The most hated woman in Virginia changed state’s course

Posted at 12:11 AM, May 10, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-10 07:11:17-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Just a few blocks from the heart of downtown Richmond--at the corner of Fourth and Bates--behind an ancient brick wall and nestled among crumbling headstones and timeworn tombs, you'll stumble across a bulky 2,000 pound chunk of Boston.

An unusual monument marking the final resting place of one of the most significant, but least known figures in American history.

“She has disappeared from the landscape,” Richmond tour guide Sandi Bergman.

Elizabeth Van Lew is a woman who singlehandedly changes the course of the country. Her actions though make her arguably the most despised woman in Virginia.

Dr. Lauranett Lee with the Virginia Historical Society says, “She defied class, gender conventions and race. For a white person to do what she did was incredible. She really put her life on the line.”

In the years prior to the Civil War the slave trade flourishes in Richmond. The city was a slave trading hub. A place where massive fortunes are gained while entire families are broken up and sold at auction.

Elizabeth Van Lew is born in 1818 into a wealthy slave owning household. She was a woman of means living in the finest mansion on Church Hill, but the Quaker educated Van Lew comes to abhor the institution - of humans owning humans.

She secretly starts freeing her slaves following her father's passing  20 years 'before' the Emancipation Proclamation. The decision sets the unmarried Van Lew on a crash course with her fellow Virginians.

Dr. Lee says, “She was seen almost as a threat to southern society.”

At the outset of the Civil War many Richmonders who opposed seceding from the Union flee north, but not Van Lew.

Elizabeth Varon author of “Southern Lady. Yankee Spy” says “She believes the slaveholders who argue on behalf of secession are hysterical.”

Van Lew does not sit idly by watching the Blue and Gray create a river of red. She plays an active role while war rages around her. Van Lew starts spending her entire fortune buying, freeing and educating countless slaves.

Varon says, “She felt in her heart that Virginians had a special duty to save the Union.”

The 43 year-old also frequents the notorious Libby Prison, aiding Union officers starving and suffering in squalor. She is not just ferrying food and medicine. Van Lew helps countless prisoners escape hiding them in her own home.

Dr. Lee says, “That would have been considered treason.”

But Van Lew's greatest contribution to the Union's war effort remains top secret. With the South in open rebellion Van Lew wages her own covert war. Her friends working as servants in the homes of Confederate leaders stealthily gather military intelligence.

“There were people who were being executed for treason against the Confederacy in Richmond,” says The Virginia Historical Society's Caroline Legros.

Van Lew and her clandestine network of a dozen black and white operatives risk life and limb.

“They lived daily with the threat of death,” Dr. Lee says.

Elizabeth Varon author of "Southern Lady. Yankee Spy" says,  “This is a great story of a forgotten woman. When she is Elizabeth Van Lew in public she pretends to be a loyal Confederate. Confederates know there are Unionists who have orchestrated this but they can’t get them. They can’t get them.”

Richmond tour guide Sandi Bergman says Van Lew smuggles coded messages written in invisible ink to Union generals bearing down on Richmond.

“She knew more about battle strategy than anyone ever give her credit for. She hollowed out eggshells and put messages to them. She hollowed out spines of books and have them delivered to the Union camp.

The information has devastating effects on the front lines protecting the Capital of the Confederacy.

While neighbors scoff at her anti-slavery position  no one thinks the diminutive Van Lew is capable of orchestrating such an effective spy ring that would help the North win the war.

Varon says, “The sexism of Confederacy blinded them to her agency. She was a middle-aged spinster as far as they were concerned.”

After the guns fall silent and while the nation binds its wounds the veil of secrecy is ripped from Van Lew's espionage machine.

“She was universally hated in the city,” says Bergman.

Former General now President Ulysses S. Grant commends Van Lew and names her post-mistress of Richmond. A plum position wielding a lot of power. She hires newly emancipated African-Americans and women to fill top positions.

“When we think about civil rights leaders we’ve not really thought about Elizabeth Van Lew.”

The Virginia Historical Society's Caroline Legros guesses most Richmonders don’t know anything about Van Lew’s exploits.  “She was a surprise and a shock. I think Richmonders weren’t ready for her. I think she was somebody outside of her time and the city hated it.

Van Lew uses her job as a bully pulpit  fighting tirelessly for racial and gender equality. Labeled a traitor to the "Lost Cause" - the firebrand is threatened and bullied. But not deterred.

Dr. Lee says, "It says a great deal about her that she remained true to her cause.”

Neighbors shun the eccentric Van Lew like the plague forever calling her "Crazy Bet". Now penniless from helping the Union war effort and freeing countless slaves Van Lew falls on hard times.

Van Lew’s biographer Elizabeth Varon says, “The only people who stand by her are African Americans of Richmond.”

The family of a Union Soldier Van Lew helped while imprisoned in Richmond learns of her financial plight and sends money. Upon her death in 1900 Van Lew is buried in an unmarked grave in Shockoe Hill Cemetery. No monument was erected in her honor.  The once grand Van Lew mansion is demolished in 1911.

Richmond Haunts tour guide Bergman says, “She was not on the right side to be celebrated.

Years after her death Van Lew's abolitionist friends in New England help secure her legacy. They ship the massive stone and bronze plaque to Richmond. The delivery that makes bold headlines.

Bergman says, “As a grave marker it is interesting mostly of its simplicity.”

Historians say a century and a half after Van Lew wrote her chapter in history, it is about time her story emerges from the shadows.

“I think the long term history will be kind to her,” Bergman says. "Maybe she can come back and maybe she can be one of those forgotten heroes we no longer forget.”

As for her hefty shrine? Some say it is a fitting tribute  to the woman who was as unyielding as a boulder.

Dr. Lee says, “I think that we would want to remember what she has done not only African-Americans, but all of us.”

Elizabeth Van Lew is taking her place among some of the top spies in history. Van Lew is part of the Sisterhood of Spies gallery at the spy museum in Washington where you can see a book with a passage written in Van Lew's own handwriting. The passage? "Keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open".