Born into a prominent Richmond, Virginia family, Elizabeth Van Lew arrived on October 17, 1818. Her father, John Van Lew, moved to Richmond when he was 26. Partnering with the Adams family, he established a commercial farm, which later failed after amassing a debt of approximately $100,000. John paid his share of the debt and then started what became his prosperous hardware business.
On a trip to Philadelphia, he met and married his wife, Elizabeth Baker, daughter of the city’s former mayor. He brought her to Richmond where they built a beautiful home – a magnificent mansion 3-1/2 stories high on a hill overlooking the church where Patrick Henry had given his famous speech. Three children were born to the couple, with Elizabeth being the youngest. Her parents’ social standing resulted in a number of famous individuals being entertained in their home; including Chief Justice John Marshall, poet Edgar Allen Poe and opera singer Jenny Lind.
Though born in the South, she attended school in Philadelphia, after being tutored at home during her early years. While in Philadelphia, she became an adamant abolitionist and developed within her the determination to help end slavery in the South. It is thought a portion of her influence also came from her mother. In her diary, Elizabeth stated, “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the … opinions and principles of my locality.” She described herself as “uncompromising, ready to resent what seemed wrong, quick and passionate but not bad tempered or vicious. … This has made my life sad and earnest.”
John Van Lew died when Elizabeth was 25. Her outward behavior now began to reflect her inward beliefs. Shortly after her father’s death, Elizabeth and her mother freed the family’s slaves; after which the majority of them remained in the home as paid employees. When she would learn of slaves or their children being sold by neighbors, she bought these individuals and freed them as well.
Elizabeth was known for her inoffensive peculiarities and hid behind this reputation after the Battle of Fort Sumter and the secession of Virginia from the Union. What appeared as a harmless oddity, however, served to mask a shrewd and resourceful mind. This she used to further the cause of the Union within Richmond. She considered Virginia’s secession to be a crime and fell to her knees as she witnessed a torchlight parade, bemoaning the providence of her adored nation.
Libby Prison was used by the Confederates to harbor Union captives. Elizabeth used the prison as her starting point to begin her crusade. Accompanied by her mother, she would carry in baskets containing medicine, books and food for the prisoners. They also provided bedding and clothes. Applying her genteel and charming Southern ways on the Confederate guards, she was able to remove from the prison things which would have labeled her a traitor had she been caught. She also convinced Confederate physicians to transfer some of the prisoners to the local hospital. Her efforts not only helped a number of the prisoners to escape; she also gained information about the strengths and weaknesses of the Confederate troops from newly captured Union soldiers.
‘Harmless Crazy Bet’ was also the recipient of information from loose-lipped Confederate guards and the prison commandant, Lieutenant David H. Todd (half brother of Mary Todd Lincoln). In the beginning, Elizabeth would mail the information she gleaned to the various Federal authorities. With continuing practice, she refined her methods to more sophisticated levels. Utilizing the books she lent them, Union prisoners underlined various letters and words which served as coded messages. The cipher code she developed was later found on the back part of her watch after she died.
The household of President Jefferson Davis also fell prey to Elizabeth’s efforts. One of her servants, Mary, secured employment on his staff and became Elizabeth’s eyes and ears in the president’s home. While acting in a somewhat dimwitted manner, Mary – who Elizabeth had sent to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia – was able to memorize what she heard, word-for-word, and then transfer this information to Elizabeth. On the occasions when they met near the Van Lew farm, Elizabeth disguised herself as a poor country woman to deter suspicion.
Other former servants carried produce from the Van Lews’ farm northward, each containing a few eggs. The contents of one egg were removed and encoded messages placed inside. Union General Benjamin Butler was the designated recipient of these messages, who then forwarded them on to General Grant. Elizabeth and Benjamin acted in such a timely manner; the garden flowers Elizabeth used to cover the contents were still fresh when Grant received them.
Elizabeth’s caring attitude toward the Yankee soldiers enraged the citizens of Richmond. On numerous occasions, searches were made of her home, thus she was careful never to keep a full journal; but instead, just sketchy comments. Threats, scowls and frowns became the order of the day, with brave men shaking fingers in her face accompanied by vicious words. Elizabeth and her mother also dealt with a continuous string of detectives trailing them everywhere they went. It was no longer uncommon for her to notice strange faces observing her from around the pillars of the back portico.
In an effort to protect herself, she ‘put on a front’ by mumbling under her breath as she walked the streets with her head slightly bent, dressed in worn-out clothes and bonnets. Her behavior was intended to counter the beliefs of Richmond’s citizens that a spy would keep a low profile. Elizabeth intentionally called attention to herself to alleviate suspicion.
