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 educated in a Philadelphia Quaker school, where she became an abolitionist. When she returned to her family's home in Richmond -- where they were among the wealthiest and most socially prominent families -- she convinced her mother to free the family's slaves.
After the war started, 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; 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 and 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. Bowser passed what she learned to fellow slaves, and with Van Lew's aid, this valuable information eventually made its way to General Grant.
After the war, Grant appointed Elizabeth Van Lew as postmistress of Richmond and she was largely shunned by her neighbors. She had spent most of her money in her pro-Union activities, and, although she stayed in the family mansion until her death in 1900, Elizabeth Van Lew died in poverty, living only on an annuity from the family of a Union soldier she had helped.
The black businesswoman, Maggie Lena Walker, was the daughter of Elizabeth Draper who had been a slave and servant in Elizabeth Van Lew's home. Maggie Lena Walker's stepfather was William Mitchell, Elizabeth Van Lew's butler.)
- 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.
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Text copyright 1999-2010 © Jone Johnson Lewis.