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Super Spy From Wales
Union agent Pryce Lewis had his share of close calls

On June 29, 1861, two strong gray horses were pulling a carriage along the James River and Kanawha Turnpike when a group of Confederate cavalrymen overtook them. A sergeant ordered the driver to halt, then asked for passes. Sleeping inside the carriage was a nattily dressed young gentleman who seemed just as annoyed to have his nap curtailed as he was to be asked for a pass.

Speaking with a British accent, the traveler complained he was unaware a vacationing English gentleman required a pass to travel on a public highway, and said they had come “From Guyandotte, and before that Louisville, and before that Lon­don.” The sergeant informed the traveler, identified as Pryce Lewis, Esq., that he would need to accompany him to their camp to get a pass from Colonel George S. Pat­ton. He had no clue he’d be escorting a Union spy right to his commander’s tent.

Escorted to the camp on foot, Lewis began haranguing Patton, commanding officer of the 1st Kanawha Infantry Regiment, about his soldiers’ tyrannical behavior. “My good sir!” exclaimed Patton, “We have no intention to stop Englishmen traveling in our country.” Turning to his adjutant, Patton ordered a pass to be made out to Mr. Pryce Lewis. The traveler then offered the colonel a cigar, and the two smoked and chatted. When Lewis suggested they open a bottle of champagne, Patton just laughed and asked where they’d find any—to which Lewis replied: “If you will allow your orderly to go to the road and order my carriage up, we will have some that is good.”

As they were enjoying what Lewis called the “good fellowship developed by sips of champagne,” Patton described the camp’s exact location to his newfound friend. Their camp was 10 miles outside Charleston, he said, just east of the Kanawha River, and the 900 soldiers within had orders to defend the 40 miles of turnpike between Guyandotte and Charleston. Lewis accepted an invitation to dine with Patton, and afterward, over a glass of port, the Englishman regaled his host with stories of fighting the Russians in Crimea. The traveler left with a map and directions to a country inn between the camp and Charleston.

Once in his room at the inn, Lewis took out a notebook and began to write, committing to paper everything Patton had told him—information that he knew would please his superior in Cincinnati, Allan Pinkerton, who in turn would pass it on to Union General George McClellan. In fact, the only truthful statement Lewis had made in his encounter with the Southerners was his name; everything else was an invention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had sent him on a secret mission to reconnoiter Confederate forces in western Virginia.

Lewis was no British aristocrat. He had been born in a small town in Wales in 1831, the son of an illiterate woolen weaver. After the industrial revolution crippled the wool industry, the young man emigrated to America in 1856 in search of a fresh start. Trading on his intelligence and charisma, Lewis secured a job as a salesman with the London Printing and Publishing Company, touting such titles as History of the Indian Mutiny and the three volumes of History of the War With Russia. He read his wares from cover to cover, absorbing information that would later prove invaluable.

During a trip to Detroit, Lewis fell into conversation with a personable fellow named Charlton who shared his love of literature. Charlton eventually revealed that he worked for a detective agency run by a Scot called Allan Pinkerton, who was always on the look out for new talent. Lewis’ first reaction was to laugh and exclaim: “A detective! Me?” But within a week he was the latest addition to the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Lewis’ first major assignment was in Jackson, Tenn., where he was sent in the spring of 1861 to investigate the murder of a bank clerk. He was still pursuing leads in that case when war was declared.

Pinkerton, a fervent abolitionist, offered his services to the Union, and in May moved the agency’s headquarters from Chicago to Cincinnati. From then on the agency took its orders from McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio, who was preparing to invade western Virginia in 1861. McClellan wanted Pinkerton to ascertain the approximate strength of the Confederate army in the region before the assault began—a mission that would require a spy to penetrate deep into Virginia without arousing suspicion. Pinkerton chose Lewis, along with Sam Bridgeman, who had fought in the Mexican War. Lewis would adopt the persona of a vacationing English gentleman wearing London-tailored clothes—a frock coat, red leather shoes and silk top hat—while Bridgeman posed as his manservant.

The morning after his encounter with Patton, Lewis’ carriage arrived in Charleston. Lewis took the last room available at the Kanawha House Hotel, opposite one occupied by General Henry Wise, commander of the Kanawha Valley forces, the officer who had hanged John Brown three years earlier. In the next 10 days Lewis ingratiated himself with the Southern officers, plying them with champagne, port and cigars supplied by Pinkerton. He also regaled them with tales of his service in the Crimea, stories plucked from the pages of History of the War With Russia. Such was the “Englishman’s” popularity that they invited him to inspect a Confederate camp and dine with them. Lewis later made copious notes of all he had seen, including the disposition of the 5,000 men under Wise’s command.

