Hidden History: The women spies who helped the Union

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond woman who hated slavery.

“She had been educated in the north, she had been educated in Philadelphia, came back very, very much against slavery but her family owned slaves,” said United States Park Ranger and Historian Mike Gorman.

Van Lew hated slavery so much, she decided to do something about it.

“She was doing what we would call being a spy,” Gorman explained. “She was recording and reporting troop movements and troop numbers around Richmond, she was actively leading the Union Underground here in Richmond, the 5th Column here in Richmond.”

“She was acting sort of the ring leader and making things happen.”

The park ranger said Van Lew belonged to one of the wealthiest families in Richmond. Her family mansion was located where Richmond’s Bellevue Elementary School currently stands.

“There couldn’t be a better pedigree here in Richmond, her father essentially made Church Hill what it became,” Gorman said. “This is one of the wealthiest families in Church Hill, she was well known, her family was well known and I think that allowed her the freedom to be a little eccentric.”

The Union spy would use slaves to smuggle messages to Union prisoners in soldiers by transporting the vital information in eggs, and sometimes in the heels of the slaves’ shoes. One person Van Lew is expected to have recruited was a friend and former slave, Mary Jane Richards.

“They got her a position as a servant in the White House of the Confederacy in 1861 and she literally served in the role of servant. She was able to sort of monitor conversations and activities of the Confederacy that President Jefferson Davis was involved in and pass information back to Elizabeth Van Lew who then passed it to her connections in the Union Army,” Richmond Historian Ana Edwards explained.

Edwards said the former slave was able to spy posing as a servant.

“One of the reasons she got away with it is because the expectation was that somebody black in those days didn’t have the capacity to be that devious, or smart enough to understand what they were looking at, so she was just taken for granted,  and that gave her the ability to be a good spy,” Edwards said.

Van Lew lost her wealth and her comfortable lifestyle for what she believed in, and she was hated so much Richmonders nicknamed her “Crazy Bet.”

There are some reports that Northerners paid for her tombstone in the Shockoe Cemetery and it is also said when she was laid to rest, her head was faced towards the north.

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