Monday, December 28, 2015

From Southern Belle to Union Spy: Elizabeth Van Lew:

One of three children, Elizabeth was well educated, and according to her parents, the stubborn one in the lot. She grew up in Richmond where her father was a very successful hardware dealer and her mother was the daughter of Philadelphia's mayor. 

They lived elegantly and lavishly in town. They also owned a farm where crops were grown in fields worked by a dozen slaves owned by the Van Lews. 


     With her blue eyes and dark hair, Elizabeth was charming, opinionated, and not afraid to speak her mind--at least at home. She was frequently at odds with her father and very close to her mother. Elizabeth didn’t hesitate to openly protest the beliefs of Richmond society—namely the issues of slavery and secession. Yet to her dying day she denied being and abolitionist, whom she considered fanatics who would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Her views were based not on politics or financial gain, but on what she felt in her heart.

slave auction, virginia, 1861, black history, slave trade
   When she was in her twenties, her father died, and soon after, she freed the family slaves. Some stayed on with the Van Lews, others took advantage of their freedom and made their own way in the world. She was so opposed to slavery, she spent her $10,000 inheritance on buying and freeing those slaves who were relatives of her freed slaves.

  After the battle of Bull Run, while delivering religious books to the camps, Elizabeth discovered the horrendous conditions the Federal prisoners endured at Libby prison. She begged, cajoled, wheedled and bribed guards with gingerbread and buttermilk to gain visiting rights. Helping Union soldiers, she was soon shunned by the townspeople, and lost friends and good standing in the Confederate community. The Union prisoners learned tidbits of information from their Confederate guards and passed the facts on to Elizabeth.  

  The town thought she must be demented, calling her Crazy Bet. She played upon this misconception, mumbling to herself as she walked the streets, and allowing her appearance and attire to take on a disheveled look. In truth she was very afraid for herself and her mother.   

            Elizabeth found employment for one of her former slaves (Mary E. Bowser) at the home of Jefferson Davis. Years before, Elizabeth had sent Mary away to be schooled in Philadelphia, she was very intelligent and could read and write. Mary was soon rifling though Davis' paperwork and relaying the information back to Elizabeth.

     One high-ranking official at Libby Prison, known as “Ross,” was considered by many prisoners to be the most vicious of all the guards. He openly verbally abused the prisoners and without warning would launch a physical assault. He would then have the individual removed, most thought to be further tortured, if not killed. In actuality, he would get the prisoner alone, give him a Confederate uniform, escort him out of the prison and send him on his way to Elizabeth’s house where she would provide cover in secret rooms and passageways until it was safe to move the escapee to the next safe house. 

    As General Grant moved his army nearer to Richmond, Elizabeth was able to communicate with him directly and on a daily basis. So perfected was her spy network, she was able to present him with a copy of the Richmond Daily Dispatch each day. As a reward, after the war, Grant named her Postmistress of Richmond. She lived out a lonely life, shunned by the towns people, yet unwilling to leave her home and the city she loved.

      She is buried in Richmond’s Shockoe-Hill Cemetery. The inscription on her headstone 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."

      General Sharpe, Grant’s Chief of Secret Service stated, “The greater portion of our intelligence in 1864-65 in its collection and in good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss Elizabeth Van Lew.” 

Source: Ryan, David, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, Stackpole Books 1996

        See how Josie and Garrick survive the Crimean War in 

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   Disowned by her father and still mourning the death of her fiancĂ©, Josephine Posey joins Florence Nightingale’s brigade of nurses bound for the Black Sea. Thousands of British soldiers desperately await these angels of mercy and a new life awaits Josie. Amidst the chaos of death and despair, she finds a spark of hope, lighting the flame once more inside her soul.

    In search of the truth, Garrick Allen, one of Britain’s first war correspondents also journeys to the Crimean Peninsula. To him the soldiers seem all but abandoned by Queen and country, and as he smokes his cheroots and makes friends with a bottle, he writes his bold but honest dispatches for The Times.  Not wanting anything more than to finish his job and go home, Garrick is blind-sided by a nurse with attitude who offers him a new slant on life and a reason to love.


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