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The untold story of a Civil War spy

Created date

April 26th, 2011

History has had its fair share of spies: Major John Andre, Mata Hari, Kim Philby, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This impressive roster of moles and traitors spans the American Revolution to the Cold War, and their stories are among the more illustrious cases of espionage. Even so, some of the quirkiest, and at times most romantic, tales of undercover work have come out of America s Civil War. There was the Confederacy s beautiful Rose O Neale Greenhow, who like a siren lured federal officers to her Washington home, where she used seduction to ply them for military intelligence. On the Union s side, Elizabeth Van Lew feigned insanity to avoid suspicion, meanwhile sending information to Ulysses S. Grant through notes hidden in hollowed-out egg shells. In Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War s Most Daring Spy (Walker, 2010), author Gavin Mortimer adds one more to the list. The book tells the story of Pryce Lewis, a Welsh-born immigrant who came to the U.S. in the mid-1850s. At the war s outbreak in 1861, Lewis, like thousands of men and women, saw an opportunity for adventure. But instead of a blue woolen uniform, he donned a gentleman s frock coat and felt top hat, working as a Union operative for the famed detective Allan Pinkerton.

Champagne and cigars

In place of the standard issue Springfield rifle, Lewis infiltrated the South s barrooms, hotels, and military headquarters armed with a few bottles of champagne and a box of fine cigars props that helped him play the role of a harmless English sojourner, who in reality was gathering information about enemy fortifications and troop movements. In the 1880s, Lewis recorded his daring exploits in a handwritten memoir that told of his encounter with Ms. Greenhow, the infamous socialite spy, and his near-brush with the hangman s noose in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Remarkably, his story and the three notebooks that it filled sat unpublished for more than a century.

Finally discovered

Throughout most of the 1900s, the manuscript drifted between trunks and desk drawers until finally its journey ended at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. It was here that Mortimer found it, the main source from which he would weave the spy s gripping story with a graceful style that carries the reader like a river s current. His selection of details is careful, their presentation highly visual and laced with wit at all the right moments. Lewis himself is a winning character, an affable man unafraid of risk, the ideal qualities for a spy. To be sure, the American people owe him a debt of gratitude, and, though British, Mortimer counts himself among them. He closes the book s acknowledgments with a touching dedication: most of all, it s Pryce Lewis I must thank. It s taken 122 years to get your story into print, and I do hope the wait was worthwhile. He can rest assured that it was. The only thing disappointing about this book is that it comes to an end.