It was the winter of 1835. Study hour was just over in one of Philadelphia's most famous "finishing schools" of that day, and half a dozen girls were still grouped around the big center-table piling their books up preparatory to going to their rooms for the night. Suddenly Catherine Holloway spoke.
"Listen, girls," she said; "Miss Smith says we are to have a real Debating Club, with officers and regular club nights, and all sorts of interesting subjects. Won't it be fun? And what do you suppose the first topic is to be?"
Books were dropped on the table, and several voices exclaimed in eager question, "What?"
"'Resolved: That Slavery be abolished.' And Betty Van Lew is to take the negative side!"
There was a chorus of suppressed "Oh-h-hs!" around the table, then some one asked, "Who is going to take the other side?"
The speaker shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "I hope it will be me. My, but it would be exciting to debate that question against Betty!"
"You would get the worst of it," said a positive voice. "There isn't a girl in school who knows what she thinks on any subject as clearly as Betty knows what she believes about slavery."
The speaker tossed her head. "You don't know much about it, if you think that!" she declared. "We Massachusetts colonists are just as sure on our side as she is on hers—and you all ought to be if you are not! Father says it is only in the cotton-raising States that they think the way Betty does, and we Northerners must stand firm against having human beings bought and sold like merchandise. I just hope I will be chosen on that debate against Betty."
She was, but she came off vanquished by the verbal gymnastics of her opponent, to whom the arguments in favor of slavery were as familiar as the principles of arithmetic, for Betty had heard the subject discussed by eloquent and interested men ever since she was able to understand what they were talking about.
Never did two opponents argue with greater fire and determination for a cause than did those two school-girls, pitted against each other in a discussion of a subject far beyond their understanding. So cleverly did the Virginia girl hold up her end of the debate against her New England opponent, and so shrewdly did she repeat all the arguments she had heard fall from Southern lips, that she sat down amid a burst of applause, having won her case, proudly sure that from that moment there would be no more argument against slavery among her schoolmates, for who could know more about it than the daughter of one of Richmond's leading inhabitants? And who could appreciate the great advantages of slavery to the slaves themselves better than one who owned them?
But Betty had not reckoned with the strength of the feeling among those Northerners with whose children she was associated. They had also heard many telling arguments at home on the side against that which Betty had won because she had complied so fully with the rules of debate; and she had by no means won her friends over to her way of thinking. Many a heated argument was carried on later in the Quaker City school over that question which was becoming a matter of serious difference between the North and the South.
Before the war for Independence slavery existed in all the States of the Union. After the war was over some of the States abolished slavery, and others would have followed their example had it not been for the invention of the cotton-gin, which made the owning of slaves much more valuable in the cotton-growing States. East of the Mississippi River slavery was allowed in the new States lying south of the Ohio, but forbidden in the territory north of the Ohio. When Missouri applied for admission into the Union, the question of slavery west of the Mississippi was discussed and finally settled by what was afterward called "The Missouri Compromise of 1820."
In 1818, two years before this Compromise was agreed upon, Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond. As we have already seen, when she was seventeen, she was in the North at school. Doubtless Philadelphia had been chosen not only because of the excellence of the school to which she was sent, but also because the Quaker City was her mother's childhood home, which fact is one to be kept clearly in mind as one follows Betty Van Lew's later life in all its thrilling details.
For many months after her victory as a debater Betty's convictions did not waver—she was still a firm believer that slavery was right and best for all. Then she spent a vacation with a schoolmate who lived in a New England village, in whose home she heard arguments fully as convincing in their appeal to her reason as those to which she had listened at home from earliest childhood. John Van Lew, Betty's father, had ever been one of those Southerners who argued that in slavery lay the great protection for the negro—in Massachusetts Betty heard impassioned appeals for the freedom of the individual, of whatever race, and to those appeals her nature slowly responded as a result partly of her inheritance from her mother's Northern blood, and partly as a result of that keen sense of justice which was always one of her marked traits.
At the end of her school days in the North, Betty's viewpoint had so completely changed that she went back to her Richmond home an unwavering abolitionist, who was to give her all for a cause which became more sacred to her than possessions or life itself.
