New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini is back with another enthralling historical novel set during the Civil War era, this time inspired by the life of “a true Union woman as true as steel” who risked everything by caring for Union prisoners of war — and stealing Confederate secrets.
Born to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.
Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.
Confidential. Hd. Qrs. 18th Army Corps, Dept. Of Va., and N. C.,
My dear Boutelle: You will find enclosed a letter from a dear friend of yours in Richmond. I am informed by the bearer that Miss Van Lieu is a true Union woman as true as steel. She sent me a bouquet, so says the letter carrier.
Now, I much want a correspondent in Richmond, one who will write me of course without name or description of the writer, and she need only incur the risk of dropping an ordinary letter by flag of truce in the Post Office at Richmond, directed to a name at the North. Her messenger thinks Miss Van Lieu will be glad to do it.
I can place my first and only letter in her hands for her directions, but I also place the man’s life in her hands who delivers the letter. Is it safe so to do? Will Miss Van Lieu be willing to either correspond herself or find me such a correspondent? I could pay large rewards, but from what I hear of her I should prefer not to do it, as I think she would be actuated to do what she does by patriotic motives only.
I wish therefore you would write me, confidentially—and as so much is depending, in the strictest secrecy, what you think of the matter. Of course you will readily see that I can furnish means by which a very commonplace letter on family affairs will read very differently when I see it.
Benj. F. Butler
The Van Lew mansion in Richmond’s fashionable Church Hill neighborhood had not hosted a wedding gala in many a year, and if the bride-to-be did not emerge from her attic bedroom soon, Lizzie feared it might not that day either.
Turning away from the staircase, Lizzie resisted the urge to check her engraved pocket watch for the fifth time in as many minutes and instead stepped outside onto the side portico, abandoning the mansion to her family, servants, and the apparently bashful bridal party ensconced in the servants’ quarters. Surely Mary Jane wasn't having second thoughts. She adored Wilson Bowser, and just that morning she had declared him the most excellent man of her acquaintance. A young woman in love would not leave such a man standing at the altar.
Perhaps Mary Jane was merely nervous, or a button had come off her gown, or her flowers were not quite perfect. As hostess, Lizzie ought to go and see, but a strange reluctance held her back. Earlier that morning, when Mary Jane’s friends had arrived—young women of color like Mary Jane herself, some enslaved, some free—Lizzie had felt awkward and unwanted among them, a sensation unfamiliar and particularly unsettling to experience in her own home. None of the girls had spoken impudently to her, but after greeting her politely they had encircled Mary Jane and led her off to her attic bedroom, turning their backs upon Lizzie as if they had quite forgotten she was there. And so she was left to wait, alone and increasingly curious.
Grasping the smooth, whitewashed railing, Lizzie gazed out upon the sun-splashed gardens, where the alluring fragrance of magnolia drifted on the balmy air above the neatly pruned hedgerows. Across the street, a shaft of sunlight bathed the steeple of Saint John’s Church in a rosy glow like a benediction from heaven, blessing the bride and groom, blessing the vows they would soon take. It was a perfect spring day in Richmond, the sort of April morning that inspired bad poetry and impulsive declarations of affection best kept to oneself. Lizzie could almost forget that not far away, in the heart of the city, a furious debate was raging, a searing prelude to the vote that would determine whether her beloved Virginia would follow the Southern cotton states out of the fragmenting nation.
Despite the clamor and frenzy that had surged in Richmond in the weeks leading up to the succession convention, Lizzie staunchly believed that reason, pragmatism, and loyalty would triumph in the end. Unionist delegates outnumbered secessionist fire-eaters two to one, and Virginians were too proud of their heritage as the birthplace of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison to leave the nation their honored forebears had founded.
Still, she had to admit that John Lewis’s increasing pessimism troubled her. Mr. Lewis, a longtime family friend serving as a delegate from Rockingham County, had been the Van Lews’ guest throughout the convention, and his ominous reports of shouting matches erupting in closed sessions made her uneasy. So too did the gathering of a splinter group of adamant secessionists only a block and a half away from the Capitol, although outwardly she made light of the so-called Spontaneous People’s Convention. “How can a convention be both spontaneous and arranged well in advance, with time for the sending and accepting of invitations?” she had mocked, but the tentative, worried smiles her mother and brother had given her in reply were but a small reward.
