By John E. Carey
Alive with spies, merchants, military men and government agents, Civil War Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital, provided a crossroads for people of all walks of life. One of the more devious and committed was Miss Elizabeth van Lew, an unnoticed spy for the Union cause in plain sight amid the commotion.
Born the daughter of wealth and privilege, Miss Van Lew spent her childhood in a columned mansion atop exclusive Church Hill in Richmond. Family owned household slaves catered to the wishes of her family. Miss Van Lew’s father, John, a wealth hardware vendor, entertained pre-war Richmond society and sent his daughter to his wife’s home town of Philadelphia for her schooling. After Miss Van Lew’s “finishing” in Philadelphia, she returned to Richmond, but she had changed significantly. In Philadelphia, Miss Van Lew became an ardent abolitionist.
Although both of Miss Van Lew’s parents were northerners, they had completely adopted, at least outwardly, the mores and ways of pre-war Richmond. But Miss Van lew secreted her abolitionist beliefs. Although she always maintained that she was a good and loyal southerner, she could not agree with slavery or the war. These feelings probably were formed in her childhood, even before her schooling in Philadelphia. “From the time I knew right from wrong, “ she wrote, “it was my sad privilege to differ in many things from the …opinions and principles of my locality.”
Elizabeth’s abolitionist beliefs were heartfelt and strong. When the Swedish novelist Fredericka Bremer, one of the first “feminists,” visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth Van Lew, who was then thirty. Bremer described Miss Van Lew as “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”
Despite their beliefs, Miss Van Lew and her Mother continued to live within the societal rules of Richmond and did not openly or publicly advocate freeing the slaves. They even kept their own slaves in bondage. Elizabeth R. Varnon, Van Lew biographer and author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, wrote, “Elizabeth and her mother…did not practice overt abolitionism but rather a kind of double life – their outward conformity to social conventions masked their inner doubts about slavery.”
Though prohibited from doing so by John Van Lew’s will, Elizabeth and her mother allowed the slaves to drift further and further toward freedom. The slaves were allowed to earn salaries, travel, and generally, if eventually become free. But once free, the Van Lew’s former slaves lacked the appropriate paperwork for “freedmen” in Virginia.
Elizabeth even went so far as to pick out a young slave girl for education in the north. Mary Elizabeth Bowser would become a life-long Van Lew loyalist in return for her education. The full account of Mary Bowser is sketchy and she certainly had aliases. But if local tradition and conversation can be believed, she was an integral part of the Van Lew spy ring.When the Civil War started, Elizabeth van Lew immediately knew her loyalty and her mission belonged with the Union. When she first saw the Confederate flag flying over Richmond, she wrote, “Looking toward the capitol, I saw the flag of treason floating over it.”
Miss Van Lew arranged for Mary Elizabeth Bowser to work as a free black servant in the Jefferson davis household. She became Miss Van Lew’s eyes and ears, even the occasional collector of valuable papers, in the inner circle of the Confederacy.
By some accounts, Mary Bowser pretended to be “dull and unaware” but in fact, many after the conflict became convinced she had a photographic memory. She listened to Jefferson Davis and his visitors discussing war strategy, troop movements and other government business. She dutifully reported all to her Mistress, Miss Van Lew.
Using her own spinster plainness and merciful heart as her “cover,” Elizabeth van Lew began a regular visitation routine with the Union soldiers she called “the dear boys” held as prisoners in nearby Libby prison. At the same time, she set up ways to send information north to Federal military commanders. Fresh from the front, captured Union soldiers were a wealth of information on the Confederate military situation. They had been transported behind enemy lines and inside Richmond without blindfolds. Miss Van Lew began to send intelligence northward, explaining to the Confederates that she only communicated with the families of prisoners – an act of mercy and kindness.
By late 1863 and early 1864, in the north, people began to realize the pain and suffering of the soldiers held in Libby prison and then at Belle island. Harpers Weekly published drawings of the gaunt, emaciated and dying prisoners along with many first hand account of their privations. Some of the prisoners’ pleas for help were smuggled out of Richmond by Elizabeth van Lew and her cohorts.
At first Miss Van Lew used the mail to transmit information. Then she developed a code, used invisible ink and left messages in books and reassembled empty eggshells hidden in baskets of goodies. Most of her espionage was “hidden in plain sight.”