The only Confederate who seemed suspicious of Lewis was Wise himself. The general ordered the Englishman to his room one evening for an interview, and apparently remained unconvinced by Lewis’ story. But when Wise summoned Patton to give his opinion, the colonel was so effusive about the foreigner that Wise let the matter drop.

Rattled by the interrogation nonetheless, Lewis decided to depart Charleston using a route reconnoitered by Bridgeman. Shortly after dawn on July 11, Lewis’ carriage headed out of Charleston bound for Richmond—at least that’s what he told his newfound Confederate friends. But 10 miles east of Charleston, at the village of Browntown, Bridgeman turned onto a track that led through Logan County and across the state line to Kentucky.

Lewis and Bridgeman arrived at Pinkerton’s office in Cincinnati on July 16, five days after McClellan began his invasion of western Virginia. The information the pair had obtained was considered so important that McClellan ordered Lewis to deliver it in person to Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox, the officer tasked with seizing Charleston.

On July 11, Cox had led his 3,000-strong force into Virginia, but his advance was checked by the Confederates at Scary Creek, approximately 30 miles west of Charleston, on July 17. Four days later Cox was still pondering his next move when an aide informed him that Lewis had arrived with a letter from McClellan. Ushered into Cox’s headquarters aboard a moored steamer, Lewis furnished the general with the details of his escapade, “relating my conversation with Colonel Patton, my interview with Wise and my visit to the camp at Charleston.” Lewis “gave the num­ber of troops in Wise’s command as 5,000, including those under Patton and Browning, told the number of rations issued at Charleston, and the number of pieces of artillery there.” He also advised Cox that his own force was better armed and in better physical condition than the Confederates in and around Charleston.

Cox wasted no time in exploiting the new intelligence. The next morning, as Lewis returned to Cincinnati, Cox marched his men north, then wheeled southeast to attack Wise’s army in the rear. Surprised, the Confederates fled south, abandoning Charleston to its fate. Not only had Cox captured Charleston, he also gained control of the strategically important Kanawha River. Coming in the wake of the Battle of Bull Run disaster, Cox’s victory provided a morale boost for the Union. As The New York Times reported on September 18, 1861, “nowhere else on all the theatre of war have the Union armies so well sustained their cause as in Western Virginia….Gen. Cox enjoys the unquestioned honor of winning the important valley of Kanawha for the Union…what is Bull Run for the rebels by the side of it?”

Lewis spent the next six months in Washington helping Pinkerton round up Southern spies, among them the beautiful Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a Southern belle who ended up in the Old Capitol Prison. But in February 1862 Pinkerton asked Lewis to head back into enemy territory to look for Timothy Webster, a double agent who had been undertaking valuable work for the Union in the South. Pinkerton described Webster as “a tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking man of about forty years of age…a genial, jovial, convivial spirit, with an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and amusing reminiscences, and a wonderful faculty for making everybody like him.”

Webster had ingratiated himself with opera­tives of the Rebel underground network in Baltimore, a city whose wartime loyalties were deeply divided. Throughout the fall of 1861 dozens of secessionists were arrested and imprisoned thanks to information supplied by Webster. The Confederates congratulated Webster on his good fortune in escaping capture, but they soon began to doubt the authenticity of this enigmatic man who seemed to lead a charmed life.

Their growing suspicions coincided with a decline in Webster’s health. When he was confined to his room with inflammatory rheumatism in January 1862, Confederate detective Samuel McCubbin moved into the same establishment, Richmond’s Monu­mental Hotel, to keep an eye on him; if he was a Northern spy, the Confederates reckoned that it wouldn’t be long before his handlers tried to establish contact.

At first Lewis refused to countenance the idea of visiting Richmond, telling Pinkerton “it would be folly” to go to Richmond because he had arrested numerous Southern sympathizers in Washington—most of whom had subsequently been deported to Virginia, and many of whom were known to have made their way to the Southern capital. Pinkerton reminded Lewis that he would be doing the Union a great service, since Webster might possess information vital to the offensive being planned by McClellan. Lewis relented, and on February 18 he and another agent, Irishman John Scully, were rowed across the Potomac into Virginia, and then entrained for Richmond. They arrived on February 26, posing as two British cotton merchants, and checked into the Exchange and Ballard Hotel. Later that day they visited other hotels in the area, asking whether a Timothy Webster was a guest. Eventually they found him at the Monumental.

