Elizabeth Van Lew

Posted: July 7, 2008 in Civil War, Counterintelligence, Cryptology, Espionage, Tradecraft

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900) was a Quaker educated daughter of a Virginia plantation owner who became a Union Military spy during the Civil War.

Aside from Elizabeth’s involvement in the Mary Elizabeth Bowser spying affair, Van Lew was openly Pro-Union, an abolitionist, openly provided food and clothing to Union POW’s (also helped a few escape as well), and used a great deal of her own fortune to finance her espionage activities for which, oddly, she was never arrested.

Many thought Elizabeth generally strange and she garnered the nickname “Crazy Bet”. Crazy or not, Van Lew operated a hugely successful spy ring that infiltrated both the Navy and Army War Department of the Confederacy. On the cheeky side, Van Lew communicated her intelligence to Ulysses Grant by sending him flowers wrapped in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper (because she developed a cipher system for the newspaper to be decoded), and even smuggled messages out of Virginia via hollow eggs.

Highly praised for her valuable intelligence work during the war, Van Lew was rewarded with, well, nothing. Her family fortune was spent on her intelligence activities and she was ostracized from her Richmond neighbors. She died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave until the family of a Union soldier whom she aided donated a gravestone.

Like her fellow sister-in-the-know, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Elizabeth Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


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