Civil War historical fiction: Two spy thrillers

Stories about clandestine operations are a popular literary genre. Readers are naturally drawn to a good spy story.

Two books of historical fiction, published in the early part of the 21st century, are “On Secret Service” by well-known author John Jakes, and “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff” by Michael Kilian, a relative newcomer at the time.

For anyone who served as a member of, or is interested in, the U.S. intelligence community, these two novels about clandestine skullduggery during the Civil War will be welcome. Jakes’ reputation as a novelist is firmly established, given his “Kent Family Chronicles” and the “North & South” trilogy. Kilian wrote his story as part of a planned series of mysteries that unfold in a Civil War setting.

By apparent coincidence, many of the same characters appear and similar themes emerge in these novels. For the informed “Civil Warrior,” several of these names are readily recognizable. Besides Union President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, there are Allen Pinkerton, the Northern intelligence chief, as well as femmes-fatale and Southern spies Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd.

In addition, the infamous John Wilkes Booth makes an appearance in both novels. There also is a host of less familiar but actual Civil War-era participants who play roles in these fictional tales told in an historical context.

In “On Secret Service” and “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff,” respectively, Lon Price and Harry Raines are young detectives who work for Allen Pinkerton. Both of these men are attracted to, as well as attract, the attention of beautiful women, and experience hair-raising adventures throughout the narrative.

Various women in these stories are infatuated with actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth, and disguise themselves in order to serve in the Confederate army. These and other similarities link the two novels in an overall theme.

However, the resemblance stops there. The plots are distinct, and the stories told in a unique manner.

Kilian’s tale is a page-turner with a whimsical flare. Harry Raines is an anti-slavery Southerner who decides to cast his lot with the North to help sustain the Union against the secessionist South.

After going to work for Pinkerton, Raines finds himself accused of the murder of Lincoln’s close friend Col. Edward Dickinson Baker. Raines had orders to serve as Baker’s bodyguard during a battle at Ball’s Bluff on Oct. 21, 1861, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.

In an effort to prove his innocence and find the real killer, Raines has to escape several harrowing encounters with people on both sides of the conflict who do not have his best interests in mind. This adventure takes Harry to several locations, including Northern Virginia, Shepherdstown, W.Va., Baltimore, Md., Washington, D.C., and other points along the way.

Throughout “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff,” Kilian weaves a complex pattern of intrigue that progressively engrosses the reader in Raines’ dilemma. One scene that takes place at the White House involving Raines, Lincoln, Pinkerton and several others displays Kilian’s skill in conveying personality through dialog.

This is particularly true of Lincoln, who comes across as a benevolent-yet-practical leader who stands for truth and justice, despite pressures from ruthlessly competing political factions within the country.

“On Secret Service” is billed as “the war of spies and espionage, of ciphers and codes, of dangerous undercover work deep behind enemy lines.” The protagonist, Ron Price, is a young man looking for adventure, who finds a lot more than he bargained for.

As a member of Allan Pinkerton’s Union secret service unit early in the war, Ron soon becomes entangled in a romantic affair with a beautiful Rebel sympathizer whom he arrests for espionage. This liaison leads to Ron’s capture and brutal treatment in a Confederate prison.

While Ron manages to escape, he later is on duty at Ford’s Theater in Washington on the night of April 14, 1865. However, the presence of secret service personnel cannot protect Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth’s assassination attempt.

“On Secret Service” and “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff” serve as fictional introductions to Civil War clandestine activities. For information about actual intelligence operations, see “The Secret War for the Union” by Edwin C. Fishel and “Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service & the Assassination of Lincoln,” by William A. Tidwell, et al.

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