Civil War historical fiction: ‘Harbor of Spies’

Regardless of what skeptics claim, the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. Slavery was ingrained in segments of society in this country to the point that it was a life-or-death issue.

In “Harbor of Spies: A Novel of Historic Havana,” Robin Lloyd uses the institution of slavery as the root of an intriguing tale about ships running the Union blockade of Confederate ports in the Gulf of Mexico with Havana, Cuba, as a base of operations during the first seven months of 1863.

Although a novel, the story is structured around events that occurred during the Civil War. As the author explains, he strives to provide an accurate depiction of Havana as it was at the height of the American Civil War.

Some of the U.S. gunships, as well as blockade-runners, mentioned are actual vessels. Also, a number of the people that are featured are real, including U.S., Confederate and British diplomatic envoys based in Havana, and two Spanish slave-traders. The murder of an English diplomat in Havana is an integral part of the story.

Among the author’s credentials is experience as a foreign correspondent, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. His news programs and documentaries earned four Emmys and an Overseas Press Award. Previously, he published “Rough Passage to London,” a seafaring suspense novel.

The protagonist of Harbor of Spies is Everett Townsend, a young man from Maryland with Northern sympathies who was dismissed from the Naval Academy for bad behavior. By ill-fortune, Townsend ends up in a Havana prison after signing on as a first mate of the Laura Ann, an American merchant schooner.

He is rescued from torture and certain death by a nefarious Cuban entrepreneur, but only after Townsend reluctantly agrees to become the captain of a blockade-running ship between Cuba and Southern ports on the Gulf coast.

Lloyd weaves a story of the political intricacies of Spanish Cuba serving as a base for shipping munitions, armaments and scarce products from European countries — particularly Great Britain — through the American blockade of Southern ports.

Havana being the southernmost of three principal relay points — the others being Nassau in the middle and Bermuda farther north. Blockade-runners operating out of Havana were destined primarily for St. Marks, Florida; Mobile, Ala.; the Mississippi River Delta; and Galveston and the Brazos River ports in Texas.

The author’s knowledge of sailing and familiarity with naval terminology enhances the storyline and discussion of the vessels engaged. The narrative addresses relations of the United States and the Confederacy with European countries, as well as with Cuba as a colony of Spain. The bustling port of Old Havana comes alive with intrigue directly related to the vessels that venture through the dangerous blockade.

The cruelty of slavery and resulting depravity of those who engage in its practice through ownership or trade are reflected in the events that unfold. The ongoing slave trade from Africa at the time evolves as a central theme of clandestine operations under way in Havana harbor.

Townsend’s affairs and predicaments, as they relate to the political and military issues that existed at that time, unfold in a variety of hair-raising experiences that lead to unanticipated results.

Lloyd wisely consulted the Official Records of the Union & Confederate Navies as a resource, and relied as well on the memoir of William Watson, a Scottish blockade-runner who was captain of a schooner running into the Gulf ports.

For reference purposes, I consulted “Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War” by Stephen R. Wise, which proved to be useful in identifying the Union, Confederate and foreign vessels engaged in blockade-running that make an appearance in “Harbor of Spies.”

This historical novel is recommended for its blend of creative writing and realistic rendition of blockade-running adventures during the Civil War. As with other Civil War novels reviewed in this column, such as Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” MacKinlay Kantor’s “Andersonville” and Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” “Harbor of Spies” will motivate those who read it to investigate a facet of the Civil War that has not received the level of attention it deserves.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at or visit his website at


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point