Nicknamed “Crazy Bett”
Elizabeth was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. Her parents were both from the northern states: her father from New York and her mother from Philadelphia, where her father had been mayor. Her father became wealthy as a hardware merchant, and her family was among the wealthiest and most socially prominent there.
Unlike some other Southern Unionists, van Lew did not get swept up in the initial tide of Confederate patriotism following Virginia’s secession in April 1861. She joined with other Richmond Unionists to create an under-ground network to hinder the Confederate war effort and give aid and comfort to captured Union soldiers.
Libby Prison, which held scores of Union prisoners in deplorable conditions, was located only blocks from van Lew’s home. When the prison was opened in Richmond, she was allowed to bring food, clothing, writing paper, soap, and other things to the Union soldiers imprisoned there.
There are reports that Elizabeth, understandably labeled as eccentric, was nicknamed “Crazy Bett” which served her well, allowing her to pose as a simple, harmless ‘do-gooder’.
She also was known to have aided prisoners in escape attempts, passing them information about safe houses and also getting a Union sympathizer appointed to the prison staff. One of her contacts in the prison was Office Manager “Commander” Erasmus Ross”, who, throughout the course of the prison’s use, represented himself as a Rebel, but was secretly cooperating van Lew.
Recently captured prisoners gave van Lew information on Confederate troop levels and movements, which she was able to pass on to Union commanders She is rumored to have helped hide escaped Union prisoners and Confederate deserters in her own mansion, although no definite proof of such claims has been found.
Her service to the Union causes virtually drained her financial resources, but through the generosity of friends and later President Grant naming her Postmaster of the Richmond Post Office, she was able to keep the family mansion and survive.