Over the course of the war, Elizabeth’s covert operations expanded. Her antics in espionage solicited the involvement of numerous individuals throughout the greater Richmond area. Utilizing the help of factory workers, farmers, laundresses, storekeepers and slaves/servants, Elizabeth received messages from Union agents and escaped prisoners. She continued her regular contacts with General Butler and developed a working relationship with several clerks in the navy and war departments of the Confederacy. Learning of a Confederate plan to transfer 1,000+ Union prisoners, Elizabeth informed her sources of the event, which allowed a plan of attack to be developed in an effort to free the soldiers. The ciphered message she created is now archived with official Civil War records:
“It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon, all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker knows this to be true. They are building batteries on Danville Road. This from Quaker. Beware of new and rash councils. This I send to you by direction of all your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them…. Forces probably could be called in from five to ten days; 25,000 mostly artillery, Stokes’s, and Kemper’s brigades go to North Carolina. Pickett’s is in or around Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by Lee for want of horses. . . . “
Elizabeth’s efforts in this case, however, were for naught. The old saying, “Loose lips sink ships,” became a reality of sorts after Union officials planned the major maneuver. In the process of arranging the attack, too many people learned of the operation and word got out. When, on February 28, 1864, the Union troops descended on Richmond from two different points, the raid quickly fell apart. Confederate foreknowledge, coupled with the Union’s inability to cross the James River, resulted in the Union troops retreating, after suffering a number of casualties; one of which was Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, 22-year old son of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren.
Shortly after this event, Elizabeth preceded novelist Jack Finney when she acted out her own version of The Body Snatchers. Following the ill-fated operation and the death of Colonel Dahlgren, his body was casually buried alongside the road by Confederate soldiers. President Jefferson Davis later ordered Dahlgren’s body to be placed in a coffin and reburied among other Union graves in the Richmond area.
Though the burial took place at night, Elizabeth learned the grave’s location through information from a Negro who, while in the cemetery that night, left a marker on Dahlgren’s grave. She then coordinated her body snatching operation in which four men dug up the casket one night, removed the body and reburied the casket. They carried the remains to W.C. Rowley’s farm. Elizabeth waited for them at this location, provided a new metal coffin for Colonel Dahlgren and had the coffin buried on a farm outside Richmond. She then sent word of the event to General Butler. By now, Admiral Dahlgren had gained permission to have his son’s body returned to him. When the Confederate soldiers dug up the coffin they had buried containing Dahlgren’s remains and discovered it empty, the mystery buzzed throughout Richmond for the course of the war.
Even the cleverest of espionage professionals occasionally cross paths with someone seeking to smoke them out, and Elizabeth was no exception. Expecting to meet up with a Union scout to transfer a report, she was approached by a man who whispered to her, “I’m going through tonight.” Given the fact the gentleman did not identify himself; she first felt maybe he was in a bit of a hurry. As she quickly walked past him, she heard him reply, “I’m going through the lines tonight.” She now sensed something about these remarks was unusual and walked away. The following morning, she spotted this same man as part of a Confederate regiment. Unlike Belle Boyd, who had fallen for such a trap and been caught, Elizabeth eluded detection.
On an early Sunday morning in April 1865, Confederate soldiers marched out of Richmond as General Lee’s lines were giving way to invading Union troops. The town was in a panic when shells exploded, powder magazines and gunboats were blown up and fires rapidly spread. As the prisons were emptied of the Union soldiers they held, Elizabeth now made her grand gesture, despite what it would cost her. With the help of several servants, Elizabeth climbed on the roof of her home and unfurled a 34-star Union flag. These actions riled her neighbors, who began to shout “Burn her place down!”
Elizabeth stood her ground, pointed to various individuals and stated she knew who they were. Reporting to them the fact General Grant would arrive in town within the hour, she stated if anything happened to her home, she would report all of them to him and if her house burned, theirs would too. They took her seriously and left the house alone. Grant did arrive and later paid a visit, where he enjoyed tea and a conversation with her on the porch. Grant remarked, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”
In return for all she had done, when Grant became president after the war, he placed her in the position of Richmond’s postmistress. She held this job from 1869 to 1877. When Rutherford B. Hayes became president, he gave the job to someone else. Now unemployed, Elizabeth’s only source of income was an annuity from a Union soldier she had helped while he was incarcerated at Libby Prison.
Though the fact is not known for sure, it is believed Elizabeth died in Richmond in 1900. Though loved in the North for what she accomplished during the war, the citizens of Richmond no longer had anything to do with her. Ostracized by her neighbors, Elizabeth later wrote, “No one will walk with us on the street. No one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on.”
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