Civil War Women:
Elizabeth Van Lew
by Arlene Winkler
For as long as societies have existed, they have punished the individual who acts on beliefs that are contrary to the accepted social order, employing shame, ostracism and even murder, (think Emma Goldman, deported anti-war activist, Madeline Murray O ‘Hare, disappeared founder of the American Atheist Party, Martin Luther King, murdered Civil Rights leader). The Civil War, by its very nature, was an ideal theater for this ongoing drama, enhanced by two-faced Januses as the protagonists (think Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis), perceived from one side as larger-than-life heroes, and from the other as craven betrayers. Women who broke the unwritten rules (think Elizabeth Van Lew) were often marginalized as weak-minded or crazy. “Crazy Bet,” as she later came to be known, found a way to make it work to her advantage.
The youngest daughter of John Van Lew of Long Island, New York, and Eliza Baker of Philadelphia, “Miss Lizzie” was very close to her mother, a precious child of wealth and privilege. Home was a magnificent 3-story mansion at the finest address on Church Hill, only a few short steps from the historic church where Patrick Henry had thrown down the gauntlet that led to the Revolutionary War: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” The same firebrand, by the way, who later became a leader of the Virginia anti-federalists, who claimed the United States Constitution endangered the rights of the States, and the freedoms of individuals—setting the stage for another, more terrible war, only 80 years later.
In 1848, that was yet to come. When Miss Lizzie was sent off to Philadelphia to finish her schooling, Richmond society was at its peak and the Van Lew home was the envy of all Richmond. Its chandeliered parlors, brocaded walls and terraced gardens had become a magnet for visiting celebrities. By the time she departed, Miss Lizzie had charmed the likes of Jenny Lind, Edgar Allan Poe, and Chief Justice John Marshall. But to everyone’s amazement, the privileged young woman who left Richmond as a soft-spoken Southern Belle, returned as an outspoken abolitionist.
“Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion,” she said and wrote. “Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state!” Her strongly worded opinions at first amused both friends and family. Little did they know that she was just getting started. Over the next decade, she proceeded to act on her beliefs—and discourage suitors—by freeing all of the family slaves, many of whom stayed on with her as freedmen. Whenever she learned that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were about to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well. The Southern Belle was on her way to becoming an old maid; someone not to be taken seriously.
In April, 1861, as the Confederate banner unfurled over Richmond, while her former friends celebrated, she was filled with foreboding “I was a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania—From the hour of John Brown’s raid, our people were in a palpable state of war…” As the rumors spread that the arrival of Union forces in Richmond was imminent, Miss Lizzie started writing to Federal officials to tell them everything she saw and heard, including quotes from Confederate women: “Do you think the state will go out today? For if it does not, I cannot stand it any longer.”
“Those were sorry times,” she commented later. They got even sorrier when a delegation arrived at her door, to ask if she and her mother would make shirts for the troops, and the Van Lew ladies declined. It was only when they began to receive personal threats that they reluctantly agreed to deliver religious books to the camps. But if the people of Richmond thought the Van Lews had given in, they couldn’t have been more mistaken.
After the first battle at Manassas went to the Confederates and wagonloads of Union prisoners began rolling into Richmond and Libby Prison, the “old maid” went to the prison warden to offer her services as a nurse in the prison hospital. When he turned her down, on the basis that no self respecting Southern woman should be exposed to such creatures, she turned to an unlikely source for help. Christopher Memminger was an old family friend and an ardent confederate. He was not only Secretary of the Confederate Treasury, but also the author of The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.
“A class of men like that are not worthy or fit for a lady to visit,” he scolded, predictably. But this time Miss Lizzie was prepared. Instead of arguing her case, she reminded him of his recent discourse on religious law. “Love is the fulfilling of that law,” she concluded, sweetly. “If we wish our cause to succeed, we must begin with charity to the thankless, the unworthy.” Hoist by his own petard, Memminger could only agree. He arranged a meeting for her with John Winder, Provost Marshal in charge of Confederate prisons.
