The Spymistress

Written by Jennifer Chiaverini
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

Spinster Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew is horrified when her beloved state of Virginia votes to secede from the United States in 1861. A woman of means due to her inheritance from her father, she’s a staunch believer in Mr. Lincoln’s government. In the capitol of Richmond, Lizzie watches the Civil War begin, and captured Union soldiers are brought into the city and imprisoned. She scandalizes the local gentry when she insists on ministering to the wounded Yankees rather than the Confederates. Finding the Northern men’s situation in the dank prison deplorable, she demands better conditions and must finagle—sometimes successfully, other times not—the Confederate officers in charge. Soon, she starts to smuggle out messages from the Yankee officers to their commanders in the North. She recruits other “Unionists” in the city, and an elaborate spy network is formed. Harassed and threatened, always in danger of being discovered, Lizzie never demurs from her mission to help the Unionist cause.

Lizzie Van Lew was an actual personage in the 19th century. Some of her escapades seem implausible, but her actions are based on fact. Many agree that without the information she managed to have delivered to high-placed officials and generals in the North, the war could have turned out differently. To this day she’s derided as a traitor to the Confederate cause. As a former resident of Virginia, I found this novel a compelling read. Miss Van Lew deserves recognition as an intelligent and resourceful spy who may have shortened the length of the carnage during the Civil War.