The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini/ posted in: Reading
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When Virginia seceded from the Union and Richmond became the capitol of the Confederate States of America, not everyone in Richmond celebrated. The Van Lew family were staunch Unionists. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy spinster in her 40s, decided to show Christian charity to the Union soldiers being held in Libby Prison. This led to her building and running a large Union spy network in Virginia.
Her spying started when she smuggled out a list of all the Union prisoners in a book that she had lent to an officer. From then on she brought food, blankets, and paper for letters home to the prisoners and took out everything they knew. She was even able to place a Unionist clerk in the prison to gain intelligence when she wasn’t able to get in. She bribed Confederate officials with gifts of food and money to let her gain access to prisons. Her neighbors knew of her Unionist sympathies but not of her treasonous activities. A woman was not suspected of such things.
In this book Jennifer Chiaverini tells the fictionalized story of Elizabeth Van Lew. It is a nice counterpoint to her other Civil War stories – Mrs Lincoln’s Dressmaker (review) and Mrs Lincoln’s Rival (review). Her historical fiction introduces us to women who have been mostly forgotten by history but who made huge contributions at the time.