Elizabeth Van Lew was a Union spy during the Civil War. She lived and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. When Virginia seceded from the Union, Richmond became the new capital for the Confederate States. Despite being a Union sympathizer, she remained in Richmond and ran her spy network right under the nose of the Confederates. Her spy ring became one of the most extensive in operation at the time.
Elizabeth was plain looking and people had come to develop the opinion that she was crazy. They even gave her the nickname “Crazy Bett.” Elizabeth used this to her advantage by playing up the persona people had created for her. Because of her lack of beauty and the persona she adopted, people would write her off and speak freely around her as if she wasn’t even there.
Though she had her hand in every aspect of the network she had created, Elizabeth, herself, operated out of Libby Prison (a Confederate prison for Union soldiers they had captured). On the pretense of visiting the Union soldiers in the prison, Elizabeth would sneak contraband and letters in and out. Her primary method of doing so was to hide the contraband in the false bottom of a baking dish she brought the soldiers food in. In addition to sneaking contraband in and out, Elizabeth helped several soldiers escape Libby Prison and hid many of them in a false compartment in the wall of her family home.
One of her largest contributions to the war effort was the Union spy she planted in the Confederate White House. Her former slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, became the personal slave to Jefferson Davis and his wife. Mary, who had a photographic memory, would relay detailed messages of letters she saw while dusting the president’s office and conversations she overheard between Jefferson Davis and high-ranking Confederate general, including Robert E. Lee.
I always loved learning about women in history since their stories so often go untold. I’ve read a lot about women in espionage over the years, but the thing that always struck me about Elizabeth Van Lew was the way she broke the societal convention of beauty and used it as a weapon. She was smart and had layers of passion in her for her city, her country, and the abolitionist movement, but when people looked at her, all they saw was a plain-looking crazy woman. Instead of letting people’s opinions of her break her down, she used them to build a spy network that helped the Union win the Civil War.
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