She must have despised the notorious Winder on sight, but one look at his magnificent flowing locks was all she needed. “Why your hair should adorn the Temple of Janus,” she declared in her soft Southern voice. “It’s just wasted here.” A fluttered fan, a few more blandishments, and she had what she needed, a visitor”s pass to the prisons and the hundreds of Union Officers who were housed there. Unable to meet with them face to face, she used her fortune to bribe the prison guards to get them transferred to hospitals where it was possible to exchange information. In short order, she and her mother were carrying in blankets and medicine, and carrying out information for the Union. By 1864, she was the head of an entire network under Union General Benjamin Butler, and instrumental in the escape of 109 prisoners, who tunneled out of Libby. Her cleverness and daring drew high praise from the Union Secret Service, but it brought on suspicion and the outrage on the part of the Richmond newspapers:
“ . . . Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and murder. . . Out upon all pretexts to humanity!”
Convinced that it was they who were traitors, while she was the one who was true to her country, she was determined to achieve her objectives.
When she was ordered not to exchange so much as a word with the prisoners, she carried in books, which the prisoners returned to her with a code of pin pricks in the pages that conveyed military data.
When she learned that the prison warden doted on buttermilk and gingerbread, she brought him these treats from her own kitchen, making it easier to gather information.
When she heard that Jefferson Davis needed a new housemaid for the Gray House, she convinced one of her former slaves to move back to Richmond to work for him.
When she needed to send information to her union contacts, another group of her former slaves carried it out, by hiding it in the produce from the Van Lew vegetable garden. Somehow, it never occurred to a Confederate guard to inspect a basket of eggs for an empty shell concealing a coded message, or poke a stick in the thick soles of the muddy shoes worn by an old colored man on a horse.
But the tide turned against her in the summer of 1861, when the Union seized fifteen Confederates as privateers on the vessel Savannah, and threatened to hang them, and Jefferson Davis ordered the same number of Federal soldiers held as hostages. Her neighbors became so embittered, she lived in constant fear of discovery. As she wrote in her diary, “The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community—who can write of them? I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things…” With everyone watching her every move, her only recourse was to hide in plain sight. Enter “Crazy Bet.” Unwashed, uncombed, in her oldest clothes and shabbiest bonnets, she was soon observed mumbling and humming to herself. The eccentric old maid had become a harmless madwoman too crazy to be taken seriously. But beneath the messy curls, the mind of a master spy continued to function in high gear—as did the loyal crew of farmers, storekeepers and factory workers, who believed in her and in the Union.
It seemed to work, until 1865, when the Union decided to send her assistance, in the form of a British agent named Pole. As he was making his way to Richmond and Crazy Bet, she became suspicious when she learned that he had made it a point to meet other Union sympathizers. When he tried to approach her on the street she refused to respond to his coded message. After he attempted it a second time, her suspicion turned to terror when she saw him suddenly run into Confederate headquarters. She hid for hours, fearing he had exposed her. Even when no one came looking for her she knew that she would never again feel safe.
Finally, on a Sunday in early April she heard a terrible roar on the streets of Richmond; Lee’s lines had given way, the Confederates were marching out. Determined to make a grand gesture, she scrambled to the roof of her house and raised a huge American flag with 34 stars—the first to unfurl again in the Confederate capital. A howling mob gathered, shouting, “God damn the old devil; letí’ burn her down!” But Crazy Bet was in her glory, screaming their names as she pointed at each of them. “I know who you are, every one of you—General Grant will be here within the hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon!” When the crowd dispersed, grumbling, she ran to the Confederate Capitol, to search the ashes for surviving documents. She was met there by a special guard, dispatched for her protection by General Grant who had anticipated the danger she might face on this day.
Soon after his arrival in Richmond, the general and his wife made a formal visit to Miss Lizzie, the no-longer Crazy Bet. The three of them drank tea and talked politely while they sat on her columned porch. Later, when Grant became president, he twice appointed her Richmond Post Mistress. But in the end, even children refused to speak to the “Yankee.” “No one will walk with us on the street,” she wrote in her diary, “No one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on.” In the last months of her life, she had only her 40 cats for company. Her rough cut tombstone in Shockoe Cemetery bears the following inscription:
Elizabeth Van Lew 1818-1900
She risked everything that is dear to man friends, fortune, comfort, health, life itself all for one absorbing desire of her heart that slavery might be abolished and the union preserved.
Arlene Winkler is a freelance writer, with an unabashed passion for the fine arts. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of four, she is dealing with her culture shock by studying the “War between the States” and the role of women on both sides of the divide.