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Elizabeth Van Lew
eccentric union spy

Spinster Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of one of Richmond's best and Virginia's oldest families, was 42 years old when the Civil War broke out. The little sharp-nosed bright-eyed woman was already considered strange by Richmond society. Having returned home from her Philadelphia education an outspoken abolitionist, she had persuaded her widowed mother to free the family slaves. After the war began, Van Lew used her reputation for odd behavior as a cover, enabling her to become the most effective Union spy in Richmond.

Taking food, clothes, and medicine to the Union prisoners held in Libby Prison, Van Lew received from new inmates valuable information on Confederate troop movements that she forwarded regularly to Washington. Her humanitarian service to Yankee prisoners angered Richmond society, and Van Lew suffered what she described as "the threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community." Van Lew adopted more eccentric behavior, mumbling to herself as she walked down the street, wearing shabby clothes, and sporting matted hair. She was soon dismissed as "Crazy Bet" and was left alone to continue her spying.

As the war wore on, Van Lew enlisted her mother and family servants into the spy ring. She befriended the prison's commandant, even boarding him at her home for a time. Her most spectacular success, however, was in placing a spy in the Confederate White House. Van Lew had paid for the Northern education of one of her freed slaves, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, and managed to find employment for her on President Jefferson Davis's household staff. There Bowser was privy to mealtime conversations, and coded information was sent out by household servants on a regular basis.

When Richmond finally fell, one of Grant's first actions was to visit Van Lew and have tea with her on her columned porch. He wrote to her: "You have sent me the most useful information received from Richmond during the war."

Ostracized by society, Van Lew continued to live in her Richmond family mansion for the rest of her life. She had spent most of her wealth working for the Union and died in abject poverty in 1900.