The pair paid Webster only a brief visit on that first day, promising to return the following evening for a longer discussion. But when they entered Webster’s room the next day there was another visitor at the sick man’s bedside who introduced himself as Samuel McCubbin, a friend of Webster’s. After a few minutes of small talk, he departed and the three Union agents got down to business. But their discussions were soon interrupted by a knock at the door. In walked George Clackner, a Confederate detective, accompanied by a second man who Lewis recognized at once: Chase Morton, who had been arrested by Lewis and Scully in Washington a couple of months earlier on accusations of spying. When no evidence was forthcoming, Morton had been sent south, and now he was on hand to identify Lewis and Scully as Northern detectives.

Lewis and Scully were taken to different jails and tried separately on charges of being enemy aliens in the employ of the Lincoln administration, “found within the fortifications of Richmond taking a plan thereof.” Found guilty, both were sentenced to hang on April 4. Scully broke down upon hearing the verdict and asked to see a priest, but Lewis wrote to the British Consul in Richmond, “stating who I was, the condition I was in, and asking to see him at once.” The counsel, Frederick Cridland, wasn’t granted an interview with Lewis until April 3, the day before the execution. Lewis took that opportunity to plead with Cridland for help, saying he was a British citizen in need of Her Majesty’s protection.

Cridland obtained an audience with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and asked for a stay of execution, on grounds that the defendants hadn’t been given adequate time to prepare their defense. By 8 a.m. on April 4, Lewis had heard nothing further from Cridland and presumed the worst. But as Lewis picked at his breakfast that morning, the prison priest entered his cell and said, “I have good news, President Davis has respited you.” The following day the priest brought him a copy of the Richmond Dispatch detailing developments.

The paper’s editors made it plain they disapproved of the clemency shown the Union spies: “For reasons satisfactory to ourselves, the principal one being the fact that the authorities were averse to any publicity being given to the affair, we have refrained for several days past from mentioning that two men, Pryce Lewis and John Scully, had been tried and condemned to be hung as spies. The execution was to have taken place yesterday…but the ex­ecu­tion has been postponed for a short time on a respite granted the parties by the president, but we are assured it will come off at an early day.” Then the paper added that ‘the condemned have made disclosures affecting the fidelity of several persons.’ Lewis couldn’t believe what he was reading. Surely Scully hadn’t squealed to save his own neck? He bribed a guard to take a note to Scully asking if he’d talked, and the reply came that evening: “I have made a full statement and confessed everything and it would be better for us if you would do the same.”

Lewis never did cooperate with the Rebels, but Scully’s confession was the cast-iron proof the Confederates required to arrest Webster, who was tried and convicted of being a Union spy. On April 29, Webster was hanged in front of a large crowd in the former Richmond fairgrounds, the first spy to meet such a fate during the war. Though Scully’s confession saved him and Lewis from the gallows, they both remained incarcerated in Richmond’s notorious Castle Thunder until September 1863.

Scully never again worked as a detective, but once Lewis had recovered from his prison stay he established his own detective agency in New Jersey. For the next 30 years he pursued cases across the country before retiring at the turn of the century. Eager for an income, Lewis then penned an account of his wartime service, but no pub­lisher was interested, and Lewis was reduced to running messages for a legal firm to pay his rent.

One of the lawyers, Anson Barnes, helped Lewis compose a letter to the War Pensions Bureau in Washington explaining his unusual predicament: He was neither an American citizen (though he had lived in the country for more than half a century) nor had he fought as a soldier in the Civil War. But while he wasn’t legally entitled to a pension, he deserved one as a reward for the outstanding service he had given the U.S. government.

No matter how many times Lewis sent his letter, however, the response was always the same: He failed to meet the criteria for a war pension. Barnes urged Lewis to apply for American citizenship, so he would be entitled to some help, but the Englishman saw that as a betrayal. “I’ve served this government well and taken the Secret Service oath of loyalty over and over again,” he told Barnes. “But when it comes to swearing that I’ll take arms against my own sovereign, I’ll see them damned.”

In December 1911, Lewis was living in a cramped attic studio in Jersey City, barely able to feed himself, when he threw himself off the 370-foot-high World Building in New York City. The suicide of a nameless old man was reported in all the city’s papers—as was the revelation of his identity a couple of days later.

The following month a full-page article appeared in Harper’s Weekly detailing Lewis’s shabby treatment at the hands of the authorities. The account explained that Lewis had been a war hero, a spy who had “habitually imperiled his life for the United States…one who had achieved more than a hundred soldiers.” Yet his reward, thundered Harper’s, was to be abandoned by the government. Shame on them, for “it was the sum of his achievements for the country that makes the country’s neglect of him seem so sordid…the government in dire need used him. The government at ease coldly drove him to death.”

Gavin Mortimer, who writes from Paris, is the author of Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War’s Most Daring Spy.