Elizabeth Van Lew





           Elizabeth Van Lew, a tiny, birdlike creature with a sharp, peckish nose, bright blue eyes and hair done in ringlets, was a charitable soul; and her beneficence in Richmond took the form of frequent visits to Libby Prison with baskets of "goodies" for "her boys".
           Her boys were the Federal prisoners who populated the infamous prison. Those prisoners, especially the more recent arrivals, were filled with valueable information about the strength and dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen while being sent from the fighting fronts to prison in Richmond, Virginia.
           Little is known about the specific information contained in her reports to Sharpe and othe Union officers: several years after her death, efforts to examine her War Department dossier drew only a response that "all papers in this department relating to Miss Van Lew were taken from the files on Dec. 12, 1866, and given to her." There the trail ends. However, many of the details of how she obtained that information and passed it on to Union authorities are contained in her long, rambling diary. Found buried outside her mansion, it went beyond her wartime activities to cover her entire life in Richmond, the city she loved - but whose values she loathed.
           Of colonial stock, she was the daughter of a prosperous and respected hardware merchant who had built an elegant 3½ story mansion atop Church Hill, the highest of Richmond's seven hills. During her girlhhod, Chief Justice John Marshall was a frequent visitor to the Van Lew home, and the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, later sang in it's parlor.
           Sent to a Philadelphia school, she returned a dedicated abolishionist. "Slave power" she wrote in her diary, "is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel is despotic." Exercising her beliefs, she soon persuaded her widowed mother to free the nine slaves owned by the family. Then, as war approached, she wrote that she became "a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania."





           On April 17, 1861, five days after Fort Sumter was bombarded, she first saw the Confederate banner flying over Richmond. Then, after witnessing a torchlight parade one night, she fell to her knees overcome by a revelation of duty. "Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me."
           She soon found a way to exercise her resolution. At foot of Church Hill and within view of her garden lay the ship chandler's warehouse that had been converted to Libby Prison. Having heard of the suffering that Union captives were enduring within it's baleful confines, she began carrying baskets of food, medicine and books to the prisoners.
           To be sure, she became the target of what she described as "the threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community." But even embroiled in the passions of a civil war, Richmond remained a civilized society, and no steps were taken to stop her visitations. After all, what harm could be done by a woman who had already become known as "Crazy Bet"?
           She polished that image. Even before the war she had been considered strange, if only because of her outspoken abolishionist sentiments. Now, she emphasized her eccentricities - mumbling to herself as she walked the streets, often assuming a vacant expression, allowing the ringlets of her hair to fall into disarray and wearing her shabbiest clothes.
           Beyond that facade was a shrewd and resourceful mind that improvised as it worked. In her original naïveté, she simply wrote down her gleanings from the prisoners and posted them as letters to Federal authorities; incredibly, some of those letters arrived at their intended destinations.
           Gradually her opoeration became more sophisticated. In the books that their benefactress had loaned them, the prisoners fainted underlined certain words that constituted an impromptu code for her. She devised her own cipher - after her death, it was found folded into the back of her watch, where she had carriedi it for nearly 40 years.





           This is the cipher key found in her watch: it is a grid of 36 squares containing the alphabet and numbers, each of which could be represented by its co-ordinates, ie. the number "7" was 2,3.



           Using her household servents as couriers, - several of the slaves had stayed on after having been given their freedom - she sent them northward carrying baskets of farm produce. Each basket held some eggs, one of which had been emptied of its natural contents and now contained a tiny slip of paper bearing an enciphered message.
           The Federal prisoners were by no means her only source of information. She was a good listener, and Libby's Conferedrate guards often were careless in their talk. She also went out of her way to cultivate the prison's commandant, Lt. David Todd (whose half - sister was Mrs. Abraham Lincoln), by plying him with buttermilk and gingerbread while engaging him in pleasent - and informative - conversation. Later, when Todd was assigned other duty, she actually enveigled his sucessor, a Lt. Gibbs, to move into her mansion with his family as boarders.
           Slowly, the circle of sources widened. As a Union officer said after the war, she and her mother "had clerks in the Rebel war and navy departments in their confidence." Moreover, in what was doubtless a most satisfying success, the spinster - spy actually penetrated the Confederate President's house.
           Several years before the war, Elizabeth had sent one of her freed slaves, a highly intelligent girl named Mary Elizabeth Bowser, north to be educated. Now the young woman was summoned, and after some coaching from her former owner, she found employment on the household staff of Jefferson Davis. As a diningroom servent, she was privy to his mealtime conversations.
           As the war progressed, the Union high command recognized the value of her contributions. When "the war advanced and the army closed around Richmond, I was able to communicate with Gen. Butler and Gen. Grant." By the end of the war, she had established five relay stations for her courier system. According to Gen. George Sharpe, Grant's Chief of Secret Service, Grant demanded "specific information" and she "steadily conveyed it to him." So speedily did her system work that, in addition to the military information she transmitted, she was able to provide Grant's table with flowers still fresh from her garden.





           At long last, the way was cleared for Grant's army to enter Richmond, and Elizabeth with her own hands raised the first Union flag to fly over Richmond in four years. Just before the arrival of the first Union troops, angry citizens threatened violence, but the little spinster, her ringlets bobbing angrily, faced them down. "I know you, and you, and you," she cried, pointing to individuals and calling them by name. "Gen. Grant will be in this city within the hour; if this house is harmed, your houses shall be burned by noon!" The mob melted away.
           When Grant entered Richmond, one of his first acts was to visit her home and have tea on the columned prch with his highly regarded spy. And later, Grant put his gratitude on paper, "You have sent me the most valueable information recieved from Richmond during the war."
           Elizabeth continued to live in the mansion, reviled by the citizens of Richmond. "No one will walk with us on the street," she wrote, "no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on." She died in 1900 in abject poverty. A monument was placed on her grave by admirers from Boston and the inscription reads:

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.

"The Civil War, Spies, Scouts and Raiders", Time - Life books, pages 86-89



<BGSOUND SRC="marchingontorichmond.mid" LOOP=true>