Although Lizzie managed such shows of levity of time to time, she could not ignore the disquieting signs that the people of Richmond were declaring themselves for the Confederacy in ever greater numbers. Less than a week before, when word reached the city of the Union garrison’s surrender at Fort Sumter in Charleston, neighbors and strangers alike had thronged into the streets, shouting and crying and flinging their hats into the air. Impromptu parades had formed and bands had played spirited renditions of “Dixie” and “The Marseillaise.” Down by the riverside at the Tredegar Iron Works, thousands had cheered as a newly cast cannon fired off a thunderous salute to the victors. Lizzie had been dismayed to see, waving here and there above the heads of the crowd, home-sewn flags boasting the South Carolina palmetto or the three stripes and seven stars of the Confederacy. But when the crowd marched to the governor’s mansion, instead of giving them the speech they demanded, John Letcher urged them to all go home.
Lizzie had been heartened by the governor’s refusal to cower before the mob, and she prayed that his example would help other wavering Unionists find their courage and remember their duty. But two days later, word came to Richmond that President Lincoln had called for seventy-five thousand militia to put down the rebellion—and Virginia would be required to provide her share. Many Virginians who had been ambivalent about secession until then had become outraged by the president’s demand that they go to war against their fellow Southerners, and they defiantly joined the clamor of voices shouting for Virginia to leave the Union. John Minor Botts, a Whig and perhaps the most outspoken and steadfast Unionist in Richmond politics, had called the mobilization proclamation “the most unfortunate state paper that ever issued from any executive since the establishment of the government.”
But would it prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Lizzie could not allow herself to believe it.
“Rational men will not cave in to the demands of the mob,” Lizzie had argued to Mr. Lewis that very morning. Like herself, he was a Virginia native, born in 1818, and a Whig. Unlike her, he was married, had children, and could vote. “They will heed the demands of their consciences and the law.”
A few crumbs of Hannah’s light, buttery biscuits fell free from Mr. Lewis’s dark beard as he shook his head. “A man who fears for his life may be willing to consider a different interpretation of the law.”
At that, a shadow of worry had passed over Mother’s face. “You don’t mean there have been threats of violence?”
“It pains me to distress you, but indeed, yes, and almost daily,” Mr. Lewis had replied. “Those of us known to be faithful to the Union run a gauntlet of insults, abuse, and worse whenever we enter or depart the Capitol.”
“Goodness.” Mother had shuddered and hunched her thin shoulders as if warding off an icy wind. Petite and elegant, with gray eyes and an enviably fair complexion even at almost sixty-three years of age, she was ever the thoughtful hostess. “You must allow us to send Peter and William along with you from now on. They will see to your safety.”
“Thank you, Madam, but I must decline. I won’t allow my enemies to believe they'veintimidated me.”
“When the vote is called, wiser heads will prevail,” Lizzie had insisted, as much to reassure herself and Mother as to persuade Mr. Lewis. “Virginians are too proud a people to let bullies rule the day.”
“As you say, Miss Van Lew. Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong.”
Remembering his somber words, Lizzie gazed off to the west toward the political heart of the city, scarcely seeing the historic church, the gracious homes, and the well-tended gardens arrayed so beautifully before her. Instead she imagined the view from the Capitol gallery, where she had often sat and observed the machinery of government, and she wished she could be there to witness the contentious debate for herself. Of course, that was not possible. The gallery had been shut to visitors for the closed session, and Lizzie could not miss Mary Jane’s wedding. She could only wait for news and hope that her faith in the men of Virginia had not been misplaced.
