The Spymistress
An Excerpt From
The Spymistress

Confidential. Hd. Qrs. 18th Army Corps, Dept. Of Va., and N. C.,
Fortress Monroe, Dec. 19, 1863
Commander Boutelle, U. S. Coast Survey Office,
Washington, D. 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.

Truly yours,

Benj. F. Butler


Chapter One

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.

The Spymistress

The Spymistress

A Novel

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