At a time when Union sympathizers were hanged in Richmond, Miss Van Lew managed to maintain a successful spy operation that was never discovered or even mush suspected, even though she was growing less secretive about her abolitionist beliefs.
Through the van Lew courier system, information, troop dispositions, even home grown van Lew flowers for General Grant moved northward. When the Libby prison inmates staged a tunnel breakout, Miss van Lew his many of the escapees in her Church Hill mansion.
In March, 1864, Miss Van Lew participated in the still controversial “Dahlgren Raid” on Richmond. Colonel Ulrich Dahlgren, USA, the youngest colonel in the Army at the age of 21, and son on Naval artillery expert rear Admiral John Dahlgren, engineered a daring raid on Richmond. The one-legged Union colonel marched his men around Richmond, seeking ways to penetrate the city’s defenses. He was supposed to rendezvous with some 3,000 cavalry troops led by General Judson Kilpatrick, but nothing went as planned in the raid. At Cary Road, Dahlgren’s force was confronted by three hundred armed men of the Home Guard. In the altercation that ensued, Dahlgren was killed. The Confederates mutilated Dahlgren’s body and then hastily, and ignominiously, buried him. Miss Van Lew found the buried body of Dahlgren and had it removed and reburied in a safer place.
On April 3, 1864, as Union forces reclaimed Richmond, Miss Elizabeth van Lew had the largest Union flag she could find hoisted atop Church Hill. For the first time since succession in 1861, the pre-war flag of all Americans flew above the city. But this act of respect, allegiance and defiance won Miss Van Lew no friends in old Richmond society. Tongues wagged and Elizabeth Van Lew’s loyalty became a topic for the following decades.
When General Grant arrived in the desolate, burning, beaten Richmond, Miss Van Lew hosted him to tea. Grant paid Miss Van Lew the highest compliment a wartime general could give to a citizen of a beleaguered enemy city. Grant honored Miss Van Lew with the words, “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”
After the war, Miss Van Lew continued to ignore the arbiters of proper conduct in the former Rebel capital. She found Colonel Dahlgren’s body and returned it north to his family and his nation. The people of Richmond were incensed. Newspapers in Richmond had full reports of the honors and ceremonies that greeted the young colonel: a guard of honor, laying in state, and a spectacular funeral. The papers recounted that Oliver Wendell Holmes eulogized Dahlgren while he quietly condemned Richmond. The locals in Richmond hated Miss van Lew even more after they endured this spectacle.
Miss Van Lew would spend the rest of her life shunned and alone. Nobody in “proper” Richmond society would ever again speak to her.
When Grant became president, he appointed Miss van Lew postmistress in the district of Richmond. She stayed in that post, serving admirably, for eight years. But Richmond “society” still considered her the lowest form of turncoat.
In her old age, society Richmond called miss Van Lew “Crazy Bet.” She became a penniless recluse. She died in 1900.
Northern admirers placed a granite boulder over the grave of Miss Van Lew, and paid to have these words affixed: “Elizabeth van Lew 1818-1900. She risked everything that is dear to man – friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart, that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.”
Miss Elizabeth van Lew, a lady of her convictions, led a valiant yet tragic life as the finest Union spy and abolitionist in the Confederacy’s capital, Richmond.
By every rule of background, Miss Elizabeth Van Lew should have been among the Confederate women who hurried in and out of Jefferson Davis’s “Gray House” on fashionable Clay Street, knitted for the Southern boys, and wept softly to themselves as the Stars and Bars floated past the iron-balconied residences of Richmond.
Miss Van Lew was the daughter of a prominent Richmond citizen. Their house stood on one of the city’s most commanding hills, a mansion soaring three and a half stories high. And Elizabeth in her soft Southern voice always spoke of Virginians as “our people.”
Yet Miss Van Lew became a freak in Richmond, a woman whose existence was a protest against the beliefs of her class and region. Defying old friends, civil and military authorities, she opposed slavery and war. She poured out money and energy to assist Union soldiers, and gained the hatred of her neighbors. But Elizabeth Van Lew was more than the “fanatic” and “theorist” that most Richmonders considered her. For the four full years of war she operated as a dedicated and resourceful spy, according to several Northern generals, the best one inside the Confederate capital.
