Although she grew up in a wealthy household in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Van Lew would later become one of the most successful spies for the Union during the Civil War. Like many southern households, Elizabeth’s family owned several slaves. When her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia, however, Elizabeth met people who thought slavery was wrong. After she returned home, Elizabeth tried to convince her father to free their slaves. Although he didn’t agree, Elizabeth convinced her mother to free them when her father died.
By the time of the Civil War, Elizabeth had grown up. She still loved her hometown, but she was devastated that Virginia decided to leave the Union. “Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me.” While some southerners with Union sympathies fled north, Elizabeth stayed, determined to help the Union cause from Richmond. Unionists who stayed behind often became agents for Elizabeth who slowly assembled a spy ring for the Union.
In July 1861, Elizabeth first visited Libby Prison where Union soldiers from the First Battle of Manassas were held. From these men she got information about the location and movements of the Confederate forces and they received food and medicine from her. She was already considered by the townspeople to be odd because of her views on slavery. Some people called her “crazy Bet.” She used this perception to her advantage when visiting the prison. She talked aloud to herself and dressed in strange clothes so Confederate guards would think she was harmless. Her frequent visits allowed her to pass information to the Union army.
Some of the slaves she had freed and other Union sympathizers carried Elizabeth’s messages at various stopping points on the way to a federal fort in Hampton, Virginia. It was important that Confederates not intercept the messages, so Elizabeth devised different ways for her agents to hide information. Elizabeth later wrote, “Information was delivered by servants carrying baskets of eggs. One egg in each basket was hollow and contained notes…torn into small pieces. In addition, notes were carried in the soles of servant’s shoes.” Elizabeth got one of her servants, Mary Bowser, a position as a maid in the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. The girl pretended to be illiterate, but she memorized letters Davis received and reported the information to Elizabeth so it could be sent to Union commanders.
Elizabeth’s spy ring was so reliable that she communicated with high-ranking officials, including General Ulysses S. Grant. When the federal army overtook Richmond in 1865, General Grant stopped at the Van Lew home to thank Elizabeth. In a letter Grant wrote, “you have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”