Monday, August 23, 2010

New and Intriguing---One Was Hung, One Was Exchanged

Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War's Most Daring Spy, Gavin Mortimer, Walker & Company Publisher, 21 b/w photographs, index, end notes, appendices, 304 pages, $26.00.

The exploits of Pryce Lewis a successful but captured Union spy are intriguing. From the first chapter that an indication of Pryce Lewis's eventual demise, Gavin Mortimer writes a compelling true story of Civil War espionage. Mortimer's recounting of the writing, loss and recovery of Lewis' manuscript is in itself a revealing description of historical sleuthing and perseverance.

Lewis, a Welsh-born emigrant from the United Kingdom before the Civil War, tried his hand at door-to-door book sales in New England. Reaching Chicago he accepted employment as a grocer's clerk and planned a prospecting trip to the West. By chance a New England acquaintance visiting Chicago encouraged Lewis to apply with the Pinkerton Agency. The year was 1859 and the Pinkerton Agency's main clients were the railroad corporations.

Lewis accepted assignments in Baltimore during the 1861 Lincoln Assassination conspiracy, in western Virginia during McClellan's Appalachian Mountain campaign, and in Washington DC regarding the espionage of Rose Greenhow and her friends. Lewis toured western Virginia as an English cotton dealer and Mortimer's account of Lewis' deceptions of Confederate commanders is wonderful.

Traveling by carriage with a coachman [co-conspirator], wearing red leather shoes, and befriending Confederate backwoods militiamen and soldiers, Lewis toured rebel camps, gave rousing speeches, and promised British help to the South. His intelligence reports played a crucial role in McClellan's victory over Lee in the western Virginia mountains. While his traveling companion has a difficult time handling the stress of the deception, Lewis keeps his head and passes through and around the lines. Union military endeavors organized by McClellan relied upon Lewis' information on CSA troop location and numbers.

Pinkerton ordered Lewis and others to check up on Tim Webster, among the best of Pinkerton's agents. Webster had established a courier service out of Richmond, across the Potomac and into Washington, D.C. Webster had not been in communication with for several weeks. Lewis resisted by saying that the Rebel agents and families that had been displaced from Washington D.C. were now living in Richmond. Lewis, feeling his honor and his friendship with Webster were at stake, reluctantly went to Richmond and was captured. Webster was hanged; Lewis was eventually paroled. His British citizenship played a part in the mercy shown him. As a British national in the employ of an Federal detective agency, Lewis had no claim for British help. His captivity is an ordeal that reveals much about Confederate treatment of prisoners.

Mortimer covers Lewis' further adventures and feuds. Lafayette Baker, a self-promoting civilian investigator who injected himself into the wartime Washington bureaucracy was no friend of Lewis'. Furthermore, Pinkerton's self-aggrandizing memoir laid Webster's hanging on Lewis's shoulders. Pryce Lewis unsuccessfully attempted to market his memoir in the face of a popular misunderstanding promoted by Pinkerton that Lewis had caused Webster's capture and execution. Lewis' death came in the 20th century when he chose in the winter of 1911 to jump from New York's Pulitzer Building.

Mortimer adds to Lewis' memoir background information on Confederate female agents, military observation balloons, Richmond's military governance and the work habits of Allan Pinkerton. Mortimer in Double Death recounts Pryce Lewis's dramatic story and offers bibliographic notes for his findings and conjectures. The author may have had his manuscript completed when in 2008 The Baltimore Plot: The First Conspiracy to Assassinate Abraham Lincoln by Michael J. Kline was published. Mortimer's understanding is that the 1861 assassination conspiracy was a self-promotion fantasy by Pinkerton. Kline makes a very strong case that conspiracy was active and that Pinkerton, at best, was playing catch up with conspirators who were ready, willing and able to dispatch Lincoln to his grave during February 1861.

Overall, readers with an interest in the American Civil War are well served by Mortimer's biography of Lewis whose amazing life story is compelling and well handled in Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War's Most Daring Spy.

1 comment:

Dick Stanley said...

Reed reviews at Amazon says "parts of the book read like a spy thriller written by Mark Twain." All-in-all, it sounds like a good one, though it amazes me the publisher has priced it so high.