Her reputation as a Union sympathizer, though it brought her heavy censure, served as a blind behind which she practiced espionage, directing a band of assistants of assorted ranks and occupations. Miss “Lizzie” was so foolishly and openly attached to the North that most people considered her a silly, hysterical woman. A spy would be ‘ expected to be silent or speak the opposite of what he felt. Deviousness was the last thing to be looked for in anyone like Miss Van Lew.
Yet dissimulation, it seems clear, was actually the quality that she possessed above all others. Without it she could not have bribed farmers, used Confederate clerks and attorneys, maintained lasting contact with secret service men, and helped prisoners to escape. At times Miss Lizzie could be acid-tongued, scalding in her contempt; again she was gentle and flattering when it helped her to get what she wanted.
Prim and angular, nervous in movement, she had once been pretty, but by her early forties she had turned into an old maid. She was the same age as her fellow Virginian, Rose Greenhow, but she had no men in her life. Tiny, blondish, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose, Miss Van Lew went about with an “almost unearthly brilliance” in her blue eyes. The opposite of the seductive lady, she accomplished her ends without the help of charm or a lush figure or a coquette’s air.
Miss Lizzie served particularly the general whom Southerners regarded with marked dislike, U. S. Grant. After the victorious Union army arrived in Richmond, one of Grant’s first visits was to the spinster’s home. Proudly, her ringlets bobbing, she received him for tea. Nevertheless, some years later, when a little girl demurred against meeting her, a “Yankee,” Elizabeth Van Lew bridled: “I’m not a Yankee.” For she maintained at all times that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .
Some Richmonders insisted the Van Lews had not, after all, come originally from the Old Dominion. Elizabeth’s father was from Long Island, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family. Going to Richmond at twenty-six, John Van Lew cast his lot in 1816 with a member of the well-established Adams family. Their commercial firm failed, owing a debt that the daughter recalled as a hundred thousand dollars. With the sense of rectitude strong among the Van Lews, he “honorably paid” his share. Then, starting again as a hardware dealer, Mr. Van Lew prospered magnificently.
On a trip to Philadelphia he met the daughter of that city’s late mayor, and brought her back as his bride. Of their three children, Elizabeth was, though least robust, the strongest willed. She was tutored, and given the best of academic and social training, and she soon grew proud of her family’s magnificent home on Church Hill, across from the church in which Patrick Henry called for liberty or death. The Adamses had lost the property, and the Van Lews acquired it.
‘Handsome as the building was, John Van Lew transformed it, adding the superb portico and other embellishments. For years the great of America and some from the Continent visited the house to admire the chandeliered parlors with their walls covered with brocaded silk, mantels of imported marble, the sixteen-foot hallway, the terraced gardens lined with boxwood, and the summerhouse at the edge of the James. Jenny Lind stopped there, when she sang her way across America, and Chief justice John Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe, who, it has been claimed, recited in one of the parlors.
From her earliest days Elizabeth was very close to her quiet mother. Then the girl left for school in Philadelphia, and Richmonders maintained that she “imbibed abolitionism” there. It appears, however, that she had always been a serious, introspective child. As she put it in a rather self-pitying analysis: “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilcge 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.”
When his daughter was twenty-five, Mr. Van Lew died, and his son John, as energetic as he was unspectacular, took over the hardware business with success. Meanwhile the bond between Elizabeth and her mother grew stronger. In the early i850s, when Fredericka Bremer, the Swedish novelist, visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth, who was then thirty, “a pleasing, pale blonde,” who “expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her.”
As the 1850s passed, this Richmonder did more than feel compassion for her slaves. She freed all the family servants (Elizabeth dominated her mother in such matters), and most of them stayed on in their jobs. Hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well. And she set down such firm opinions as: “Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state.”
Surviving today is an unusual manuscript of hundreds of pages, part diary, part reminiscences, confused yet vivid in many passages. In it Miss Lizzie recalls the days just before the war: “I was a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania.” From the hour of John Brown’s raid, “our people were in a palpable state of war.” In the general fury, rumors spread that Northern forces were immediately marching on Richmond. “The alarm bells would be rung, the tramp of armed men . . . heard through the night.”
About this time Miss Elizabeth started her pro-Northern activities by writing to Federal officials and telling them everything that was happening. In her recollections she pictured the Virginia Secession Convention, and quoted a number of women as asking: “Do you think the state will go out today? For if it does not, I cannot stand it any longer.” Upon this she commented: “God help us. Those were sorry days. . . .”
