"A SPY SNEAKS IN:
Crafting the Story of a Civil War Spy"
One day, as I stood in the foyer of my friend’s house, waiting to collect my daughter after a visit with her daughter, my friend asked: “What’s your next storytelling project?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “What I’d like most would be to find a really interesting woman from Virginia, so the show could tie into our state curriculum requirements.”
“Oh?” said my friend. “My daughter is doing her History Day project on this woman from Virginia who passed spy notes during the Civil War by pretending to be crazy.”
“Oh!” I clamored. “I’ve read about her! Somewhere I’ve even got a copy of a fictionalized story I saved about her for future use -- I didn’t remember she was from Virginia, though! They called her ‘Crazy Bet,’ right?”
“That’s it,” confirmed my friend.
“She’s perfect! Thank you, thank you!”
And I went home to start researching.
Once I’d read enough to decide that Crazy Bet, whose real name was Elizabeth Van Lew, was in fact a subject that fascinated me and a woman who would be the perfect fit for my next storytelling project, I set about finding more information about her.
I searched local libraries for books and magazine articles on Van Lew and other related subjects -- female spies during the Civil War and an overview of the conflict itself. Every time I found a book that was well-researched, I made sure to look over the bibliography.
That was how I discovered that Van Lew had kept a diary during the Civil War that had been reprinted! It was also how I found that some of her papers are still archived at The College of William and Mary. Needless to say, I found a free day and headed to Williamsburg to read them.
Now I had way too much information! My show could only be 45 to 50 minutes long. I had books and articles and handwritten notes that contained scattered pieces of information about a woman’s life. I had information about being a spy during the Civil War. And I had huge volumes of history on the war itself.
How could I ever consolidate it into one show that would be educational and entertaining and cohesive enough to be both artistic and readily understood by audiences of various ages?
I needed an overview of an entire war, but I also wanted to be specific about one brave woman who put a human face on history.
I needed to break the project down into manageable pieces.
I started by putting the information I found most pertinent on index cards.
I looked again at what I knew about Elizabeth and identified the stories that I personally found most intriguing.
I waited for a day when no one was home but the dog and cats and I spread out the index cards on the floor.
I began by arranging my favorite stories about Van Lew herself in chronological order, leaving big spaces in between.
Then I went through all my other index cards and plugged the most interesting ones into the most appropriate spots between the stories. When I was done, there were still a lot of cards left over. Get a grip, I told myself. You can’t include everything in one program!
I set the unused cards aside.
I stacked the other cards in order. I waited a few days to let it all settle. Then I headed for the computer and made an outline of the emerging program.
Now I could see that I had a potentially powerful show. And yet I still wasn’t exactly sure how to combine all these marvelous stories with the background information.
It happened that I had a short tour scheduled about this time, so I put Elizabeth Van Lew in the back of my mind during the drive into the mountains of Virginia. One afternoon, after I’d finished my shows for the day, I found some fields on the mountainside, parked the car, and started walking and talking to myself about the problem.
Should I be narrator and tell these stories as individual unrelated incidents with the facts sandwiched in between? It could be done that way; but wouldn’t it be more fun to have one unbroken story? And if that were the case, wouldn’t it be a whole lot more interesting to have a Civil War-era persona tell the stories?
I could be Elizabeth herself. But, frankly, she was a difficult woman -- courageous but stern. I wasn’t sure I could create as engaging a narrative if I had to impersonate her throughout the show.
I also had to decide on the time frame of my program. Van Lew’s story continued after the war was over, but I had to make choices. I decided the most powerful part of the story was what happened during the war itself.
Who could best tell this story? It should be someone who could be at once objective and omniscient. I tramped and tramped through the fields and let my mind drift to the enjoyment of the gorgeous, crisp fall day and the parchment crackle of walking across mowed ground. Suddenly there was a burst of light in my mind!
At the archives in the William and Mary library, I had read an article in an old Harper’s Magazine in which Van Lew’s niece had returned to the family mansion years after the war and rediscovered the attic room where her aunt had hidden escaped Union prisoners.
There was barely any information at all about the niece, but she had been in the mansion during the Civil War. She survived the war, so she knew how everything turned out, and she knew her aunt.
She also knew what outsiders thought about Crazy Bet!
