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Elizabeth Van Lew (American National Biography)

Scholarship

Jean V. Berlin, "Van Lew, Elizabeth L.," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/04/04-01193.html.

Van Lew's father had made a fortune in his successful hardware business, and the family moved in the highest circles of Richmond society. The Van Lews retained northern connections and sent Elizabeth to Philadelphia to be educated. When she returned to the South, she was a fervent abolitionist and convinced her mother to free the family slaves in the 1850s after her father's death.

Van Lew made no secret of her Union sympathies in 1860 and 1861. With the arrival of war, she turned her thoughts to how she could best help the Union. She began her career by obtaining permission to visit the Federal prisoners in Libby. She provided material aid for the prisoners, aided them in escape attempts, and passed on their military information to Union officials through a network of Richmond loyalists and her former slaves. When her visits occasioned increasing suspicion and scrutiny, she feigned insanity and kept her freedom of movement by wearing dirty clothes and muttering to herself, earning the nickname "Crazy Bet." In one of her most successful operations, she placed Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a well-educated former slave of the Van Lews, as a servant in Jefferson Davis's house. Feigning illiteracy, Bowser was able to read and copy portions of official dispatches and eavesdrop on business dinners. Van Lew also gleaned information from the guards and prison commandants at Libby and ferreted out clerks with Union sympathies in the Confederate War and Navy departments.

How to Cite This Page: "Elizabeth Van Lew (American National Biography)," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/19019.