Soon after her return to Virginia she was visited by the New England friend in whose home she had been a guest, and to the Massachusetts girl, fresh from the rugged hills and more severe life of New England, Richmond was a fascinating spot, and the stately old mansion, which John Van Lew had recently bought, was a revelation of classic beauty which enchanted her.
The old mansion stood on Church Hill, the highest of Richmond's seven hills. "Across the way was St. John's, in the shadow of whose walls Elizabeth Van Lew grew from childhood. St. John's, which christened her and confirmed her, and later barred its doors against her." Behind the house at the foot of the hill stood "The Libby," which in years to come was to be her special care.... But this is anticipating our story. Betty Van Lew, full of the charm and enthusiasm of youth, had just come home from school, and with her had come the Northern friend, to whom the Southern city with its languorous beauty and warm hospitality was a wonder and a delight.
The old mansion stood close to the street, and "from the pavement two steep, curving flights of stone steps, banistered by curious old iron railings, ascended to either end of the square, white-pillared portico which formed the entrance to the stately Van Lew home with its impressive hall and great high-ceilinged rooms. And, oh! the beauty of the garden at its rear!"
Betty's friend reveled in its depths of tangled color and fragrance, as arm in arm the girls wandered down broad, box-bordered walks, from terrace to terrace by way of moss-grown stone stairs, deep sunk in the grassy lawn, and now and again the New England girl would exclaim:
"Oh, Betty, I can't breathe, it is all so beautiful!"
And indeed it was. "There were fig-trees, persimmons, mock orange, and shrubs ablaze with blossoms. The air was heavy with the sweetness of the magnolias, loud with the mocking-birds in the thickets, and the drone of insects in the hot, dry grass. And through the branches of the trees on the lower terrace one could get frequent glimpses of the James River, thickly studded with black rocks and tiny green islands." No wonder that the girl from the bleak North found it in her heart to thrill at the beauty of such a gem from Nature's jewel-casket as was that garden of the Van Lews'!
And other things were as interesting to her in a different way as the garden was beautiful. Many guests went to and from the hospitable mansion, and the little Northerner saw beautiful women and heard brilliant men talk intelligently on many subjects of vital import, especially on the all-important subject of slavery; of the men who upheld it, of its result to the Union. But more interesting to her than anything else were the slaves themselves, of whom the Van Lews had many, and who were treated with the kindness and consideration of children in a family.
"Of course, it is better for them!" declared Betty. "Everybody who has grown up with them knows that they simply can't take responsibility,—and yet!" There was a long pause, then Betty added, softly: "And yet, all huma beings have a right to be free; I know it; and all the States of the Union must agree on that before there is any kind of a bond between them."
She spoke like an old lady, her arm leaning on the window-sill, with her dimpled chin resting in her hand, and as the moonlight gleamed across the window-sill, young as she was, in Betty Van Lew's face there was a gleam of that purpose which in coming years was to be her consecration and her baptism of fire, although a moment later the conversation of the girls had drifted into more frivolous channels, and a coming dance was the all-important topic.
As we know, when Missouri applied for admission into the Union, the slavery question was discussed and finally settled by the so-called "Missouri Compromise" in 1820. Now, in 1849, a new question began to agitate both North and South. Before that time the debate had been as to the abolishing of slavery, but the question now changed to "Shall slavery be extended? Shall it be allowed in the country purchased from Mexico?" As this land had been made free soil by Mexico, many people in the North insisted that it should remain free. The South insisted that the newly acquired country was the common property of the States, that any citizen might go there with his slaves, and that Congress had no power to prevent them. Besides this, the South also insisted that there ought to be as many slave States as free States. At that time the numbers were equal—fifteen slave States and fifteen free. Some threats were made that the slaveholding States would leave the Union if Congress sought to shut out slavery in the territory gained from Mexico.
That a State might secede, or withdraw from the Union, had long been claimed by a party led by John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina. Daniel Webster had always opposed this doctrine and stood as the representative of those who held that the Union could not be broken. Now, in 1850, Henry Clay undertook to end the quarrel between the States, and as a result there was a famous debate between the most notable living orators, Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, and a new compromise was made. It was called the Compromise of 1850, and it was confidently hoped would be a final settlement of all the troubles growing out of slavery. But it was not. With slow and increasing bitterness the feeling rose in both North and South over the mooted question, and slowly but surely events moved on toward the great crisis of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States.
