Prolific writer Jennifer Chiaverini
has been best known for her Elm Creek Quilts series. It includes two
Civil War related books: The Union Quilters
The Runaway Quilt.
Her Civil War novel (Mrs.
Lincoln's Dressmaker) about Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave dressmaker in Washington City who became
close to Mary Todd Lincoln (and President Lincoln), focused on the
relationship of these two women.
Dutton Adult) is her twenty-second novel. It focuses on the amazing
life of another woman – Elizabeth Van Lew. A Virginian born into a
wealthy Richmond family opposed to slavery, she was educated at a
Quaker school in Philadelphia. After the death of her father in
1843, the family privately freed their nine slaves. Living with her
widowed mother in a prestigious Richmond neighborhood, both were
pro-Union and disheartened by Virginia’s secession in 1861. While
Elizabeth’s brother, John, was also pro-Union, he was married to an
The novel follows Elizabeth and
other pro-Union Richmonders who joined her in helping the Union,
including the formation of a spy ring. Overcoming the opposition of
Lt. David Todd, the jailor of the Libby Prison (and Mary Todd
Lincoln’s half-brother), Elizabeth carried food, medicine, and other
materials to the imprisoned Union officers held in this former
tobacco warehouse. She cultivated Gen. John Winder, in charge of the
Richmond P.O.W. camps, on the grounds of providing Christian charity
to Union captives whose conditions were horrific (despite
Confederate disclaimers of abuse). This gained her an unfavorable
reputation among her neighbors, which she tried to allay by showing
a similar concern for wounded Confederate soldiers.
After gaining access to the jailed
prisoners (often by either offering food or bribes to their guards),
she began to smuggle information out of Libby Prison. This led to
the formation of an underground spy ring to provide the Union army
with important information about Confederate war policy and troop
alignments. Van Lew scored her greatest success by planting Mary
Bowser, a former servant, in the Confederate White House as a member
of President Jefferson Davis’s household staff. Gen. Ben Butler and
later Gen. Ulysses Grant would praise Van Lew and her fellow
pro-Union supporters as their best source of information from the
This was a dangerous game, with an
early Union spy whose identity was revealed by captured Pinkerton
agents hung. Chiaverini provides a spy mystery account of Van Lew’s
adventures, including incidents threatening to uncover her pro-Union
activities and the jailing of some members of her spy ring. This
included her being denounced to the Confederate authorities by her
estranged sister-in-law, whose husband, upon being forced into the
Confederate forces defending Richmond against Grant’s Overland
campaign in 1864, deserted. Nevertheless, Van Lew persisted and not
only gathered information, but helped Union prisoners to escape.
However, she lost her access to Gen. Winder, who was reassigned to
oversee the Confederate prison in Andersonville (and then died in
The novel details some of the most
dramatic events that occurred in wartime Richmond. These episodes
include the explosion in March 1863 at the gunpowder factory that
killed many of the women working there, the women’s bread riot in
April, 1863, the Libby Prison breakout of 109 Yankee officers on
February 9, 1864 (with over half making it to the Union lines), the
thwarted cavalry raid of March 1-2, 1864 that led to Ulric
Dahlgren’s death, and finally the fall of Richmond in April 1865,
its burning, and the arrival of Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps the most
intriguing is the successful effort of Van Lew and friends to
recover the desecrated body of Dahlgren and its delivery to the
With the retreat of Robert E. Lee’s
Army of Northern Virginia and the flight of Jefferson Davis and the
Confederate government, the Van Lews were the first to fly the Union
flag in the former capital of the defeated Confederacy. Elizabeth
then received the thanks of the Union for her underground work.
Ostracized by hostile residents, the Van Lews fell on hard times
with most of their previous wealth spent during the Civil War to aid
their beloved Union. After his election in 1868, President Grant
appointed Elizabeth Van Lew postmistress of Richmond. Despite her
admirable record in this position, she was not reappointed by his
successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1877. Increasingly impoverished,
she survived until her death in 1900 on an annuity provided by the
family (none other than the Reveres) of a Massachusetts soldier she
had helped while a prisoner in Libby Prison.
Chiaverini’s novel mostly follows
historical events. As she explains in an author’s note, she rejected
the image of “Crazy Bet” promulgated by some who have written about
Van Lew, claiming that she acted as an eccentric to divert suspicion
about her pro-Union activities. Ciaverini ends the book with the
inscription on her headstone (provided by Boston admirers) in
Shockoe Cemetery and her 1993 induction into the Military
Intelligence Hall of Fame of the U.S. Army.
Her next Civil War novel, again
featuring fascinating women, is about Mary Todd Lincoln and Kate
Chase Sprague: Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. It will be published January
14, 2014 and Chiaverini will speak about it January 17 in Columbus
at The Book Loft.
Blakely, Arch Fredric. General John H. Winder, C.S.A. University Press of Florida, 1990.
Ferguson, Ernest B. Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War. Knopf, 1996.
Leveen, Lois. The Secrets of Mary Bowser. William Morrow, 2012.
Lineberry, Cate. “Elizabeth Van Lew:
An Unlikely Union Spy” Smithsonian Magazine (May 5, 2011):
Varon, Elizabeth R. Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Wheelan, Joseph. Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison.
Public Affairs, 2011.
By Jennifer Chiaverini
Dutton Adult, 368 pages
Booklist: Chiaverini follows Mrs.
Lincoln’s Dressmaker (2013) with the story of the intrepid leader of
a Union spy ring, Elizabeth Van Lew. When her beloved Richmond
becomes the capitol of the Confederacy, Van Lew uses her social
standing, her family fortune, and an appeal to Christian charity to
minister to the needs of Union prisoners. Soon she is passing
messages to the North and recruiting an ever-growing network of
Unionists to help her. She maintains a facade of loyalty—and she is
loyal to Virginia, if not the Confederacy—by temporarily housing
high-ranking Confederates or hosting a party for her nephew’s
brigade. Meanwhile, she feasts on fast days, frees her slaves as far
as she legally can, and hollows out eggs to transport messages.
There is danger, although Chiaverini does such a good job convincing
the reader that Van Lew is just a well-bred Virginia woman that the
extent to which she aided Union victory is not entirely clear.
Readers of historical and inspirational fiction will admire Van
Lew’s courage and commitment to her principles and the bravery of
her ring of spies. --Susan Maguire
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|Elizabeth Van Lew