- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003


The true story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union agent in the heart of the Confederacy

by Elizabeth R. Varon

Oxford University Press, $30

The two best-remembered female spies of the Civil War, Rose Greenhow and Belle Boyd, were zealous partisans of the Confederacy. Less celebrated are the women who spied for the Union, including Pauline Cushman and Elizabeth Van Lew. With respect to the latter, Wellesley College professor Elizabeth Varon has corrected this situation with a thoughtful, meticulously researched biography.

Born into a well-to-do Richmond family in 1818, Van Lew was sent to Philadelphia to study and appears to have returned to Virginia with strong anti-slavery views. She never married, but from the time of her father’s death in 1843, when she was 25, Elizabeth shared with her mother a mansion on Richmond’s posh Church Hill.

The Van Lews deplored slavery even as they ran their household with slave labor. Until the secession crisis of 1861, the professor notes, Elizabeth had taken refuge in the notion that “slave power was losing its strength before the increasing influence of honest and enlightened free labor.” Fort Sumter scuttled any such notion.

Elizabeth’s pro-Union activities in the war began with humanitarian visits to Federal prisoners. She and her mother were among a handful of Richmond residents who showed an interest in the welfare of Federal prisoners incarcerated in Libby Prison, at the foot of Church Hill and the Van Lew mansion. Although Elizabeth was known to be a Unionist, Confederate authorities did not interfere with these humanitarian activities.

From prison visits, it was but a short step to the harboring of fugitives. Libby Prison was not especially secure, and local Unionists provided safe havens for escapees as they prepared to return to Union lines. How many escapees found refuge with the Van Lews is not known, but the number appears to have been significant. Unlike prison visits, the harboring of fugitives was a criminal offense and put Elizabeth and her mother in real danger with Confederate authorities.

By the end of 1863, Elizabeth also was involved in gathering intelligence for the Federals. She built up a group of couriers — some black, some white — through whom she passed messages in secret ink and cypher to Gen. Benjamin Butler’s headquarters at Fortress Monroe. To buttress her “cover” as an eccentric spinster, Elizabeth appears to have flaunted her erratic personality traits. Wandering through town in old clothes, sometimes singing to herself, Elizabeth came to be known as “Crazy Bet.”

Indeed, her judgment at times was questionable. In 1863, she directed the dead-of-night exhumation of a Federal officer, Col. Ulrich Dahlgren, who had been killed in an abortive raid on Richmond. Not content to leave Dahlgren in an unmarked grave, Elizabeth had her slaves remove the body and reinter it beneath a peach tree outside Richmond. This sort of caper was hardly the act of a disciplined spy.

Van Lew’s intelligence activities peaked in the period from mid-1864 to March 1865 as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tightened his noose around Richmond. Grant and his intelligence chief would later testify that they were able to communicate “well and consistently” with Elizabeth Van Lew, who may not have been privy to sensitive military information but who certainly was tapped into the Richmond rumor mill.

Where were Confederate authorities while all this was going on? Elizabeth was protected by the fact that whereas her Unionist opinions were well-known, her intelligence activities were not. One Confederate official asked rhetorically whether Van Lew should be exiled to the Union “because of her opinion.” The answer was no. The author believes that “elitism and sexism disinclined Confederate authorities to believe a frail spinster lady capable of politically significant acts of disloyalty.”

The Van Lew fortune was a casualty of the war, but Elizabeth was quick to cash in on her wartime services. Grant, as president, appointed her postmaster at Richmond, a post that she appears to have administered competently in the face of widespread hostility from Virginians who had learned of her wartime activities. She was not reappointed by President Hayes, however, and her final years were dominated by unsuccessful attempts to ingratiate herself with Grant’s Republican successors. She died in 1900 in relative poverty.

The importance of Elizabeth Van Lew’s intelligence activities can be debated. However, her tenacity and courage in working for the Union in a hostile environment cannot be denied. In professor Varon, Elizabeth has found a sympathetic, politically correct biographer.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of several books on the Civil War period, including “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”

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