On April 17, 1861, Miss Van Lew first beheld the Confederate banner over Richmond. “Alas for those with loyalty in their hearts.” Through tears she watched a torchlight procession, and fell to her knees. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me. . . .” Friends understood her general sentiments, but some of them must have thought Miss Van Lew’s attitude would change. A delegation came to ask Elizabeth if she and her mother would make shirts for the troops.
The Van Lew ladies declined, but when they began to receive “personal threats” they agreed reluctantly to take religious books to the camps. If the people of Richmond thought the Van Lews had given in, they were wrong. An uneasy May and June passed. July brought the preparations for the first battle at Manassas. The two women saw the soldiers ride off to the applause and tossed roses of Richmond admirers. Their hearts sank when the South sent the Union Army reeling back. Through Richmond rolled wagons with dispirited Northern prisoners, and resentment against Yankees rose so high that no one dared speak to them.
A day or two later the Van Lews heard stories of suffering in the grim warehouse that was Libby Prison. Miss Lizzie went to Lieutenant Todd, the Confederate prisonkeeper (who was also Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s half-brother) and asked to be a hospital nurse. The lieutenant gasped. She didn’t mean she wanted to nurse those men! Why, he knew people who would be glad to “shoot the lot of them.”
Miss Van Lew next tried Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, with whom she was acquainted. Ah, he could not hear of such a thing. A class of men like that-they were “not worthy or fit for a lady to visit.” She changed her tactics and reminded Memminger of the time he gave a beautiful discourse on religion. His face beamed; so she had liked it? “I said that love was the fulfilling of the law, and if we wished ‘our cause’ to succeed, we must begin with charity to the thankless, the unworthy.” She won her point and the Secretary gave her a note to Provost Marshal Winder.
Once Miss Lizzie assured a friend: “Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great.” Now she proved it. With her gaze fixed on his white head, she smiled: “Your hair would adorn the Temple of Janus. It looks out of place here.” A few more such remarks, and she had her pass!
From then on Miss Van Lew called regularly at the prisons, until, as one man said, she shopped as much for the prisoners as for her own family. She carried clothes, bedding, medicines. Discovering sick men, she persuaded Confederate doctors to transfer them to hospitals. Some thanked her for their lives. As one of the Union secret service chiefs ultimately declared: “By her attractive manners and full use of money she soon gained control of the rebel prisons……… But before long the Van Lews were in the limelight, when newspapers singled them out.
Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners. . . . Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and murder. . . . Out upon all pretexts to humanity! . . . The course of these two females, in providing them with delicacies, bringing them books, stationery and paper, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsement of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.
The Van Lews did not take the hint. Instead, they expanded their activities. Learning of Lieutenant Todd’s taste for buttermilk and gingerbread, they plied him (shades of Mati Hari!) with these wholesome items. They worked similarly to gain favors from others. And Miss Lizzie’s enemies would have been even more indignant had they known she was getting military information from the Union prisoners. The day she first sent secret messages through the lines is not known, but it appears that she soon established contact with Union agents who slipped into Richmond on secret missions. The prisoners understood the meaning of Confederate troop movements, the shifting of regiments near the capital, and they and Miss Lizzie picked up hints from soldiers and guards.
Elizabeth’s servants were ready to leave the Van Lew mansion on a minute’s notice on innocent-looking errands. The Van Lews had a small vegetable garden out of town-an excuse for the Negroes to go in and out of Richmond. Not many people would poke into the soles of muddy brogans worn by an old colored man on a horse. Few would inspect a servant’s basket of eggs, one of which was an empty shell concealing a coded message.
The Confederate attitude toward Miss Lizzie’s prison visits varied. A commanding officer once asked her to stop bringing in special meals because it “subverted the consistency of prison rules.” Such orders inconvenienced but seldom halted her. During a tense period when she was ordered not to exchange a word with the prisoners, Elizabeth brought books. When the soldiers passed them back to her, the Confederates did not know that tiny pin pricks conveyed military data.
The spinster also slid notes into the “double-bottom” of a dish, originally intended to hold wan-n water. Advised that a suspicious guard planned a thorough inspection of the dish, Miss Van Lew prepared for him. When he reached for it she gave it up readily; for she had been holding it for some time cradled in her shawl. He let it go with a howl; she had taken care to fill the bottom with boiling water!