So, when I returned home, I was set to write the script. Now I needed to figure how to segue from one incident to the next -- and how to slip in facts about the Civil War, so that the story would make sense to those not well-versed in the period, yet offer a fresh perspective for aficionados. My stack of index cards gave me the grounding I needed along with the freedom to move material around and toss out what didn’t fit.
Finally I had a script to learn. It seemed like a formidable task. But then I remembered: these are stories, after all! I may have decided to wear a period dress and include a few props, because I was doing a historical first-person story, but what I do is tell stories, and I’d picked ones that fascinated me.
Consequently, just as I do with folklore, I learned the chronology of the stories in the show and the transitions between. I memorized some actual quotes but scripted the rest in my own words.
As I began performing the show, I found parts that didn’t flow as well as I had imagined when I wrote it.
So I reordered and revised and told it again.
Eventually it all settled together and I had a new show that filled my criteria of being history with a human face, and it’s called “Spy! The Story of Civil War Spy Elizabeth Van Lew.”
A Cutting from the Show
It was not until late afternoon and evening that the trains began to bring in the Union soldiers -- their wounded, the prisoners of war. Huge empty warehouses in downtown Richmond were opened up and converted into prisons for these men.
Aunt Betty said to her mother, “With everyone so busy taking care of the Confederate soldiers, who is left to even care about the Union prisoners and their wounded?” She knew she must do what she could to help them.
She also knew she could not expect just to go to a prison and be allowed right in. She would need a pass. So she went to the office of Lt. David Todd, the half brother of Mary Todd Lincoln -- President Lincolns wife. Mary Todd Lincoln, like the other children of her fathers first marriage, was a Unionist, but the children of her fathers second marriage were all Confederates, and Lt. David Todd was one of these. Already this war had torn apart so many families, and the Todd family was one of them.
Aunt Betty marched into Lt. Todd’s office and said, "I should like to have a pass so that I can visit Libby Prison and bring supplies and comfort to the prisoners there."
"Oh, I could not allow that," he said. "It would be dangerous for a lady to go in there!"
She tried to change his mind, but when she failed, she said, "Then who is your superior?"
He sent her to the secretary of the treasury, C.G. Memminger.
Off she went to Memminger’s office. "Sir, I should like to have a pass so that I can visit Libby Prison and bring supplies and comfort to the prisoners there."
"Oh, I could not allow that," he said. "It would be dangerous for a lady to go in there!"
“Sir! I have had the pleasure of hearing your wonderful speeches about the need to have charity and kindness toward our fellow human beings, even toward the unworthy. How can you give such moving speeches and think that my humane desire to help these poor prisoners could be anything but a good thing?"
Memminger gave her, not a pass, but at least a note introducing her to Gen. John Winder, who was in charge of the prisons and police force in Richmond.
By the time she arrived at his office, she knew what she would do. "Sir! Oh, sir! Your hair! It is magnificent! So full and white! Why it could adorn the temple of the Roman gods themselves!"
Gen. Winder gave her a pass -- the first of many that he gave her during the course of the war.
Aunt Betty went right home and began to prepare. She and her mother still had the farm outside Richmond, so they were able to bring plenty of fruits and vegetables to the prisoners. They also brought paper and pens so the men could write letters; they brought books from their own library, and soap, and needles and thread, and rags for handkerchiefs and bandages.
When Aunt Betty arrived at Libby Prison with her pass, a Confederate guard at the prison, ushered her in. She stood in the doorway looking in at the prisoners. "This is even worse than I had expected. They are so crowded in here! Where do they sleep?”
“Oh, Ma’am,” said the guard, “Right where you see them. There is nowhere else.”
“So many of them look sick. And it is simply stifling. How can they breathe?"
"Maam, you’re not nauseous from the stench are you?"
"Certainly not. I am ready to go in."
"What a lady! Here, let me help you pass out these things."
And the gurard took Aunt Betty’s basket and went in one direction, while she went in the other. As soon as his back was turned, one of the prisoners pushed a letter into her hand.
"Please, Ma’am; my wife is sick at home. Could you get this letter to her? She will think I am dead otherwise."
Aunt Betty said, “Of course,” and slipped it into her sleeve.
Another prisoner had been writing on a piece of sacking paper, and he shoved that into her hand as well.
"Please! You must get this to a Union officer, no one else. As quickly as possible. It is very important."
Aunt Betty slipped that into her sleeve as well. When she got home, she looked at the message and found it had been written in code.
And so without quite intending it, she had passed from being a union supporter to being a union spy!