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Notable Virginia Women -  Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900)


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Elizabeth Van Lew

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Lifelong Richmond resident Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900) became one of the most famous and controversial women in nineteenth-century Virginia. A member of one of the city's leading commercial families and descended from prominent Philadelphians, Van Lew inherited a few slaves when her father died and lived in a large mansion on Church Hill. She remained loyal to the United States after Virginia seceded in the spring of 1861 and worked to ease the plight of Union soldiers held as prisoners of war in old warehouses near her home. During the war she became the most effective Union espionage agent in the capital of the Confederacy. Her courageous patriotism put her life and liberty at risk, but she persevered through the end of the war in her attempts to serve her country. In reward for her work during the war, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Van Lew postmaster of Richmond. The first woman to hold the office, Van Lew was postmaster (she declined to adopt the title postmistress) for nearly eight years, during which she played an important leadership role in the state's Republican Party and facilitated the entry of African Americans into politics.

Late in her life, Van Lew became the object of scorn. People began to call her "Crazy Bet" and to explain her Unionism and her political activism not as acts of patriotism but as the consequences of having an unsound mind or as duplicitous hostility to Virginia values. The widely propagated myths distorted her role in the city's social life and devalued her bravery and significant contributions to the war effort. The myths also led to misrepresentations of women's activities in the South during the Civil War and to a misunderstanding of many other events in those years. Because Van Lew's contribution had been to the Union and not to the Confederacy, it may have seemed irrational or otherwise inexplicable during the hey-day of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. In fact, Van Lew was not mentally deranged nor did she act irrationally in public. She was not “Crazy Bet,” but Miss Van Lew, a respectable, able, and determined patriot.