In the summer of i86i the Union seized fifteen Confederates as privateers on the vessel Savannah, and threatened to hang them. In retaliation Jefferson Davis ordered the same number of Federal soldiers held as hostages. Miss Lizzie protested and won the right to visit the endangered men, comforting them, bringing food, taking out forbidden letters. At this time the old maid developed a particular friendship for one of the condemned men, a young Colonel Paul Revere of Massachusetts. At one point she connived in his attempted escape. The danger of the mass hanging passed, and Colonel Revere eventually was exchanged, only to die later at Gettysburg.
Each incident meant intensified Confederate bitterness against Miss Van Lew. She did not dare keep a complete journal. “Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would now be of value. Keeping one’s house in order for Government inspection with Salisbury prison in prospective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment.” Again: “The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community-who can write of them? I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things………
Miss Lizzie once went to Jefferson Davis himself to request protection. Not many spies for one government asked the head of the opposing government for his aid! Mr. Davis’s secretary advised her to apply to the mayor, but she had a better thought, which grew out of the housing shortage. Lieutenant Todd was to have a successor as keeper of prisons-a captain with a family. The newcomer had to live somewhere, and Miss Van Lew knew just the place-her big house. While he stayed there with his “interesting family,” the Van Lews were left in peace.
It is hard to tell when the next step occurred in her evolution as a spy. Slowly, however, she took on a new, protective coloration. Richmond had long regarded her as a trifle odd. Elizabeth began to accentuate that oddity. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Richmonders glanced at one another and shook their heads. The prison guards gave her a new name: “Crazy Bet.” She lived up to her title, combing her curls less carefully, wearing her oldest clothes and most battered bonnets.
Yet there was nothing crazy in the next exploit credited to Miss Van Lew. Among the slaves she had liberated was slim, intelligent Mary Elizabeth Bowser, then living outside of Richmond. Mary Elizabeth returned at Miss Lizzie’s request and became the new house servant for the Jefferson Davises. The Union now had its spy in the household of the Confederate President. The girl apparently brought back some interesting stories. . . . Mary Elizabeth and her former mistress met at intervals after dark near the Van Lew farm. For such trips the older woman varied her Crazy Bet routine and wore a huge poke bonnet, leather leggings, “belt canvas coat.” Tucking up her curls, she played the poor country woman driving around in her buggy.
Miss Lizzie enlisted the help of a number of simpler folk, farmers, storekeepers, factory workers, united in their belief in the Union. In the words of General George Sharpe of the Army Intelligence Bureau: “Their [the Van Lews’s] position, character and charities gave them a commanding influence, and many families of plain people were decided and encouraged by them to remain true to the flag, and were subsequently able during the war to receive our agents. . . . For a long, long time, she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city of Richmond.”
Other Federal spies or scouts arrived in the capital to “take her orders,” the intelligence chief added. They usually slipped into the Van Lew house at night, to stay for days in rooms at the back of the mansion. In emergencies they stopped only at the family farm. Miss Lizzie’s friends took them frequent messages. One such friend was a seamstress who stitched dispatches into her patterns. Several times the girl was halted by Confederate guards; rough fingers felt the patterns but none of the messages was discovered.
The Union threat against Richmond became ominous in 1862. McClellan came so close that the people of the capital could hear gunfire. “We are in hourly expectation of a battle. . . . We have hatched eight chickens today and have a prospect of rearing and eating them under our ‘dear young government’; and so we go, mixing peace with war,” wrote Elizabeth.
Miss Lizzie had the happy notion that when McClellan entered Richmond he should be their guest. Using “new matting and pretty curtains, we prepared a chamber.” Meanwhile, revealing another side of herself, she went out with friends for a ringside view of the fighting. “The rapid succession of the guns was wonderful…. No ball could be as exciting as our ride this evening. Only think of the bright rush of life; the hurry of Death on the battlefield!” Here was a sight that not many other Richmond spinsters would have enjoyed.
McClellan never set eyes on Lizzie Van Lew’s pretty room. Robert E. Lee took charge of the Confederate defenses, and Little Mac pulled back. For the saddened Van Lews there were other misfortunes. One day Elizabeth took pity on an undernourished milliner, “friendless and alone.” Bringing this Miss McGonigle home, she helped her for months. Overnight the milliner turned on her and paid a call at Confederate headquarters to report her suspicions. Luckily Miss McGonigle knew nothing definite against the Van Lews, but Elizabeth was deeply hurt by this occurrence.
