Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy
A member of the Richmond elite, one woman defied convention and the Confederacy and fed secrets to the Union during the Civil War.
One of the most effective was Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew—a prominent member of Richmond, Virginia, society. The 43-year-old lived with her widowed mother in a three-story mansion in the Confederate capital, but she fervently opposed slavery and secession, writing her thoughts in a secret diary she kept buried in her backyard and whose existence she would reveal only on her deathbed.
Read more at Smithsonian.com.
The Van Lew mansion
Elizabeth Van Lew lived at 2301 East Grace Street (now the location of Bellevue Elementary School):
The first Union flag to wave over Richmond in four years was raised in 1865 by this famous and effective Union spy. Born into a prominent Richmond family, Elizabeth Van Lew returned from her schooling in Philadelphia as an adamant abolitionist determined to fight slavery in the bastion of the South. “Slave power,” she wrote in her diary, “is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic.” Outspoken and rebellious, she appeared to her neighbors to be more than a little eccentric and soon became known as “Crazy Bet.”
After Virginia seceded and Fort Sumter fell, she used her reputation for innocuous idiosyncracy as a shield behind which her shrewd and resourceful mind devised schemes to abet the Union cause from within Richmond. Her first target was the Confederate Libby Prison, which imprisoned Union captives. Pretending to make a merely humanitarian gesture, Van Lew brought baskets of food, medicine, and books to the prisoners. What she brought out would have shocked the guards she learned to charm and deceive.
Not only did Van Lew help some prisoners escape, she also gleaned valuable information from various sources inside the prison. Newly arrived Union prisoners secretly recounted the strength and dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen on their way from the front to Richmond. Of even more use was information carelessly conveyed to the “harmless Crazy Bet” by Confederate guards and by the prison’s Confederate commandant, Lieutenant David H.Todd (Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother).
She even managed to penetrate the home of President Jefferson Davis by convincing one of her former servants to secure a position in the Davis household staff. At first, Van Lew simply mailed the information she retrieved in letters posted to Federal authorities. As her work continued, her methods grew more sophisticated. She devised a code involving words and letters that prisoners would underline in the books she lent them.
Van Lew also sent her household servants—though she had freed the family’s slaves, many of them chose to stay with her—northward carrying baskets of farm produce. Each basket held some eggs, one of which contained encoded messages in place of its natural contents. She sent her information directly to Benjamin Butler as well as to Grant through an elaborate courier system. It was so fast and effective that General Grant often received flowers still fresh from his spy’s large garden. Grant would later say of her efforts, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”
After the war, President Grant rewarded Van Lew with a job as postmistress of Richmond, which she held from 1869 to 1877. Although revered in the North, she was, needless to say, ostracized by her Richmond neighbors. “No one will walk with us on the street,” she wrote, “no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on.” Failing to be reappointed postmistress under Rutherford B. Hayes, she lived on a annuity from the family of a Union soldier she bad helped in Libby Prison. She died in Richmond, probably in 1900.
Someone on etsy actually made Elizabeth Van Lew jewelry
And you guys should know by now that I love Van Lew SO
Not as much as Nathan Hale, of course, but enough that I could spend my life reading info on her and never get bored.
So now I gotta ask myself
which one do I wanna splurge on?
"The most hated woman in Virginia"
Elizabeth Van Lew is born in 1818 into a wealthy slave owning household. She was a woman of means living in the finest mansion on Church Hill, but the Quaker educated Van Lew comes to abhor the institution – of humans owning humans.
She secretly starts freeing her slaves following her father’s passing 20 years ‘before’ the Emancipation Proclamation. The decision sets the unmarried Van Lew on a crash course with her fellow Virginians.
VIA: Church Hill People’s News / http://chpn.net/news/2013/05/10/the-most-hated-woman-in-virginia_27431/
Church Hill Hall of Fame
What if there were a Church Hill Hall of Fame? Who over the past few centuries has made their mark enough to be remembered?
I’ve got 6 people that seem like shoe-ins, listed from most recent and going back… Who else would you nominate?
VIA: Church Hill People’s News / http://chpn.net/news/2013/01/12/church-hill-hall-of-fame_25716/
In recent months, I’ve begun to think more about Richmond, Virginia than ever before. I’d passed through there a time or two but, beyond remembering that my cousin Sanfred’s mother-in-law was Selma Fink of the Richmond Finks (right, Fred?), I never gave it much thought. Now, however, three things have coalesced in my consciousness and they all revolve around Richmond. Happily, none of these three things relate to Eric Cantor who, alas, “represents” that district in Congress.
Rather, what brings me to write about Richmond is a wonderful young person by the name of Emily May. More on her in a bit. First the other two ditties about Richmond.
On yesterday’s CBS Sunday Morning, Bill Geist, as only he could do, shared his experiences on the Tacky Lights Bus Tour of Richmond. ‘Nuf said. See for yourself if you dare.
Today, I happened on a podcast that introduced me to Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond woman who, during the Civil War, feigned insanity and was the city pariah. So convincing was she, that no one suspected she was running a spy ring for the Union. They called her “Crazy Bet.” After the war, she met General Grant who thanked her for her service. Once he became President, Grant named her Postmaster. And why not? She had certainly proven her abilities at delivering messages. She’s even a member of the military intelligence hall of fame. At the time of her induction, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t oxymoronic. Further making me a fan of this woman is the fact that she sponsored and opened a library for African Americans in 1876 Richmond. I can only imagine what died in the wool confederates made of that. If I’ve whetted your appetite to learn more about Elizabeth Van Lew, you can read more about her here.
But the primary reason for writing today, is to encourage you and everyone you know to look at the great work Emily May does. This Richmond native is building a movement to end street harassment. In its first year as a 501(c)3 (nonprofit organization), Hollaback! has grown from 5 to 45 cities. What started in New York City is now in 16 countries in 9 languages. Emily is a social entrepreneur of the highest magnitude. Can you tell I’m impressed? So is Time Magazine. They call her a game changer. Watch this (after the a 15 second ad, sorry): Game Changer: Emily May. Idea mensch wrote a great profile of her too — http://ideamensch.com/emily-may/. I’m privileged to be her go-to proposal prep person (a/k/a writer/editor). If you want to have a Happy Holladay…you would do well to donate to Hollaback! Thanks!