Sunday, November 20, 2005

Elizabeth Van Lew, Civil War Spy

Elizabeth Van Lew was born October 17, 1818 in Richmond, Virginia to a prominent, wealthy family. She gained her education in a Philadelphia Quaker school where she eventually became an abolitionist. When she returned to her family's home in Richmond she convinced her mother to free the family's slaves.

After the Civil War started, she openly supported the Union. She took items of clothing, food and medicine to the prisoners at the Confederate Libby Prison and passed information to U.S. General Grant, spending much of her family fortune to support her espionage. She is thought to have also helped prisoners escape from Libby Prison. To hide her activities she took on an alias name of "Crazy Bet," dressing oddly. She was never arrested for her spying activites.

Her espionage activities even reached as far as the Confederate White House. One of the Van Lew emancipated slaves, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, whose education in Philadelphia was financed by Elizabeth, returned to Richmond and Elizabeth helped her to get employment in the Confederate White House. As a maid, Bowser was ignoed as she served meals and overheard conversations. She was also able to read documents she found in the House. Bowser passed what she learned to fellow slaves, and with Van Lew's aid, this valuable information was also shared with General Grant.

After the war ended, Grant appointed Van Lew as postmistress of Richmond where she was largely shunned by her neighbors. She had spent most of her money on her pro-Union activities, and, although she stayed in the family mansion until her death in 1990, she died in poverty, living only on an annuity from the family of a Union soldier she had helped.

Elizabeth Van Lew was truly a remarkable and "gutsy" woman!

Copyright M. A. Webb, 2005. All Rights Reserved

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