By now the family had taken in other boarders. One such guest, who might have told far more than the milliner, received a note from “W. W. New, Detective, C.S. Police,” with a request to appear for testimony against the Van Lews. Her evidence was needed “to conclude the case.” Detective New added that if the boarder felt some hesitation in going she would not have to appear before Mrs’ Van Lew, nor would her name be mentioned in the case. The lady felt more than delicacy in the matter; she declined to say a word.
Some of the neighbors, however, were not so loyal and the Van Lews were continually trailed by detectives. As Miss Lizzie wrote: “I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen peeping around the column and pillars of the back portico.” The grand jury investigated the old maid and her mother for “trafficking in greenbacks,” United States currency, and Elizabeth’s mother fell sick when she heard that warrants had been prepared against her.
With the supply of army horses decreasing, few Richmonders were allowed to keep their animals. One day Elizabeth received a tip from a friendly Confederate clerk that soldiers were headed for her home to confiscate her horse. She needed him badly for spy work, so she hid the animal in the smokehouse. A few days later Confederates learned of this and, being warned again, Miss Lizzie led the horse through the house and up the stairs to the library. Straw had been spread, “and he accepted his position and behaved as though he thoroughly understood matters, never stamping loud enough to be heard nor neighing.” He was “a good, loyal horse,” Elizabeth assures us.
Many townsmen were certain that Crazy Bet hid more than horses. In these later days, as privations increased and men in prisons turned desperate, scores escaped. The Van Lew home was searched several times without result, but people whispered stories of secret passages and hidden rooms. Miss Lizzie’s niece told eventually how she saw Aunt Elizabeth glide toward the attic with a plate of food, and tiptoed after her. As the niece peered around a corner the spinster touched a panel. It slid back, and a bearded man reached out hungrily for the food. Years afterward the girl found the concealed chamber beneath the slope of the rear roof.
General Sharpe of the Union Intelligence credited Miss Van Lew with helping in many escapes, including the celebrated exploit in which a sixty-foot tunnel was dug under Libby Prison. The time was a chilly February day in i 864. Elizabeth had been told “there was to be an exit” in the near future, and she prepared “an off, or rather end room.” Personal problems intervened and she had left the house when some of the escaping prisoners sought refuge, and the servants turned them away. Other Union sympathizers took them in, communicated with Miss Van Lew, and she went to work to assist them on their perilous journey….
By now she had further systematized her espionage, establishing regular contact with General Ben Butler at Fortress Monroe. Becoming more professional, she received a cipher and hid the key to it in her watch case, which she retained until her death. As an additional safeguard, her niece said, Miss Lizzie would tear cipher messages into two or three pieces and roll them into tiny balls, to be handed over in that shape. Years later the retired spy herself told a Richmond child how she hid papers by unscrewing the top of the andirons in her bedroom.
Crazy Bet’s spy organization had also widened. The chief of Federal spies, speaking of her and her mother, said: “They had clerks in the rebel war and navy departments in their confidence.” On that point Elizabeth always remained reticent, and such helpers, traitors to the Confederacy, were apparently never exposed. Once, she noted, she did go to General Winder’s office with an emergency message from General Butler to a Union agent on the Confederate payroll. Had it fallen into Southern hands, the letter could have destroyed the man and also Crazy Bet.
The old maid acted with cool daring. She entered Winder’s quarters, sought out the individual in question, and placed the note directly in his hands. A few feet away were the central offices of the Confederacy’s secret service. The man trembled and seemed about to break. Might he betray her, in his terror? Instead he slipped the paper into his pocket and whispered that Miss Lizzie must never come there again. Apparently she did not have to, as the next time he went to her.
Late in January of 1864 Elizabeth Van Lew and her friends in Richmond passed on vital information about Confederate plans to move thousands of prisoners. Here was an opportunity for a sudden Northern attack which would free a great many Union soldiers and might even take Richmond. Miss Lizzie called in a few well-placed assistants and then sent a young emissary on a dangerous trip to Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. The official war records contain her dispatch, originally in cipher:
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. . . .
When Butler received Miss Lizzie’s message four days later, he marked it “private and immediate” and forwarded it to Secretary of War Stanton, with an explanation that it came “from a lady in Richmond with whom I am in correspondence.” The bearer had carried a token to show he could be trusted. “Now or never is the time to strike,” Butler added . , and told of his questioning of Miss Van Lew’s nervous courier.