"The Southern States had been hoping that this might be prevented, for they knew that Lincoln stood firmly for the abolition of slavery in every State in the Union, and that he was not a man to compromise or falter when he believed in a principle. So as soon as he was elected the Southern States began to withdraw from the Union, known as the United States of America. First went South Carolina, then Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Then delegates from these States met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed a new Union which they called the 'Confederate States of America,' with Jefferson Davis as its President. Then Texas joined the Confederacy, and events were shaping themselves rapidly for an inevitable culmination.
"When South Carolina withdrew there was within her boundary much property belonging to the United States, such as lighthouses, court-houses, post-offices, custom-houses, and two important forts, Moultrie and Sumter, which guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor, and were held by a small band of United States troops under the command of Major Robert Anderson.
"As soon as the States seceded a demand was made on the United States for a surrender of this property. The partnership called the Union, having been dissolved by the secession of South Carolina, the land on which the buildings stood belonged to the State, but the buildings themselves, being the property of the United States, should be paid for by the State, and an agent was sent to Washington to arrange for the purchase.
"Meanwhile, scenting grave trouble, troops were being enlisted and drilled, and Major Anderson, fearing that if the agent did not succeed in making the purchase the forts would be taken by force, cut down the flagstaff and spiked the guns at Fort Moultrie, and moved his men to Fort Sumter, which stood on an island in the harbor and could be more easily defended, and so the matter stood when Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated, March 4, 1861."
Fort Sumter was now in a state of siege. Anderson and his men could get no food from Charleston, while the troops of the Confederacy had planted cannon with which they could at any time fire on the fort. Either the troops must very soon go away or food must be sent them. Mr. Lincoln decided to send food. But when the vessels with food, men and supplies reached Charleston, they found that the Confederates had already begun to fire on Fort Sumter. Then, as Major Anderson related: "Having defended the Fort for thirty-four hours, until the quarters were entirely burned, the main gates destroyed by fire ... the magazine surrounded by flame, and its doors closed from the effects of heat, four barrels and three cartridges only being available, and no provisions remaining but pork, I accepted terms of evacuation offered by General Beauregard ... and marched out of the Fort, Sunday the 14th instant, with colors flying and drums beating."
When the news of the fall of Sumter reached the North, the people knew that all hope of a peaceable settlement of the dispute with the South was gone. Mr. Lincoln at once called for 75,000 soldiers to serve for three months, and the first gun of the Civil War had been fired.
While these momentous events were stirring both North and South, Betty Van Lew, in her Richmond home, was experiencing the delights of young womanhood in a city celebrated for its gaiety of social life. "There were balls and receptions in the great house, garden-parties in the wonderful garden, journeyings to the White Sulphur Springs, and other resorts of the day, in the coach drawn by six snowy horses," and all sorts of festivities for the young and light-hearted. Even in a city as noted for charming women as was Richmond, Betty Van Lew enjoyed an enviable popularity. To be invited to the mansion on the hill was the great delight of her many acquaintances, while more than one ardent lover laid his heart at her feet; but her pleasure was in the many rather than in the one, and she remained heart-whole while most of her intimate friends married and went to homes of their own. It is said that as she grew to womanhood, she was "of delicate physique and a small but commanding figure, brilliant, accomplished and resolute, with great personality and of infinite charm." At first no one took her fearless expression of opinion in regard to the slavery question seriously, coming as it did from the lips of such a charming young woman, but as time went on and she became more outspoken and more diligent in her efforts to uplift and educate the negroes, she began to be less popular, and to be spoken of as "queer and eccentric" by those who did not sympathize with her views.
Nevertheless, Richmond's first families still eagerly accepted invitations to the Van Lew mansion, and it was in its big parlor that Edgar Allan Poe read his poem, "The Raven," to a picked audience of Richmond's elect, there Jenny Lind sang at the height of her fame, and there as a guest came the Swedish novelist, Fredrika Bremer, and in later years came Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, whose admiration of Elizabeth Van Lew was unbounded because of her service to the Union.
