Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900)

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Biographical Sketch

Elizabeth Van Lew Photograph, c. 1860-1865. Elizabeth Van Lew Collection, Swem Library, Special Collections Research Center.

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900) was born in Richmond, Virginia, on October 15, 1818, the first child of John Van Lew and Eliza Louise Baker Van Lew.[1] Elizabeth Van Lew was a Unionist who served as a spy for the United States during the U. S. Civil War from her home in Confederate States of America capital of Richmond, Virginia.

" Motivated by her opposition to slavery, Van Lew headed up a Union spy ring in the Confederate capital that aided Federal prisoners there and gathered intelligence for the U. S. Army; its greatest achievements were the breakout of 109 Union inmates from Libby Prison [a few blocks from Van Lew's home] and the clandestine reburial of the slain Union colonel Ulric Dahlgren, both in the spring of 1864."[2]

Van Lew’s anti-slavery sentiments evolved over time. As a member of the wealthy slaveholding Richmond society, she believed “through individual acts of kindness, charity, and manumission they [slaveholders] could erode slavery gradually, from the inside.”[3] The willingness of southern states to dissolve the union of states led Van Lew to the conclusion that the south will not change of their own accord. Her abolitionist leanings evolved over time beginning with her parents’ influence, her Philadelphia education, and her ultimate philosophical disagreement with the Confederate States of America. [4]

Van Lew's spy network relied upon the efforts of various Unionist sympathizer's efforts, including African Americans. Specifically, Mary Richards (referred to later as Mary Bowser), who was manumitted by the Van Lew family, sent to Liberia and then invited to return to Richmond, resubmitting herself to enslavement, in order to serve as a spy within Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House. This clever use of stereotypical perceptions of the uneducated enslaved, as well as those of women in general, assisted Van Lew in espionage against the Confederacy. Towards the war's end, in 1864, was investigated for her alleged Federalist sentiments, but "Charles Blackford of the adjutant general's office...was very unfriendly in her sentiments towards the Govt." [but] it does not appear that she has ever done anything to infirm the cause--Like most of her sex she seems to have talked freely" and that no action was to be taken.[5]

war, and post war interpretations of her character and behavior labeled her with the epithet "Crazy Bet", in an attempt to undermine her successful spying efforts, she was portrayed as a woman who was unintelligent, poorly dressed, dirty, talked to herself, and who lived on the fringes of society. In fact, "the main weapons in Van Lew's Unionist arsenal...were her family's wealth, which she spent liberally to bribe Confederate prison guards and officials, and her family's social standing, which she parlayed into numerous favors from influential Confederates."[6]

After Reconstruction, Van Lew became increasingly ostracized in Richmond. She persuaded the United States Department of War to give her all of her records, so she could hide the true extent of her espionage from her neighbors. Having spent her family's fortune on intelligence activities during the war, she tried in vain to be reimbursed by the federal government.

Van Lew died on September 25, 1900, and was buried Shockhoe Cemetery in Richmond.[7]

Materials in the Special Collections Research Center


  1. U. S. Find A Grave Index 1600s-Current, Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900), Memorial #1056, record added January 1, 2001, accessed December 12, 2018,
  2. Elizabeth R. Varon, Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Lady, Union Spy (University of Georgia Press: 2015), 305-322.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. U. S. Find A Grave Index 1600s-Current, Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900), Memorial #1056, record added January 1, 2001, accessed December 12, 2018,

External Links/Further Reading

  • Who Buried Elizabeth Van Lew?, article National Institute of American History & Democracy, accessed December 12, 2018.
  • Elizabeth R. Varnon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy : The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

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