The boy had contributed dozens of other military facts, troop movements of which the Van Lew group had learned at the last moment, and other advice from “Quaker” and “Mr. Palmer,” two of the Union agents who concealed their identities. All pointed to the belief that “Richmond could be taken easier now than at any other time of the war.”
This advice from civilians had its defects, to be sure; they threw figures about carelessly, and there were military factors about which they lacked information. Nevertheless, the Northern officials apparently accepted the truth of the general situation as presented, and accordingly launched a major operation. The Union War Department gave considerable time, attention, and manpower to a cavalry movement to surprise Richmond and free the prisoners. Unfortunately for the enterprise, however, the “secret” project became as confidential as a White House reception. Too many officers’ wives, and officers themselves, talked about it.
On February 28 a body of four thousand picked troops swept toward Richmond from the left, under General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. From the right several thousand other Union soldiers would make a feint. Then young Dahlgren was to drive on the Confederate capital in one direction while Kilpatrick knifed in from the other. The blow might be one of the most brilliant of the war; his superiors expected a great deal of the twenty-two-year-old Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, and the Army’s youngest man of his rank. Having lost a leg shortly after Gettysburg, the boy used a wooden leg and crutch, but could still outride anyone in sight.
The raid started on schedule, then rapidly went to pieces. There were unforeseen obstacles, a Negro guide who could not or would not find a ford across the James, and, not least, Confederate foreknowledge. In badly frightened Richmond, as Miss Van Lew reported: “every reliable man was called out. There was an awful quiet in the streets; the heavy silence was impressive. . . . At night we could hear the firing of the cannon. . . .” By the time Colonel Dahlgren reached a road only five miles from the city, strengthening resistance made the attack hopeless. As the Union troops retreated in darkness and rain, Yount, DahILyren himself was killed.
Then began a macabre episode that involved the boy’s remains. The body was hastily searched by Confederates, a memorandum taken, a finger cut off for its ring, and the valuable wooden leg was removed. Casually they buried what was left of Dahlgren near a road.
Soon afterward Southern officials made an announcement that sent a wave of fury over Richmond. Dahtgren, they said, had carried orders to burn and sack the city, and kill Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet. Whether or not the documents were authentic has never been determined. Richmond papers described the captured Union soldiers as “assassins, barbarians, thugs . . . redolent of more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen.” Kill them all as enemies of humanity! One journal urged a public showing of the Dahlgren corpse as a “monument of infamy” to teach young Confederates to hate such men.
Where Ulric Dahlgren lay interred, no one knew, said the newspapers. “It was a dog’s burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friends and relatives in the North need inquire no further.” As a matter of fact, the remains had meanwhile been placed in a coffin and transferred to Richmond, and on orders from President Davis workmen reburied Dahlgren late at night and secretly among thousands of other Union graves. But not entirely secretly, because of Elizabeth Van Lew.
She tells us that a Negro she knew was “in the burying ground at night . . . entirely accidentally, or rather providentially”! The man marked the spot of Dahlgren’s grave, sought her out, and she took over, managing a remarkable job of plotting, body stealing, and transfer through the Confederate lines. Needing six or seven helpers, she had no trouble enlisting them at once among her Union friends.
Late one night, four men rode to the burial place. Digging up the rude casket, they unscrewed the lid and identified the corpse by the missing right leg. Over rutted back roads they hastened to the farm of W. C. Rowley, where Miss Lizzie waited in a seed house, and once again the boy’s remains were examined, but with “gentle hands and tearful eyes,” she said. She helped transfer the corpse to a new metal coffin, which would now be put into the earth on Robert Orrick’s farm outside town.
First, however, they had to take the box past Confederate pickets. In the morning Farmer Rowley climbed to the seat of his wagon, the coffin on the floor behind him, covered by a dozen closely packed peach trees. Approaching the pickets, the farmer saw that they were examining everything. He was panicky until he recognized the soldier who strolled over to inspect his wagon. He reminded the man of their last meeting. Vaguely the soldier recalled the incident. “But whose trees are these?” Rowley tried to be casual: “They belong to a German in the country.” The two acquaintances talked about the unwisdom of planting peach trees at this season. Ah, well, that was the German’s worry. The uniformed man sighed: “It would be a pity to disturb those trees, when you’ve packed them so nice. Go ahead.”