Betty's father having died soon after she came from school, and her brother John being of a retiring disposition, Mrs. Van Lew and Betty did the honors of the stately house on the hill in a manner worthy of Southern society women, and as years went by and Betty became a woman, always when they had brilliant guests she listened carefully, saying little, but was fearlessly frank in her expression of opinion on vital subjects, when her opinion was asked.
"And now, Sumter had been fired on. Three days after the little garrison marched out of the smoking fort, Virginia seceded from the Union, and Richmond went war-mad. In poured troops from other States, and the beautiful Southern city became a vast military camp. Daily the daughters of the Confederacy met in groups to sew or knit for the soldiers, or to shoot at a mark with unaccustomed hands. One day a note was delivered at the Van Lew mansion, and opened by Mrs. Van Lew, who read it aloud to her daughter:
"'Come and help us make shirts for our soldiers. We need the immediate assistance of all our women at this critical time....'"
The silence in the room was unbroken except for the heart-beats of the two women facing a sure future, looking sadly into each other's eyes. Suddenly Elizabeth threw back her head proudly.
"Never!" she said. "Right is right. We must abide by the consequences of our belief. We will work for the Union or sit idle!"
The testing of Elizabeth Van Lew had come. Fearlessly she made her choice—fearlessly she took the consequences. From that moment her story is the story of the Federal Spy.
"Out in the middle of the turbulent river James lay Belle Isle Prison surrounded by its stockade. In the city of Richmond, at the foot of Church Street, almost at Betty Van Lew's door, was the Libby, with its grim, gray walls; only a stone's throw farther away were Castle Lightning on the north side of Cary Street, and Castle Thunder on the south side. In July of 1861 the battle of Bull Run was fought, and the Confederate army defeated and put to flight by the Union soldiers. The Libby, Belle Isle and Castle Thunder all were overflowing with scarred and suffering human beings,—with sick men, wounded men, dying men, and Northern prisoners." Here was work to do!
Down the aisles of the hastily converted hospitals and into dim prison cells came almost daily a little woman with a big smile, always with her hands full of flowers or delicacies, a basket swinging from her arm. As she walked she hummed tuneless airs, and her expression was such a dazed and meaningless one that the prison guards and other soldiers paid little heed to the coming and going of "Crazy Bet," as she was called. "Mis' Van Lew—poor creature, she's lost her balance since the war broke out. She'll do no harm to the poor boys, and maybe a bit of comfortin'. A permit? Oh yes, signed by General Winder himself,—let her be!" Such was the verdict passed from sentry-guard to sentry in regard to "Crazy Bet," who wandered on at will, humming her ditties and ministering to whom she would.
One day a cautious guard noticed a strange dish she carried into the prison. It was an old French platter, with double bottom, in which water was supposed to be placed to keep the food on the platter hot. The dish roused the guard's suspicions, and to a near-by soldier he muttered something about it. Apparently unheeding him, "Crazy Bet" passed on beyond the grim, gray walls, carrying her platter, but she had heard his words. Two days later she came to the prison door again with the strange dish in her hand wrapped in a shawl. The sentry on guard stopped her.
"I will have to examine that," he said.
"Take it!" she said, hastily unwrapping it and dropping it into his hands. It contained no secret message that day, as it had before—only water scalding hot, and the guard dropped it with a howl of pain, and turned away to nurse his burned hands, while "Crazy Bet" went into the prison smiling a broad and meaningless smile.
Well did the Spy play her rôle, as months went by; more loudly she hummed, more vacantly she smiled, and more diligently she worked to obtain information regarding the number and placing of Confederate troops, which information she sent on at once to Federal headquarters. Day by day she worked, daring loss of life, and spending her entire fortune for the sake of the cause which was dearer to her than a good name or riches—the preservation of the Union and the abolishing of slavery.
