She grew up in a wealthy family in Richmond, Virginia, surrounded by nannies and house servants who were slaves owned by her father. He wanted her to have a classic education so, to supplement her studies completed at home, she attended a boarding school in Philadelphia. She was involved in the social activities common for young ladies within the upper-class of her day. To most observers, she was a typical Southern Belle.
But, those observers would be proven very wrong!
Elizabeth Van Lew was the daughter of a prominent Richmond merchant, John Van Lew, who built a successful hardware and farm implement company. He had purchased several slaves to provide labor for his business, which included some light manufacturing, and then, as his wealth increased, he bought other slaves to work in his home. His children, including Elizabeth, were accustomed to service by slaves who were butlers, cooks, maids, and nannies. By all accounts, her father was a benevolent slaveholder; as incongruous as that statement might sound today.
At age 15, Elizabeth was sent to a Quaker School for young women in Philadelphia where she came to believe that slavery was “against God’s law” and should be abolished; a basic tenet of that religious organization. While she never officially became a Quaker, after her return to Richmond, she tried for years to convince her father to free his slaves but he refused. Her brother, John, was ambivalent towards slavery, believing that it should and would eventually be abolished, but did not share his sister’s zeal and was not ready to oppose his father. However, upon their father’s death in 1843, Elizabeth persuaded her mother and brother to not only release the Van Lew slaves, most of whom stayed on to work for wages, but to also use part of their inheritance to acquire and free the relatives of their former slaves who were owned by others.
Elizabeth’s opposition to slavery was well known in Richmond and she was often called an abolitionist, but Elizabeth was offended by the label, saying, “I was never an abolitionist. (They) are fanatics. I paid dearly in the loss of many friends, but I was never a fanatic.”
The distinction to her was that she and her family simply lived their principles. Elizabeth did not personally criticize or provoke local slaveholders, many of whom were her neighbors and friends. And, while she would express her opinion that slavery should be ended, she did not engage in illegal activity to encourage slaves to escape.
Elizabeth, and to a lesser extent, John, also found themselves at odds with most of her family’s friends over another issue that was simmering in the South. Although both loved their state of Virginia and were proud of their southern heritage, they were also known to be opposed to secession from the United States, an idea that had been periodically proposed in Virginia (and the rest of the South) since the 1830’s.
However, because they expressed their opinions on slavery and secession quietly and without confrontation, John and Elizabeth remained active and respected in Richmond social and political circles.
Until the War!
In December, 1860 the tide of secessions by other Southern states began, followed by the formation of the Provisional Confederate States of America. At first, John and Elizabeth were relieved when Virginia politicians did not rush to secede or to join the Confederacy. However, in May, 1861, a month after Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter, Virginia citizens voted to also secede from the United States.
Elizabeth and John had both hoped that Virginia would not join the Confederate movement and remain in the Union as had Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware; the four other so-called Border States which also permitted slavery. To their dismay, not only did Virginia secede in May 1861, but the state also agreed that Richmond, the city where they had spent their entire lives, would become the Capital of the Confederate States of America.
Both the brother and sister opposed secession in part because they revered the critical roles of their fellow Virginians, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in the founding of the United States and its Constitutional government. However, they also pragmatically feared that any Union invasion would devastate their beloved state of Virginia.
Their fears were well founded.
After Virginia seceded and land battles of the Civil War began to occur on Virginia soil, Richmond became a center for the care of Confederate wounded and the holding of Union wounded and prisoners of war. Elizabeth was naturally a compassionate woman and helped care for wounded soldiers from both sides, but she soon saw the need for someone to offer basic aid to the growing number of Northern prisoners. She obtained permission from the interim prison commander to provide food and some medical care; and, in an irony of history, that prison commander was Confederate Lieutenant David Todd, the half-brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln.
Elizabeth’s visits to the prisoners became more frequent when she started to receive aid packages from northern relief organizations and she even enlisted several former Van Lew slaves to assist in her efforts. As a result, the citizens of Richmond began to criticize Elizabeth for her lack of support for the Confederacy and her empathy toward the imprisoned Union soldiers. Based on complaints by local politicians and newspaper publishers, Lt. Todd revoked her visitation rights; however, she immediately appealed to the Provost Marshall of Richmond, General John Winder, who allowed her to continue her services. When asked how she managed to regain access to the prisoners, Elizabeth said; “Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great.”
