Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond in 1818. Educated in Philadelphia she developed she returned home as a strong opponent of slavery. Outspoken in her views, local people considered her to be eccentric and became known as Crazy Bet.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War Van Lew pretended to be a supporter of the Confederate Army. She gathered information about troop movements and mailed details to General Benjamin Butler and General Ulysses S. Grant. Later she devised a special code based on words and letters in books. Van Lew also helped Union soldiers escape from Libby Prison.

In recognition of her services, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed her postmaster of Richmond (1869-1877). She was not reappointed by President Rutherford Hayes and had to live on a annuity from the family of a Union soldier she helped while he was in Libby Prison. Elizabeth Van Lew died in 1900.

Primary Sources

(1) General Benjamin Butler wrote about the work of Elizabeth Van Lew in his autobiography published in 1892.

We arrived in New Orleans about five o'clock in the evening. As soon as my boat had come to anchor one of my confidential scouts came off to it. He had been at Richmond some weeks, and he brought me a letter from my correspondent there, Miss Van Lew. It stated that all the troops had gone from Richmond to Lee's army, relying upon that city being garrisoned by troops which had shortly before been sent down to North Carolina from there, and were expected back. But they had not yet returned. The Southern troops were expected very soon, so that the attack must be made at once.