From the windows of the Libby, and from Belle Isle, the prisoners could see passing troops and supply-trains and give shrewd guesses at their strength and destination, making their conjectures from the roads by which they saw the Confederates leave the town. Also they often heard scraps of conversations between surgeons or prison guards, which they hoarded like so much gold, to pass on to "Crazy Bet," and so repay her kindness and her lavish generosity, which was as sincere as her underlying motive was genuine. Meals at the Van Lew mansion grew less and less bountiful, even meager,—not one article did either Elizabeth Van Lew or her loyal mother buy for themselves, but spent their ample fortune without stint on the sick and imprisoned in their city, while there was never an hour of her time that the Federal Spy gave to her own concerns. If there was nothing else to be done, she was writing a home letter for some heart-sick prisoner from the North, and secretly carrying it past the censors to be sure that it should reach the anxious family eagerly awaiting news of a loved one.
"Crazy Bet" loaned many books to the prisoners, which were returned with a word or sentence or a page number faintly underlined here and there. In the privacy of her own room, the Spy would piece them together and read some important bit of news which she instantly sent to Federal headquarters by special messenger, as she had ceased using the mails in the early stages of the war. Or a friendly little note would be handed her with its hidden meaning impossible to decipher except by one who knew the code. Important messages were carried back and forth in her baskets of fruit and flowers in a way that would have been dangerous had not "Crazy Bet" established such a reputation for harmless kindness. She had even won over Lieutenant Todd, brother of Mrs. Lincoln, who was in charge of the Libby, by the personal offerings she brought him of delectable buttermilk and gingerbread. Clever Bet!
So well did she play her part now, and with such assurance, that she would sometimes stop a stranger on the street and begin a heated argument in favor of the Union, while the person who did not know her looked on the outspoken little woman with a mixture of admiration and contempt. At that time her lifelong persecution, by those who had before been her loyal friends, began. Where before she had been met with friendly bows and smiles, there were now averted glances or open insults. She encountered dislike, even hatred, on every side, but at that time it mattered little to her, for her heart and mind were occupied with bigger problems.
What she did mind was that from time to time her permit to visit the hospitals and prisons was taken away, and she was obliged to use all the diplomacy of which she was mistress, to win it back again from either General Winder or the Secretary of War. At one time the press and people became so incensed against the Northern prisoners that no one was allowed to visit the prisons or do anything for their relief. Among the clippings found among Betty Van Lew's papers is this:
Rapped Over the Knucks.
One of the city papers contained Monday a word of exhortation to certain females of Southern residence (and perhaps birth) but of decidedly Northern and Abolition proclivities. The creatures thus alluded to were not named.... If such people do not wish to be exposed and dealt with as alien enemies to the country, they would do well to cut stick while they can do so with safety to their worthless carcasses.
On the margin in faded ink there is written: "These ladies were my mother and myself. God knows it was but little we could do."
Spring came, and McClellan, at the head of the Army of the Potomac, moved up the peninsula. "On to Richmond!" was the cry, as the troops swept by. It is said that the houses in the city shook with the cannonading, and from their roofs the people could see the bursting of shells. "Crazy Bet," watching the battle with alternate hope and fear, was filled with fierce exultation, and hastily prepared a room in the house on the hill with new matting and fresh curtains for the use of General McClellan. But the Federal forces were repulsed by the Confederate troops under General Lee and "drew away over the hills." General McClellan had failed in his attempt to take Richmond, and within that room freshly prepared for his use bitter disappointment and dead hope were locked.
