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A Novel of the Union Underground

by Marie Jakober

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-765-30316-7
Publisher: Forge

A historical thriller from Canadian Jakober (The Black Chalice, not reviewed) follows the exploits (based partly on a true story) of a Richmond belle who spied for the Union during the Civil War.

Poor Elizabeth Van Lew came back to Virginia from her Philadelphia finishing school in the 1840s and promptly freed all her slaves, claiming that she had become an abolitionist up north. Everyone in Richmond thought she was crazy, but they left her alone: The Van Lews were odd to begin with, and rich folks could always be counted on to see the world less realistically than people who had to work for a living. When the war breaks out, however, Elizabeth takes full advantage of her reputation as a harmless old maid to set up one of the most extensive spy rings in the South. She begins by getting permission from unsuspecting Confederate General Winder (an old family friend) to bring food, blankets, and reading materials to Union POWs in Richmond’s Libby Prison. Then, with the help of a sympathetic prison doctor, she manages to free dozens of prisoners by faking their deaths and carrying them out in coffins. Another of her accomplices is the local railroad superintendent, who provides transport for the escapees and keeps Elizabeth informed of Confederate troop movements. With one of her former slaves now a housemaid for Jefferson Davis, Elizabeth has plenty of information to convey, and she soon becomes adept at coding messages for delivery to Union spymaster General Sharpe. One of her greatest schemes is the construction of a tunnel under Libby Prison, allowing more than a dozen Union officers out in a single night. Eventually, Elizabeth finds herself under constant surveillance by Confederate police. Can she survive the war?

Fascinating and well plotted, with lively characters, good momentum, and suspense throughout.