A Review of The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013, All Rights Reserved

Prolific writer Jennifer Chiaverini has been best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series. It includes two Civil War related books: The Union Quilters and The Runaway Quilt. Chiaverini has also written a Civil War novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, about Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave dressmaker in Washington City who became close to Mary Todd Lincoln (and President Lincoln). This novel focuses on the relationship between these two women.

The Spymistress is Chiaverini’s twenty-second novel. It focuses on the amazing life of another woman – Elizabeth Van Lew. A Virginian born into a wealthy Richmond family opposed to slavery, she was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After the death of her father in 1843, the family privately freed their nine slaves. Living with her widowed mother in a prestigious Richmond neighborhood, both were pro-Union and disheartened by Virginia’s secession in 1861. While Elizabeth’s brother, John, was also pro-Union, he was married to an ardent pro-Confederate.

Elizabeth Van Lew

The novel follows Elizabeth and other pro-Union Richmonders who joined her in helping the Union, including the formation of a spy ring. Overcoming the opposition of Lt. David Todd, the jailor of the Libby Prison (and Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother), Elizabeth carried food, medicine, and other materials to the imprisoned Union officers held in this former tobacco warehouse. She cultivated Gen. John Winder, in charge of the Richmond P.O.W. camps, on the grounds of providing Christian charity to Union captives whose conditions were horrific (despite Confederate disclaimers of abuse). This gained her an unfavorable reputation among her neighbors, which she tried to allay by showing a similar concern for wounded Confederate soldiers.

After gaining access to the jailed prisoners (often by either offering food or bribes to their guards), she began to smuggle information out of Libby Prison. This led to the formation of an underground spy ring to provide the Union army with important information about Confederate war policy and troop alignments. Van Lew scored her greatest success by planting Mary Bowser, a former servant, in the Confederate White House as a member of President Jefferson Davis’ household staff. Gen. Ben Butler and later Gen. Ulysses Grant would praise Van Lew and her fellow pro-Union supporters as their best source of information from the Confederate capital.

This was a dangerous game, with an early Union spy, whose identity was revealed by captured Pinkerton agents, hung. Chiaverini provides a spy mystery account of Van Lew’s adventures, including incidents threatening to uncover her pro-Union activities and the jailing of some members of her spy ring. This included her being denounced to the Confederate authorities by her estranged sister-in-law, whose husband, upon being forced into the Confederate forces defending Richmond against Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864, deserted. Nevertheless, Van Lew persisted and not only gathered information, but helped Union prisoners to escape. However, she lost her access to Gen. Winder, who was reassigned to oversee the Confederate prison in Andersonville (and then died in early 1865).

The novel details some of the most dramatic events that occurred in wartime Richmond. These episodes include the explosion in March 1863 at the gunpowder factory that killed many of the women working there, the women’s bread riot in April 1863, the Libby Prison breakout of 109 Yankee officers on February 9, 1864 (with over half making it to the Union lines), the thwarted cavalry raid of March 1-2, 1864 that led to Ulric Dahlgren’s death, and finally the fall of Richmond in April 1865, its burning, and the arrival of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the most intriguing is the successful effort of Van Lew and friends to recover the desecrated body of Dahlgren and its delivery to the Union army.

With the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the flight of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government, the Van Lews were the first to fly the Union flag in the former capital of the defeated Confederacy. Elizabeth then received the thanks of the Union for her underground work. Ostracized by hostile residents, the Van Lews fell on hard times with most of their previous wealth spent during the Civil War to aid their beloved Union. After his election in 1868, President Grant appointed Elizabeth Van Lew postmistress of Richmond. Despite her admirable record in this position, she was not reappointed by his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877. Increasingly impoverished, she survived until her death in 1900 on an annuity provided by the family (none other than the Reveres) of a Massachusetts soldier she had helped while a prisoner in Libby Prison.

Chiaverini’s novel mostly follows historical events. As she explains in an author’s note, she rejected the image of “Crazy Bet” promulgated by some who have written about Van Lew, claiming that she acted as an eccentric to divert suspicion about her pro-Union activities. Chiaverini ends the book with the inscription on Van Lew’s headstone (provided by Boston admirers) in Shockoe Cemetery and her 1993 induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame of the U.S. Army.

Chiaverini’s next Civil War novel, again featuring fascinating women, is about Mary Todd Lincoln and Kate Chase Sprague. Chiaverini’s upcoming novel is titled Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. It is due to be published January 14, 2014.

Additional reading

Blakely, Arch Fredric. General John H. Winder, C.S.A. University Press of Florida, 1990.

Ferguson, Ernest B. Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War. Knopf, 1996.

Leveen, Lois. The Secrets of Mary Bowser. William Morrow, 2012.

Lineberry, Cate. “Elizabeth Van Lew: An Unlikely Union Spy,” Smithsonian Magazine (May 5, 2011).

Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wheelan, Joseph. Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison. Public Affairs, 2011.

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

From Booklist: Chiaverini follows Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013) with the story of the intrepid leader of a Union spy ring, Elizabeth Van Lew. When her beloved Richmond becomes the capital of the Confederacy, Van Lew uses her social standing, her family fortune, and an appeal to Christian charity to minister to the needs of Union prisoners. Soon she is passing messages to the North and recruiting an ever-growing network of Unionists to help her. She maintains a facade of loyalty – and she is loyal to Virginia, if not the Confederacy – by temporarily housing high-ranking Confederates or hosting a party for her nephew’s brigade. Meanwhile, she feasts on fast days, frees her slaves as far as she legally can, and hollows out eggs to transport messages. There is danger, although Chiaverini does such a good job convincing the reader that Van Lew is just a well-bred Virginia woman that the extent to which she aided Union victory is not entirely clear. Readers of historical and inspirational fiction will admire Van Lew’s courage and commitment to her principles and the bravery of her ring of spies. — Susan Maguire

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