There was great rejoicing in Richmond in this repulse of the Federal army, and even those old friends who were now enemies of Elizabeth Van Lew, could afford to throw her a smile or a kind word in the flush of their triumph. She responded pleasantly, for she was a big enough woman to understand a viewpoint which differed from her own. Meanwhile, she worked on tirelessly through the long days and nights of an unusually hot summer, meeting in secret conferences with Richmond's handful of Unionists, to plot and scheme for the aid of the Federal authorities. "The Van Lew mansion was the fifth in a chain of Union Secret Service relaying stations, whose beginning was in the headquarters tent of the Federal army. Of this chain of stations the Van Lew farm, lying a short distance outside of the city, was one. It was seldom difficult for Betty Van Lew to get passes for her servants to make the trip between the farm and the Richmond house, and this was one of her most valuable methods of transmitting and receiving secret messages. Fresh eggs were brought in from the farm almost every day to the house on Church Hill, and no one was allowed to touch them until the head of the house had counted them, with true war-time economy, and she always took one out, for her own use in egg-nog, so she said. In reality that egg was but a shell which contained a tiny scroll of paper, a message from some Union general to the Federal Spy. An old negro brought the farm products in to Richmond, and he always stopped for a friendly chat with his mistress, yes, and took off his thick-soled shoes that he might deliver into her hands a cipher despatch which she was generally awaiting eagerly! Much sewing was done for the Van Lews at that time by a little seamstress, who worked at both farm and city home, and in carrying dress goods and patterns back and forth she secreted much valuable information for the Spy, on whom the Union generals were now depending for the largest part of their news in regard to Confederate plans and movements of troops." And she did not disappoint them in the slightest detail.
She must have a disguise in which she could go about the city and its environs without fear of detection, and she must also gain more valuable and accurate information from headquarters of the Confederacy. This she resolved, and then set to work to achieve her end. At once she wrote to a negro girl, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who had been one of the Van Lews' slaves, but who had been freed and sent North to be educated, inviting her to visit the stately mansion where she had grown up, and the invitation was eagerly accepted. On her arrival in Richmond, she was closeted a long time with her one-time mistress, to whom she owed her liberty, and when the interview ended the girl's eyes were shining, and she wore an air of fixed resolve only equaled by that of Betty Van Lew.
A waitress was needed in the White House of the Southern Confederacy. Three days after Mary Bowser arrived at the Van Lews', she had applied for the position and become a member of Jefferson Davis's household. Another link had been forged in the long chain of details by which the Spy worked her will and gained her ends.
Despite the suspicion and ill-will felt in Richmond for the Van Lews, more than one Confederate officer and public official continued to call there throughout the war, to be entertained by them. The fare was meager in comparison to the old lavish entertaining, but the conversation was brilliant and diverting, and so cleverly did Betty lead it that "many a young officer unwittingly revealed much important information of which he never realized the value, but which was of great use to 'Crazy Bet' when combined with what she already knew.
"And when night fell over the city Betty would steal out in her disguise of a farm-hand, in the buckskin leggins, one-piece skirt and waist of cotton, and the huge calico sunbonnet, going about her secret business, a little lonely, unnoticed figure, and in a thousand unsuspected, simple ways she executed her plans and found out such things as she needed to know to aid the Federal authorities."
History was in the making in those stirring days of 1862, when, having failed to take Richmond, General McClellan had returned North by sea, when the Confederates under General Lee prepared to invade the North, but were turned back after the great battle of Antietam. Thrilling days they were to live through, and to the urge and constant demand for service every man and woman of North and South instantly responded. But none of the women gave such daring service as did Elizabeth Van Lew. Known as a dauntless advocate of abolition and of the Union, suspected of a traitor's disloyalty to the South, but with that stain on her reputation as a Southerner unproved from the commencement of the war until its close, her life was in continual danger. She wrote a year later, "I was an enthusiast who never counted it dear if I could have served the Union—not that I wished to die." For four long years she awoke morning after morning to a new day of suspense and threatening danger, to nights of tension and of horrible fear. "No soldier but had his days and weeks of absolute safety. For her there was not one hour; betrayal, friends' blunders, the carelessness of others; all these she had to dread." All these she accepted for the sake of a cause which she believed to be right and just.
As her system of obtaining information in regard to movements of the Confederates became more perfect, she was connected more closely with the highest Federal authorities,—so closely connected, in fact, that flowers which one day grew in her Richmond garden stood next morning on General Grant's breakfast table.
"One day she received a letter from General Butler, which was to be delivered to a Confederate officer on General Winder's staff. In the letter this officer was asked to 'come through the lines and tell what he knew,' and there were promises of rewards if it should be done successfully. The Spy sat quietly thinking for some time after receiving this letter. If it should fall into Confederate hands it would be the death-warrant of its bearer. Who could be trusted to take it to the officer for whom it was intended? Coolly Elizabeth Van Lew arose, went out, and walked straight to the office of General Winder, took the letter from her bosom, and handed it to the officer for whom it was intended, watching him closely as he read it.
