Dorothy Sloan -- Books

Copyright 2000- by Dorothy Sloan-Rare Books Inc. for all materials on this site. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.



A Union Female Spy in the Bosom of the Confederacy

Click images or links labeled Enlarge to enlarge. Links labeled Zoom open zoomable images.

134.     [CIVIL WAR]. VAN LEW, Elizabeth Louisa. Autograph manuscript signed almost forty times and with fifteen instances of the maxim: “Keep your mouth shut, your eyes and ears open.” Untitled school practice notebook. 4to (18.8 x 16.3 cm), wove paper Seventeen leaves ruled in manuscript and written on both sides in ink; original drab green paper covers. [Philadelphia, ca. 1830]. Upper cover detached, stitching broken, first leaf wanting, second leaf torn in half; lower right corner of two leaves nicked (no loss of text). Covers detached and moderately stained. Every page signed at bottom “Elizabeth Louisa Van Lew”; also signed in several other places. Overall, a good copy of an ephemeral survival. Because Van Lew destroyed most all of her manuscripts and letters, and others have survived only by historical accident, any of Van Lew’s manuscript materials are exceedingly rare in commerce. We find no manuscripts or letters by Van Lew in auction records. On the trade front, we found a 1907 sales offering by Goodspeed’s (54:39) for a copy of Pike and Heyward’s tract Religious Cases of Conscience Answered in an Evangelical Manner (Savannah, 1826), autographed on flyleaf by Van Lew. Provenance: Discovered in the early twentieth century in the Van Lew mansion in Richmond (demolished in 1911).

     Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900; Notable American Women), Union spy, probably created this practice book as a student during her education at a Philadelphia Quaker school. As is typical of such volumes, the contents were executed both to practice penmanship and to teach moral or practical maxims. The maxims are repeated seven times per page, a different one on each page. Many are incomplete, suggesting that the penmanship aspect of this exercise book was the emphasis (e.g., “Variety tends more to amuse than [to instruct]”). In other instances, Van Lew adjusted her writing to fit the space, and one sentence will be complete, but others not so. The lines guide the height of the letters, as is typical in student writing books. One prescient maxim she repeated was: “Keep your mouth shut, your eyes and ears open.”

     Richmond native Van Lew was sent to Philadelphia in the early 1830s to attend the academy from which her mother had graduated. At this school, Elizabeth was probably exposed to anti-slavery ideas. After receiving her education, she was supposed to enter the most glorious epoch of her life—her years as a “belle.” Seemingly, she had one suitor, but apparently he died before they could marry. The identity of this man is not known; but after losing her love, Elizabeth threw herself into benevolent and abolitionist work.

     After touring Europe in the late 1850s, Elizabeth made a momentous change at home. With her mother’s blessing, she freed the family’s slaves, many of whom chose to stay on as paid servants. She then began to buy the family members of her former slaves and reunite the families. The people of Richmond raised their eyebrows, but continued to think of Elizabeth as a solid Southern citizen who just happened to have peculiar ideas about slavery. As long as the Confederacy wanted to preserve slavery, however, she could never support the Confederate cause. She further did not believe that a state had the right to secede, and thought that any person who wanted to destroy the Union was a traitor.

     During the Civil War, Van Lew used her Southern social position to provide information out of a sense of duty to the Union cause. She spied under various code names, sending valuable military information to Generals Ulysses S. Grant, George H. Sharpe, Benjamin F. Butler, and George G. Meade. Elizabeth led a successful spy ring for the duration of the war from her Richmond mansion. Even though under constant threat of being discovered, she kept a secret diary about her endeavors. She buried the “Occasional Journal.” Fearing recrimination from Southerners, on December 16, 1866, she went to the U.S. War Department and requested that every message she sent be returned to her; and most were given to her. While she destroyed these documents, she did not burn the journal. Elizabeth Van Lew’s “Occasional Journal” originally consisted of over 700 handwritten pages. Having been buried for some time, however, many pages were lost or damaged. About 400 pages survive. On her deathbed, she requested that the journal be brought to her and was disappointed that not half of it was readable. The journal is now housed with the Van Lew Papers in the New York Public Library. Additional letters, notes, and road passes are located at the Virginia Historical Society.

     Elizabeth was determined she would do all in her power to see the South defeated, the slaves freed, and the Union reunited. She made dangerous plans to give information to the Unionists. She began by helping Union prisoners with food and reading deliveries. Information was delivered in baskets of eggs, one of which was hollow and contained her notes. She devised her own code that consisted of numbers and letters. Coded notes were also placed into the spines of books. In addition, she deliberately infiltrated the Confederate White House. When Jefferson Davis asked for more household help, Elizabeth sent her former slave to work for him and spy on the Confederate president in his own home as a table maid. Elizabeth had previously given this woman a Philadelphia education, as she herself had received, so her secret agent was literate.

     As the war went on, Van Lew decided to leave the impression that she was crazy. She wore old, mismatched clothing, messed up her hair, and wore a ragged bonnet in public. She was laughed at in the city’s streets and taunted as “Crazy Bet.”

     When Jefferson Davis announced on April 2 that the Confederate army was abandoning Richmond, chaos followed. Many tried to flee the city, but not Van Lew. Above her house, as victorious Union troops entered the city in 1865, she was the first to raise a new American flag that had been smuggled into Richmond. While in town on April 4, President Abraham Lincoln, confirmed of her true identity, shook her hand and said, “And the country is grateful to you. God Bless you, Miss Van Lew!”

     President Grant thought Van Lew a valuable spy and appointed her postmaster of Richmond, one of the few women appointed postmaster during the nineteenth century. She worked to support Susan B. Anthony’s fight to gain the vote for women. In 1880, Van Lew sent a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, expressing her view, “I am a property holder and a taxpayer [who] ought of right to vote and wish to do so.” During that time, Elizabeth also wrote in support of various other causes, widening her circle of correspondents to include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass.

     After the Civil War, not all the people of Richmond respected Van Lew. Ostracized, to many of her neighbors she was the “witch” and “Union spy who betrayed the South.” Some old-line Richmonders hold this view today. Within Van Lew’s own papers is embedded her protest against such characterizations and her abhorrence of being known in both North and South as a spy: “I do not know how they can call me a spy serving my own country within its recognized borders…. [for] my loyalty am I now to be branded as a spy—by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest? God knows” (p. 7, in Elizabeth R. Varon’s Southern Lady, Yankee Spy… Oxford University Press, 2003). Varon comments: “Behind the labels lies a true story more stirring than fiction, the story of a heroine who deserves to be remembered, first and foremost, as a patriot” (p. 7). See also Karen Zeinert, Elizabeth Van Lew: Southern Belle, Union Spy (Parsippany, New Jersey: Dillon Press, 1995). Van Lew’s Civil War diary was edited by David D. Ryan: A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2001).


Sold. Hammer: $4,000.00; Price Realized: $4,800.00

Auction 22 Abstracts

Click images or links labeled Enlarge to enlarge. Links labeled Zoom open zoomable images.

DSRB Home | e-mail: