Virtually everyone in Richmond, Virginia, is aware of spinster Louisa Ferncliff’s abolitionist sympathies, but few know that her black housekeeper, Selah, is her half-sister, or that she has insinuated Suzy, her other half-sister, into Jefferson Davis’s household as a Union spy. But when Suzy steals an important message guaranteed to shorten the war, Louisa refuses to pass it on. What good would it do, she reasons, to end the hostilities before the slavery issue is resolved? Meanwhile, over at Chimborazo Hospital, nursing volunteer Narcissa Powers (Civil Blood, 2001, etc.) is dismayed on two accounts: that a boozy doctor has banished her friend Annie from the premises for stealing morphine, and that a Confederate soldier Annie’s been nursing has been malingering—and then disappears. Soon enough, Suzy steals away as well, while bits of a quilt indicating slave movements pop up on a black child abandoned in a cemetery near Louisa’s house. As Narcissa struggles with fever and hallucinations caused by bouts with malaria that are abated only by the ministrations of black “doctoress” Judah Daniel, the battle for control of Richmond heats up, leading to pandemonium—and murder—in Louisa’s household, death for poor Annie, grieving for her husband, and the reappearance of both the absconders.
A gruesome look at health care, Civil War–style, and the moral offenses partisans can embrace in defense of the highest ideals.