"In the next room were detectives and armed guards, the whole machinery of the Confederate capital's secret police. The officer had but to raise his voice and her game would be up; she would pay the penalty of her daring with her life. She had been suspicious of the officer for some weeks, had marked him as a traitor to his cause. Was she right?
"His face whitened, his lips were set as he read, then, without a quiver of a muscle, he rose and followed her out of the room; then he gave way and implored her to be more prudent. If she would never come there again he would go to her, he said. And so she gained another aid in her determined purpose of 'striking at the very heart of the Confederacy.'
"Another day there was a message of vital importance to send to General Grant, who had asked her to make a report to him of the number and placing of forces in and about Richmond. The cipher despatch was ready, but if it were to reach Grant in time there was not an hour to lose in finding a messenger. At that time no servant of hers could leave the city, and no Federal agent could enter it. Hoping for an inspiration, she took her huge market-basket on her arm, the basket which was so familiar by this time as a part of 'Crazy Bet's' outfit, and with it swinging at her side, humming a tuneless song, she passed down the street, smiling aimlessly in return for mocking glances—and all the while in her hand she held the key to Richmond's defenses!
"As she walked a man passed her and whispered, 'I'm going through to-night!' then walked on just ahead of her. She gave no sign of eagerness, but she was thinking: Was he a Federal agent to whom she could intrust her message, or was he sent out by the police to entrap her as had often been attempted? The cipher despatch in her hand was torn into strips, each one rolled into a tiny ball. Should she begin to drop them, one by one? In perplexity she glanced up into the man's face. No! Her woman's instinct spoke loud and clear, made her turn into a side street and hurry home. The next day she saw him marching past her house for the front with his Confederate regiment, in the uniform of a junior officer, and knew that once again she had been saved from death."
But although she had many such escapes and her wit was so keen that it was a powerful weapon in any emergency, yet as the conflict between the North and the South deepened the need of caution became more necessary than ever, for Confederate spies were everywhere. In her half-destroyed diary which for many months lay buried near the Van Lew house, over and over again the writer emphasizes her fear of discovery. She says:
"If you spoke in your parlor or chamber, you whispered,—you looked under the lounges and beds. Visitors apparently friendly were treacherous.... Unionists lived ever in a reign of terror. I was afraid even to pass the prison; I have had occasion to stop near it when I dared not look up at the windows. I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could sometimes be seen peeping around the columns and pillars of the back portico.... Once I went to Jefferson Davis himself to see if we could not obtain some protection.... His private Secretary told me I had better apply to the Mayor.... Captain George Gibbs had succeeded Todd as keeper of the prisoners; so perilous had our situation become that we took him and his family to board with us. They were certainly a great protection.... Such was our life—such was freedom in the Confederacy. I speak what I know." The diary also tells of Mrs. Van Lew's increasing dread of arrest, dear, delicate, loyal lady—for that was constantly spoken of, and reported on the street, while some never hesitated to say she should be hanged.
Another summer came and wore away, and the third year of the war was drawing to a close in the terrible winter of 1863-4. The Union army in the East had twice advanced against the Confederates, to be beaten back at Fredericksburg and at Chancellorsville. In June and July of 1863 Lee began a second invasion of the North, but was defeated at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In July, 1863, Vicksburg and Port Hudson were captured and the Mississippi River was in Union hands, but in the following autumn the Confederates of the West defeated the Union army at Chickamauga, after which General Grant took command and was victorious near Chattanooga, and so with alternate hope and despair on both sides the hideous war went on.
Through cipher despatches "Crazy Bet" learned of an intended attempt of Federal officers to escape from Libby Prison, and at once a room in the Van Lew mansion was made ready to secrete them if they achieved their purpose. The room was at the end of one of the big parlors, and dark blankets were hung over its windows; beds were made ready for exhausted occupants, and a low light kept burning day and night in readiness for their possible arrival.
