Meeting of August 16, 2011

Francis Hamit on “The Queen of Washington”

Francis is the author of the novel The Shenandoah Spy and talked about his follow-on work about renowned Confederate spy Rose Greenhow, The Queen of Washington. The following description was provided by Francis:

I am not a pure historian, but rather a creator of historical fiction focused on the Confederate Secret Service and Navy (and they were parts of a whole). My first book, published in 2008, was The Shenandoah Spy. It was about the first year of Confederate Army spy and scout Belle Boyd’s career. Belle used a lot of classic intelligence techniques in her espionage, including seduction of enemy officers. The second book in the series is The Queen of Washington and is about Washington society grande dame Rose Greenhow, who also used her “feminine wiles” to gather critical intelligence for the Confederate government.

The new book starts in 1853 in Mexico City and San Francisco with the Limantour Claims. The thesis is that Rose and her husband were already working as secret agents for the French and British governments at a time when those governments were actively trying to split the United States and re-establish dominion over the North American continent. Robert Greenhow had been the number three man in the State Department and the author of well-regarded history of Oregon and California, but had been eclipsed by more colorful actors such as John C. Fremont and Nicholas Trist. He and Rose were proteges of politicos such as John Calhoun and James Buchanan but fell into disfavor for reasons that have never been explained. I think to understand the Civil War we have to look at what happened leading up to it. So I have been doing a lot of reading about the Ante-Bellum period.

I am working on this right now and hope to have it done by then. Not sure if we will have actual books on hand at that point, but certainly we’ll be taking pre-orders (at a discount of course). Also showing up in the story line is a young attorney and political operative from New Orleans named Judah P. Benjamin, who was, indeed, employed by the same Lands Commission as Robert Greenhow. All of this is highly speculative but supported by known facts.

Who am I and how did I come to write these books? I was in Military Intelligence during the Vietnam War, serving there and in Germany and afterwards attended the Iowa Writers Workshop where I received a MFA in Fiction. After that I was employed by the Encyclopaedia Britannica during the revisions to the 15th Edition and wrote a number of articles about intelligence topics—including the short biography of Belle Boyd. I always thought that Belle’s story was a terrific one that should be told and that led me to consider the other women who were also secret agents for the South. Of course espionage is both a political act and a crime, so you also have to examine the social context of these events and look beyond the easy stories such as the big battles. The research is ongoing because there will be at least five books in this series. I keep finding surprising bits of narrative that have not been much explored.