Jenn Reads: The Spymistress

Female espionage in the Civil War is a new area of study, and one I am quite familiar with. My husband, Matthew, lectures frequently on four women who risked all for the sake of their country. It has been an immensely popular program, drawing crowds of more than 80 people on occasion.

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini was my pick for March for the girlfriend’s book club I run outside of the library. I had one sole purpose in selecting this book: to help me research and get ready for my own impression of a female spy in the Civil War. Matt and I have joined a reenacting group and we will be portraying a Pinkerton agent and a female detective. While this is a fictional account, I knew it would be helpful and readable for my friends.

The Spymistress tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Unionist living in Richmond during the time of the American Civil War. While not incredibly common, Unionists lived throughout the Confederacy, and Confederate sympathizers lived throughout the Union. Life was extremely difficult for these people, who had to toe a line so they

The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini

wouldn’t be arrested, deemed traitors, or become social outcasts. Van Lew, 43 in 1861, lives with her mother, brother, sister-in-law, and nieces in their Richmond mansion. She’s outspoken and passionate and feels a deep need to help. But she’s not going to help the Confederacy. She’s going to help the Union.

Van Lew is able to get herself a pass for the prison holding Union soldiers and begins her work. Initially she comes bearing gifts of ginger cakes and food, medicine, and other creature comforts, but soon starts smuggling in and out information. Suspicions arise almost immediately with citizens of Richmond- why is Van Lew only helping Union prisoners? What about Confederate soldiers who have a need? Van Lew deftly uses the Bible and Christian theory, saying that Jesus taught his followers to love their enemy as themselves. And since this is a religious, church-going society, this explanation works. She also hosts a Confederate general and his family for several months in her home, puts on several lavish parties celebrating a particular regiment, and diverts suspicion.

But Van Lew’s best work comes at Libby Prison, where she is able to help Union soldiers escape. She sets up what is essentially a soldier’s underground railroad through a set of safe houses (using quilt blocks, hung outside on clotheslines). Van Lew also set up a chain of spies throughout the Confederate government and military, most notably Mary Bowser (whose real name may not have even been Mary Bowser), a freed slave who worked as a maid for Varina Davis, the first lady of the Confederacy, in the Confederate White House.

Van Lew and her chain of spies are unsung heroes of the Civil War and their stories deserve and need to be told. Van Lew truly did risk everything for her country and lived a very tragic life after the war. Imagine being a Unionist in Richmond after the war.

Chiaverini does an apt job of telling Van Lew’s story with accuracy and respect. Having already known most of Van Lew’s work and life, much in this book was not new for me. For those who are not familiar with Van Lew, I would imagine this being a welcome history and biographical lesson. Her narrative is easy to read and true to Van Lew’s character. This is not a “romantic” book, so those expecting a love story will not find one (Van Lew never married).

However, I was not wowed by this book. Perhaps because I knew too much already about Van Lew the book just fell flat. There was nothing wrong with the characterization, the narrative, or the story itself. Having listened to this book, maybe it was the reader.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

See you in the stacks,