Meanwhile the prisoners in the Libby, desperate because of the horrible conditions in the buildings where they were quartered, were busily constructing a tunnel which ran from the back part of the cellar called "Rat-Hell" to the prison yard. The work was carried on under the direction of Colonel Rose, and his frenzied assistants worked like demons, determined to cut their way through the walls of that grim prison to the light and life of the outer world. At last the tunnel was ready. With quivering excitement over their great adventure added to their exhaustion, the men who were to make their escape, one after another disappeared in the carefully guarded hole leading from the cellar of the prison into a great sewer, and thence into the prison yard. Of this little company of adventurous men eleven Colonels, seven Majors, thirty-two Captains, and fifty-nine Lieutenants escaped before the daring raid was discovered. The news spread like wild-fire through the ranks of the prisoners who were still in the building and among those on duty. Immediately every effort was made by those in charge to re-capture the refugees and bring them back, and as a result, between fifty and sixty of them were once again imprisoned in the squalid cells of the Libby.
Just at that time John Van Lew, Betty's brother, was conscripted into the Confederate army, and although unfit for military duty because of his delicate health, he was at once sent to Camp Lee. As he was a keen sympathizer with his sister's Union interests, as soon as he was sent to the Confederate camp he deserted and fled to the home of a family who lived on the outskirts of the city, who were both Union sympathizers and friends of his sister's. They hid him carefully, and Betty at once came to aid in planning for his escape from the city. Unfortunately it was the night of the escape of the Federal prisoners from the Libby, so a doubly strong guard was set over every exit from Richmond, making escape impossible. Here was a difficult situation! Betty Van Lew knew that some way out of the dilemma must be found; for the house where her brother was secreted would surely be searched for the escaped refugees, and it would go hard with those who were concealing him if they were discovered harboring a deserter.
With quick wit she immediately presented herself at General Winder's office, where she used her diplomatic powers so successfully that the general was entirely convinced of John Van Lew's unfit physical condition for military service, and promised to make every effort toward his exemption. When all efforts proved unavailing, the general took him into his own regiment, and "the Union sympathizer never wore a Confederate uniform, and only once shouldered a Confederate musket, when on a great panic day he stood, a figurehead guard at the door of a government department. At last, in 1864, when even General Winder could not longer protect him from active service at the front, Van Lew deserted again, and served with the Federal Army until after the fall of Richmond."
Meanwhile the old Van Lew house, in its capacity of Secret Service station, was a hive of industry, which was carried on with such smooth and silent secrecy that no one knew what went on in its great rooms. And watching over all those who came and went on legitimate business, or as agents of the Federal Government on secret missions, was a woman, alert of body, keen of mind, standing at her post by day and by night. After all members of her household were safely locked in their rooms for the night, the Spy would creep down, barefooted, to the big library with its ornamented iron fireplace. On either side of this fireplace were two columns, on each of which was a small, carved figure of a lion. Possibly by accident—probably by design, one of these figures was loosened so that it could be raised like a box-lid, and in the darkness of the night the swift, silent figure of the Spy would steal into the big room, lift the carved lion, deftly slip a message in cipher into the cavity beneath the figure and cautiously creep away, with never a creaking board to reveal her coming or going.
With equal caution and swift dexterity, early the next morning an old negro servant would steal into the room, duster and broom in hand, to do his cleaning. Into every corner of the room he would peer, to be sure there were no watching eyes, then he would slip over to the fireplace, lift the lion, draw out the cipher message, place it sometimes in his mouth, sometimes in his shoe, and as soon as his morning chores were done he would be seen plodding down the dusty road leading to the farm, where some one was eagerly waiting for the tidings he carried. Well had the Spy trained her messengers!
The old mansion had also hidden protection for larger bodies than could be concealed under the recumbent lion by the fireplace. Up under the sloping roof, between the west wall of the garret and the tiles, was a long, narrow room, which was probably built at the order of Betty Van Lew, that she might have a safe shelter for Union refugees. All through the war gossip was rife concerning the Van Lews and their movements, and there were many rumors that the old mansion had a secret hiding-place, but this could never be proved. Besides those whom it sheltered from time to time, and the one whose thought had planned it, only one other person knew of the existence of that garret room, and for long years she was too frightened to tell what she had seen in an unexpected moment.
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