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Miss Elizabeth Van Lew—a spinster of independent means, a Richmond native, and a proud Virginian—was an unlikely heroine of the Civil War, and yet she was celebrated by Northern generals as “a true Union woman as true as steel ” for risking everything to care for Union prisoners of war and to smuggle crucial Confederate military secrets to the North.
I first discovered the remarkable heroine of my most recent novel, The Spymistress, years ago while researching another Civil War tale. 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’s infamous Libby Prison. Nearly every account I read of that notorious place mentioned Elizabeth Van Lew and the astonishing, audacious risks she took on behalf of the Union captives there. She made such an impression on me that I immediately wrote her into a chapter of that earlier novel, but even as I did, I was convinced that she was so unexpectedly daring, courageous, and clever that she deserved an entire book of her own.
To uncover the truth about Elizabeth Van Lew, I relied upon memoirs and diaries 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’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, polished memoir, but I was fortunate that any account existed at all, as it was incredibly dangerous for a spy to keep detailed records of her illicit activities. During the war, Elizabeth would hide most of her journal, but she kept certain incriminating pages by her bedside so she could hastily burn them if the house was raided in the night.
After the war, Elizabeth 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 even decades after peace was declared. Instead she hid the manuscript away for many years, revealing its location only upon her deathbed in September 1900. When the box was brought to her from its hiding place, she examined the manuscript 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 provides a fascinating if incomplete glimpse into Elizabeth Van Lew’s remarkable wartime adventures—and offered me the inspiration for The Spymistress, a tribute to a Civil War heroine whose name should not be forgotten.
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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.