“History—and its colorful characters—come alive.” –USA Today
“Required Reading . . . The story of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Lizzie Keckley, a former slave who became Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante. After the president’s assassination, Keckley created the Mary Todd Lincoln quilt and also a scandalous memoir. A new spin on the story.” --New York Post
“Jennifer Chiaverini imagines the first lady’s most private affairs through the eyes of an unlikely confidante.” –Harper’s Bazaar
“Chiaverini has drawn a loving portrait of a complex and gifted woman . . . Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker helps to illuminate the path on which her long and remarkable life led her.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An example of what Jennifer Chiaverini does so well in her enlightening new historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, occurs late in the book, when a newly widowed Mary Todd Lincoln shares a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria with her dressmaker, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. . . . Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker vividly imagines how the Civil War touched daily life in Washington.” --Washingtonian
“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is a wonderful novel that covers many topics surrounding the events of the 1860s in Washington and the following decades… Any reader interested in President Lincoln, Civil War history, or historical fiction should love this book.” –Bookreporter.com
“All the characters are brilliantly written, and readers will enjoy getting to know them. [Chiaverini] brings to life long-forgotten snapshots of America’s past with style, grace and respect.” –RT Book Reviews
“Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini's characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House.” –Library Journal
Praise for Jennifer Chiaverini and the Elm Creek Quilts series “Chiaverini’s themes of love, loss, and healing will resonate with many, and her characters’ stories are inspiring.” —Publishers Weekly
“Chiaverini has an impressive ability to bring a time and place alive.” —Romantic Times Book Reviews
“Emotionally compelling.” —Chicago Tribune on Sonoma Rose
“Jennifer Chiaverini has made quite a name for herself with her bestselling Elm Creek Quilts series. From the Civil War to the Roaring Twenties to contemporary settings, these novels have offered suspense, romance, and, at times, in-depth looks into the social, political, and cultural differences that helped shape a nation.” —BookPage
“Chiaverini excels at weaving stories and at character development. We can relate to the residents of Elm Creek Valley because they remind us of folks we know—a cousin, an aunt, or a grandmother.” —Standard-Examiner (Utah)
The Spymistress reveals the story of an almost forgotten yet pivotal woman in American history, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Van Lew. How did you first encounter Lizzie Van Lew’s story?
I first discovered this remarkable woman while researching an earlier historical novel, The Union Quilters. One of my characters, a regimental surgeon in the Union army, was captured at Gettysburg, and when I investigated where he likely would have been taken, all paths led to Richmond and to Libby Prison. Every account I read of that notorious prison mentioned Elizabeth Van Lew and the astonishing, audacious risks she took on behalf of the Union captives there, and I was compelled to include her in The Union Quilters as a minor but very significant character. Even as I wrote her chapter, I was convinced that she was so remarkable, so heroic, that she really deserved an entire book of her own. I’ve wanted to write her story ever since.
Through your rich, descriptive writing, readers can really picture Elizabeth Van Lew’s daily life and relive her experiences. What kind of research did you do to so effectively put yourself in her shoes?
I relied upon numerous memoirs and journals written by Richmond civilians and Union prisoners of war, as well as newspaper reports and official documents from the National Archives. My first and best resource, however, was Elizabeth Van Lew’s “Occasional Journal,” an intermittent diary and scrapbook she kept of her wartime experiences. It was really more of a collection of loose papers than a complete, bound volume, but it was incredibly dangerous for a spy to keep any detailed record of her illicit activities at all. During the war, Van Lew would hide most of her journal and keep certain incriminating pages by her bedside in case the house was raided during the night and she had to burn them. After the war, Van Lew declined an offer to publish a memoir, believing with good reason that doing so would further provoke the anger of her Richmond neighbors, many of whom still resented her for her wartime support of the Union. Instead she hid the manuscript away for many years, revealing its location only upon her deathbed. When the box was brought to her, she examined it and exclaimed, “Why, there is nearly twice as much more. What has become of it?” The missing pages, if they truly existed, have never been found, but what remains offers a fascinating if incomplete glimpse into Elizabeth Van Lew’s remarkable wartime adventures.
In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, you illuminated the friendship between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, her most trusted confidante and friend. The Spymistress paints the picture of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, during the same time period. What was it like researching and writing from the opposing side of the war?
