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Elizabeth Van Lew

By Elizabeth Bickford

By Elizabeth Bt“Crazy Bette,” that is one of the names by which Elizabeth Van Lew was known. A very effective Union Spy in the Capitol of the Confederacy, Miss Van Lew cut a wide swath through Confederate plans and Richmond, Virginia’s social circles.  Born in Richmond on October 15, 1818, she was the only daughter of John Van Lew, a prominent and prosperous hardware merchant who had relocated from Long Island. Elizabeth’s mother, Eliza Baker, from Philadelphia, was the daughter of Hilary Baker, abolitionist and an early Mayor of that “City of Brotherly Love.”

From an early age Elizabeth and her brother, John Newton, were exposed to abolitionist thoughts and ideals. When she was quite young her parents sent her to be educated at a Quaker School in Philadelphia. This time spent with her relatives, their friends and other students at the school, galvanized Elizabeth into a full-fledged abolitionist. When she returned to Richmond after her father’s death in 1843, her heart burned with a passion to see slavery overturned. The first place to begin was at home, because, despite his wife’s abolitionist leanings, John Van Lew owned slaves. 

Upon his passing, Elizabeth convinced her brother, John Newton, to free their father’s slaves. Staying true to her mission, Elizabeth then took her entire inheritance and bought the relatives of their former slaves so that she could free them, as well.

The American Civil War provided an ideal opportunity for Miss Van Lew to pursue her cause in earnest.  At first she ministered to Union prisoners who came to Libby, Belle Isle or Pemberton Prisons. Her contact with fellow abolitionists strengthened her zeal. She was perfectly situated, in society and, within the City of Richmond, to be able to gather secret information about the Confederacy and send it on to Union Generals. And, in addition to gathering secrets, she also smuggled people across enemy lines. Further, she set up an underground network of spies and established funding that was used to bribe officials for information.

Her incredible espionage abilities, such as creating networks, identities, raising monies,  disguising herself, and committing acts of derring-do, elevated Elizabeth to the head of the Union Spy Network in Richmond. She held that position until the end of the Civil War.

After the war was over, President Ulysses S. Grant, a man with whom she had much contact during the previous five years, granted her a Postmaster’s position in Richmond.  Feisty to the end, it is reported that one Sunday morning in church, the minister was extolling the virtues of the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, and Miss Van Lew arose from her seat, and exclaimed, “I came to worship Jesus Christ, not Robert E. Lee,” as she strode out of the chapel.

And, while she was beloved by her Unionist colleagues, she was reviled by her Confederate neighbors.  She had no family, and after her death, her house was burned to the ground by residents of Richmond.

To this day, Elizabeth Van Lew’s skills and bravery are lionized. She is a member of the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.  https://military.wikia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Van_Lew

Sources:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth Van Lew

https://www.civilwarrichmond.com/prisons/libby-prison

https://www.geni/people/Elizabeth-Van-Lew-Union-spy/6000000017018736742

 Image:           “Van Lew, Elizabeth ,” House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at   Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/6763.

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