obtain a government grant for the family in light of its service and sacrifice for the Union cause. An indeterminate sum was forthcoming, and the house remained in the family. Near the end of her life, the family of Lt. Col. Paul Revere of Boston, whom she had aided while in Libby Prison, raised a purse for her to meet her expenses.
One of Grant’s first official acts upon his inauguration as president of the United States in 1869 was to appoint Van Lew postmaster of Richmond. He reappointed her during his second term, but she was replaced when President Rutherford B. Hayes took office. Later, she received a clerical appointment in the Post Office Department in Washington, which she held until she resigned at the beginning of President Grover Cleveland’s first administration.
Van Lew returned to Richmond for her remaining years, although she wrote in her journal, ‘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.’ Her companion at that time was her niece, also named Elizabeth Van Lew, who died in May 1899. Soon after her niece’s death, Van Lew suffered from what was probably congestive heart failure and lived her remaining months in the family mansion in the company of her 40 cats.
Elizabeth Van Lew died in 1900 and was buried in the family plot in Shockoe Cemetery, but for three years the grave was without a headstone. The roughly cut boulder doesn’t look like a grave marker until one reads the plaque. After the epitaph it reads: ‘This boulder from the capitol Hill in Boston is a tribute from Massachusetts Friends.’
This article was written by Ella Anderson and originally appeared in the July 1991 issue of America’s Civil War. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!