With the body safely buried, Elizabeth Van Lew promptly started a cipher report of the exploit on its way to General Butler. Dahlgren’s sorrowing father had meanwhile asked that Ulric’s remains be returned to him and Jefferson Davis issued orders to grant the request. When Confederate soldiers dug in their own burial grounds and found nothing, Richmond buzzed with a greater mystery than ever. Not until after the war was the matter cleared up.
At least once Miss Lizzie was almost led to betray her connection with Butler. The general had requested an up-to-date report on Richmond’s defenses, and she had her cipher message ready, torn in strips and rolled in wads as usual. An expected scout had not arrived and as she walked along the street, wondering how she was going to send her report, a man beside her murmured: “I’m going through tonight,” and continued on without pausing.
Perhaps it was the Union agent, who might have some urgent reason for approaching her this way without identifying himself. Quickening her steps, she passed the stranger, and again she heard: “I’m going through the lines tonight.” She frowned and made no acknowledgment. The risk was too great. The next day a Southern regiment marched by, and she recognized the man, now in his gray uniform. Belle Boyd had once been trapped in much this fashion; Crazy Bet was more crafty.
From General Sharpe, we learn that as General Grant moved closer to Richmond Miss Van Lew’s communications with the Union command reached a new peak. With the distance shortened, she could forward messages almost daily. She used a system of five “stations” or points along the way, from the mansion on Church Hill, to her farm, and beyond. Grant asked repeatedly for “specific information” and she “steadily conveyed it to him,” Sharpe explains.
So expert was her transmission belt that flowers from the Van Lew gardens often arrived fresh and dewy on Grant’s breakfast table! And Sharpe declared that “the greater portion” of the information passed to the general’s army in 1864-65 “in its collection and in a good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss E. L. Van Lew.”
But at this late date Crazy Bet faced a final threat of exposure. In February of 1865 Union officials believed they had an inspiration when they dispatched to Richmond an Englishman named Pole. Prodigious spying deeds were predicted. On his way Pole met many Union sympathizers. Careful arrangements had been made for him in the city and supposedly he was to meet Miss Lizzie. Her diary described her suspicion and anxiety, which turned to terror when Pole suddenly rushed into Confederate headquarters to sell out his employers.
At least two Union agents went to prison. For hours Elizabeth waited in apprehension, fearing the man had discovered enough to implicate her. Then nothing more happened. She had missed disaster by a thread. Personal deliverance was not long in following. On a Sunday in early April a roar echoed in the Richmond streets; Lee’s lines had given way, the Confederates were marching out, and the town had gone mad. Fires crackled in one square and another. “Hundreds of houses had fallen victims to the spreading fire…. The constant explosion of shells, the blowing up of the gunboats and of the powder magazines seemed to jar, to shake the earth and lend a mighty language to the scene … the burning bridges, the searing flames added a wild grandeur. . . .”
Neighbors borrowed the Van Lew wheelbarrows to save their belongings. The prisons were emptied and scores of Union soldiers were taken out of Richmond. Miss Lizzie had determined to make a grand gesture, whatever its cost. At considerable peril she had ordered a big American flag smuggled through the lines. She and her servants scrambled to the roof and set it to waving its thirty-four stars against the sky. Hers was the first Union flag to be unfurled again in the Confederate capital.
Richmonders glared, and a howling mob gathered. God damn the old devil; burn her place down! Men shoved toward her house, trampled the garden, and Crazy Bet stepped forth to confront them. “I know you, and you. . . ” Her thin face contorted, she screamed their names and pointed them out. “General Grant will be in town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon! ” They were convinced and they backed away.
Miss Lizzie had one last assignment for herself. She ran to the Confederate Capitol, to search among the ashes of the archives for secret documents which the Union government might find helpful. She was found there by a special guard dispatched for her protection by General Grant. He had remembered her and the danger she might face on this day….
Soon after his arrival the general paid his formal visit. Mrs. Grant explained later that her husband said they must visit Miss Van Lew, for she had given great service to the Union. They drank tea together and talked politely on the columned porch. “Crazy Bet” was very proud; for the rest of her life she kept Grant’s calling card.
Source: “Spies For The Blue And Gray” by Harnett T. Kane