Elizabeth felt that the various state secessions, the formation of the new Confederate government, and the willingness of its leaders to risk Civil War, were primarily to perpetuate slavery; which she abhorred. So, her mission began to gradually change from one of compassion to resistance. Although she must have spoken with her brother about her plan to aid the Union cause as a spy, John seems to have never been directly involved and remained active in the hardware business founded by their father. However, John’s anti-secessionist stance and refusal to serve in the Confederate Army soon began to undermine his business in Richmond.
In 1863, Elizabeth helped several Union prisoners escape through enemy lines, after first hiding them for a few days in a secret room in her home. She also collected information from talkative Confederate officers and politicians and forwarded dispatches to Union Generals utilizing both escaping prisoners and a small group of civilian spies and couriers who, like her, also opposed secession and/or slavery. Her network came to include a clerk in the Confederate War Department and several of her former slaves, including Mary Bowser, who worked in prominent households in Richmond. Miss Bowser, who had been taught to read and write by the Van Lew family, reportedly worked for a while in the Confederate President’s mansion where she was able to surreptitiously interpret documents and glean information useful to the Union.
It seems that the longer the war continued, the more brazen Elizabeth became. In 1863, at great risk to her own life, Elizabeth harbored several Confederate deserters in her home’s secret room until they could safely escape Richmond. And, in one instance she guided a small Union force to a holding area outside Richmond in an attempt to free a group of prisoners and re-captured slaves.
Always a thorn in the side of Southern officials, at one point Elizabeth publicly protested the intentionally disrespectful manner in which a Confederate Army unit had disposed of the body of Union Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, who was killed during a raid to free Union prisoners. So, in perhaps her most audacious act, she secretly led a small group to the burial site, which was under watch by southern soldiers, dis-interred the body, and hid it in a secret location. She then arranged for her courier network to eventually return the remains to the officer’s family.
Elizabeth continued her espionage efforts and sent regular dispatches, sometimes concealed in hollowed out eggs, to Union Generals Benjamin Butler and Ulysses S. Grant. When Richmond fell to Union Forces on April 2, 1865, Elizabeth raised the United States flag at her home, reportedly the first civilian in the city to do so. Her prior opposition to slavery and to secession by Virginia, and her obvious sympathy for the Union prisoners of war already had caused resentment by many in Richmond; and the raising of the Union banner was perceived as adding insult to injury. Then as the depth of her cooperation with the Union as a spy became known in Richmond, Elizabeth was shunned by almost everyone and remained a social outcast until her death in 1900.
A Richmond newspaper, attempting to explain how she had remained undiscovered, speculated that she was able to fool Confederate officials by acting “addled” and referred to her as “Crazy Bet” in an unflattering article. However, Elizabeth, in her journals, indicated the “Crazy Bet” story was not only insulting but un-necessary as she simply relied on flattery, deception, and cunning; and she certainly benefited from the chivalry toward women prevalent in that Victorian era.
While Elizabeth was moderately wealthy before the War, by 1865 her financial situation was dire. The hardware business founded by her father and owned by her brother had nearly collapsed during the War, and only provided a meager income to John and his family. Since Elizabeth, who had never married, had used almost all of her inherited wealth to aid prisoners of war, to support escaping slaves, and to fund her spy network, for the next year, she lived nearly penniless in the family home. Then, a few Union Generals, who had benefited from her efforts, learned of her plight, and began to provide minor financial support and when Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in 1868, he appointed her Postmistress of Richmond. She remained a postal employee until 1887; although she was relegated to clerical status when President Rutherford B. Hayes installed his own postmaster in 1877. When she finally retired from the Post Office, the group of Union Generals established a small annuity which supplemented her retirement income for the rest of her life.
Nearly one hundred years after her death, Elizabeth was honored with induction into the U.S. Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
Elizabeth Van Lew never moved from her Richmond home and for the rest of her life she tolerated the indifference and outright animosity of neighbors and former friends. But, she never wavered and said that she was satisfied that she had followed her conscience and contributed to the reunification of her country.
And, she was able to witness the end of slavery in America.
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