Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew

Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, USA
Death 25 Sep 1900 (aged 81)
Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, USA
Burial Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, USA
Memorial ID 1056 · View Source
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Civil War Union Spy. Born in New York, she was educated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was a resident of Richmond, Virginia, most of her life. An ardent abolitionist, locals believed that no sane Virginian could be so vocal in her sympathy with the North; an opinion that shielded her from suspicion of espionage. Known as "Crazy Bet" by Richmond residents, she was regarded as a silly, hysterical woman. All the while, she was secretly writing to Federal officials, giving them valuable, accurate information about the Confederacy, and securing and financing fellow spies. She helped Union prisoners escape from Libby Prison, gave them money (left by her prosperous father, John, a hardware merchant), and hid them, along with espionage agents, in the upper rooms of the Van Lew mansion in Richmond or on the family farm outside the city. She carried clothes, bedding, food, and medicines to those prisoners unable to escape, and got valuable information from them. A Union Secret Service officer said that she "gained control of the Confederate prisons." It was her information smuggled out of Richmond that revealed the weakness of the Richmond defenses in early 1864 which resulted in the unsuccessful Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid. She was in such close communication with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant during his Richmond campaign that flowers from her garden often graced his dining table. When the Federals entered Richmond, Grant sent his aide-de-camp to protect the Van Lew property, and the General himself, along with many Union officials, soon called on her. Throughout the postwar years she struggled financially, having spent all her convertible property in work for the Union cause. In 1869, Grant, now President of the United States, appointed her postmistress of Richmond, a position she held for 8 years. She was not reappointed when Grant's second term expired. With barely enough income to survive, she eventually appealed for help to friends in New England, and to relatives of former Union officer, Colonel Paul J. Revere of the 20th Massachusetts (he was the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. He was wounded three times—the first time leading to his capture, and the final time, at Gettysburg, resulting in his death. The Colonel received a posthumous brevet to the rank of Brigadier General), whom she had helped in Libby Prison. Provided an ample annuity by them, she lived out her days in Richmond. Her tombstone, placed by New England friends, reads, "She risked everything that was dear to her - friends, fortune, comfort, health, even life itself - all for one absorbing desire of her heart - that slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved." She differed from the traditional image of women spies in that she used neither charm nor beauty to acquire and relay military information. Instead, she used her natural odd behavior to help the North. General George H. Sharpe, who ran the highly efficient military information bureau attached to Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters, paid her the highest compliment when he said, "For a long, long time, she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in Richmond."

Bio by: Ugaalltheway

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  • Maintained by: Find a Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find a Grave Memorial 1056
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Elizabeth Van Lew (15 Oct 1818–25 Sep 1900), Find a Grave Memorial no. 1056, citing Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Richmond, Richmond City, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .