The debate over slavery and other issues caused a great deal of political tension between the North and South. By 1861, the ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Van Lew's home state of Virginia was among those that seceded. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. Before long, the two sides went to war.
Since Van Lew strongly opposed slavery, she supported the Northern cause in the war. Shortly after the war started, she decided to help the Union by keeping its military leaders informed of events in the Confederate capital. At first, she simply wrote letters to President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865; see entry). Once Union leaders discovered the value of her information, however, they made her part of the Secret Service—a formal intelligence-gathering network. She then reported to George Sharpe, the main information officer for Union general Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885; see entry).
Many of Van Lew's friends and neighbors realized that she did not support the Confederacy. After all, she spoke out against slavery in Richmond, and she refused to join other local women in sewing shirts for Confederate soldiers. But no one ever suspected that this wealthy, refined lady—who had been born into Richmond's high society—would dream of spying for the Union. Van Lew realized that her image worked in her favor and did her best to keep it up. She often appeared in public with her hair messy and her clothing in disarray, and she did strange things like visiting Union soldiers in prison. She also welcomed Confederate officers into her home, which everyone knew a Union spy would never do. As a result, the people of Richmond viewed Van Lew as a harmless eccentric. They even gave her the nickname "Crazy Bet."
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