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The Clothesline Code

The Story of Civil War Spies Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker

Released Feb 1, 2021, E-book coming Feb 2023!

By Janet Halfmann

Illustrated by Trisha Mason

Brandylane Publishers

Ages 6-11, Nonfiction Picture Book, hardcover & softcover

Buy this book at Bookshop,, Barnes & Noble, Brandylane Publishers, and other booksellers



2022 multicultural Skipping Stones Honor Award 

(Their review: "This story of courage and triumph reveals how a Black husband and wife were creative and confidential when helping the Union troops battle the Confederates during the Civil War. . . Many of the illustrations include close-up shots of these courageous legends to display the various feelings experienced during this emotional time period. The joy, sorrow, and victory were beautifully depicted in the motion of the characters that seem to explode off the page. Overall, this history is rich in pride for not only the Black community but for all Americans.")

Honor Winner 2022 Storytelling World Resource Awards

2022 PenCraft Honor Award

Reviewer's Choice: Midwest Book Review

On Two Recommended Booklists of Social Justice Books, Teaching for Change: New Books; and Slavery, Resistance, and Reparations


The Story

Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker didn't have to risk their lives to spy for the Union army. The couple had already risked everything to escape slavery themselves. But in early 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the couple was determined to help defeat slavery for everyone—no matter the risk. Together, they created a secret code disguised as laundry on a clothesline. Their plan was incredibly dangerous: it required Lucy Ann to sneak into Confederate territory to steal military secrets, while Dabney took the vital information she gathered to the Union army. This true story of sacrifice and bravery shows us that when we have courage and compassion for the world around us, even the simplest items can become powerful tools for change.

My Inspiration

I love to research and bring into the light stories that have been lost to history. This is one of those stories. Most mentions I found of this risky exploit didn't even include the couple's last name, so it took lots of research to find the details behind this story. In the past, some have thought this story was but a legend, but the truth can be found in Dabney Walker's pension request submitted to Congress and in the Civil War diaries of Captain William H. Paine, whom Dabney worked with in surveying and mapmaking, as well as in newspaper accounts of people who were in the Union camp in Virginia with the Walkers.  

Educational Connections

The book's back matter includes an Afterword of the Walkers' lives after the Civil War and a list of Selected References. The story spotlights African American achievement, Black engagement in winning the Civil War, creativity, bravery, risking one's life for others, and using what is available to make a difference.

Find Janet's Teaching Ideas for the book at


Find Teaching Ideas at Katie Reviews Books.


Find suggestions for using your own secret codes inspired by this book at Wrapped in Foil.


Researching True Historical Stories: Interview with Janet by Write Now! Coach

'So brave': A South Milwaukee author wants you to know about this spy couple that escaped slavery and created a code. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online   


"This book reads like a spy thriller for kids."—Wrapped in Foil


"Author Janet Halfmann has shared another great story from our history. Young readers will enjoy colorful illustrations and a story that is a fast but interesting read. Parents and teachers can use this guide to teach about the Civil War, heroes and even specific events during, before, and after slavery." —Kristi's Book Nook

"Halfmann has demonstrated a deft touch and craft in digging out the bones of stories from historypeople and facts that were long-buried from the population as a whole. She identifies intrepid individuals who have championed and sustained these noble stories, often using primary sources. Then, like constructing a quilt, she transforms neglected and ragged scraps into a work of art that inspires and comforts without distorting the factual content." —Sandy Brehl, An Open Book

"The Walkers' determination to help defeat slavery demonstrates the power we all have in using everyday items, courage, and caring to change the world." —Read, Learn, and be Happy

"There's so much "hidden history", especially surrounding the Civil War, that this is a fantastic story to read aloud during lessons on the Civil War or during Black History Month." —Ms. Yingling Reads

"Janet Halfmann has a gift for finding little-discussed people in history . . . She invests the reader with her storytelling, full of suspense and nail-biting moments: there is a lot on the line here, and Ms. Halfmann makes sure readers understand that." —Mom Read It, Rosemary Kiladitis

"This story speaks to the power of humanity, the innovativeness of those who want to make changes." —Katie Reviews Books


"The story of The Clothesline Code is one of great fascination! Just as messages were sent by this ingenious method, this delightful book now sends out its messages of bravery and fortitude—an important chronicle of African American history. Written masterfully for young readers, it will capture the imagination of adults as well. It relates a little-known aspect of the uniquely American journey toward freedom, exemplified by two extraordinary individuals, Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker, Civil War spies and freedom seekers. A book to treaure and inspire future generations." —Norman Schools, longtime member of the Stafford County Historical Society and author of "Virginia Shade: An African American History of Falmouth, Virginia."

"This story offers a glimpse into a side of the war seldom explored—Black men and women who risked their lives as spies for the Union, just as other Black individuals had done for the American cause in the Revolutionary War. This story is educational, well-researched, and enjoyable reading." —Kenneth A. Daigler, retired CIA officer and author of "Spies, Patriots, and Traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War" (Georgetown University Press: 2014) and "Black Dispatches" (CIA website)

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