I wouldn’t say that I wrote from the opposing side of the war, because Lizzie was staunchly loyal to the United States, and so even though the story takes place in the South, I still wrote from a Unionist perspective. After coming to know wartime Washington, D. C. so thoroughly for Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, it was fascinating to examine the Confederate capital, and to find significant differences as well as striking similarities in the experiences of their residents. It was especially intriguing to study the political heart of the Confederacy from the perspective of Elizabeth Van Lew, a proud native Virginian and well-established member of the Richmond social elite who, upon secession, suddenly found herself in the unsettling position of political outsider, surrounded by friends and neighbors she believed had gone utterly, disastrously mad.
Elizabeth Van Lew cared for Union prisoners, orchestrated escapes from the Confederate Libby Prison, and helped construct the Richmond Underground. What did you think was the most surprising and daring of her plots?
Smuggling information in and out of the prisons certainly put her in danger almost daily, and she risked exposing her entire operation every time she bribed a clerk or attempted to recruit a Confederate officer, but if I have to choose, I would say that sheltering fugitive prisoners in her own home was her most daring action. If her house had been raided and the prisoners discovered, not even clever, quick-thinking Lizzie could have explained away evidence that incriminating.
Can you discuss some of the methods of espionage Elizabeth Van Lew employed? What were some of the ways being a woman made it more difficult, or perhaps easier, for her to successfully run a spy ring?
Elizabeth Van Lew’s methods for smuggling intelligence to the Union Army were widely varied and ingenious. She would enclose tiny scrolls of encrypted information inside a hollow eggshell, which she would hide in plain sight in a basket of fresh eggs. Her servants carried folded documents in the thick soles of their shoes, or wrote coded messages in the margins of dressmaker’s patterns, and carried them safely past unwitting Confederate pickets. Numerous clerks within the Confederate government were on Van Lew’s payroll, and they kept her well supplied with essential information about military and political operations. She also managed to place trusted allies in important positions within the prison system and the railroad, where they passed along intelligence and generally did whatever they secretly could to thwart the Confederate operations. Van Lew performed the role of loyal Confederate lady exceptionally well, and convinced nearly everyone that her acts of generosity and concern for Union prisoners of war were merely the fulfillment of her duties as a good Christian woman. She wisely took advantage of the Confederate authorities’ refusal to believe that an elite Southern lady could be a dangerous Union spy.
The astonishing scope of Lizzie’s achievements has never been widely known. What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
Readers familiar with Elizabeth Van Lew may wonder why I don’t refer to her as “Crazy Bet,” as the vast majority of authors who have written about her have done, or why I haven’t portrayed her feigning mental impairment to divert suspicion. I made this choice because nothing in the historical record during the Civil War and its aftermath supports this characterization—not her wartime “Occasional Journal,” nor the memoirs of the Union soldiers she assisted, nor even the writings of her numerous critics. The concept that Elizabeth Van Lew succeeded in her espionage work because of her ability to disarm her enemies by acting daft first appeared in a Harper’s Monthly article published in 1911, written eleven years after her death by someone who had never met her. The author was heavily influenced by a man who had met Elizabeth Van Lew after Reconstruction, when she was in her late sixties and age, poverty, political troubles, personal heartbreak, and isolation had taken their toll. Unfortunately, the “Crazy Bet” myth has long overshadowed the truth about Elizabeth Van Lew’s intelligent, deliberate, and dangerous espionage work, but I hope my novel will help correct that misunderstanding.
In both of your stand-alone novels, you chronicled the lives of women who had a significant impact on history that many people were not aware of. Can you give us a preview of what the January 2014 release, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, will reveal?
Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival is the story of Kate Chase Sprague, the daughter of President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Beautiful, intelligent, and entrancing, Kate served as her thrice-widowed father’s official hostess and was his partner in his driving ambition to become president. Soon after they met, Mary Lincoln recognized in Kate her strongest challenger for the role of most prominent woman in Washington society, and an intense rivalry was born. Unfortunately, although Kate and Mary held much in common—political acumen, love of country, and a resolute determination to help the men they loved achieve greatness—they could never be friends, for they believed that the success of one could come only at the expense of the other.
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