A well-documented biography of one of Allan Pinkerton’s detectives and a successful Union spy.
While researching his previous book, journalist Mortimer (Chasing Icarus: The Seventeen Days in 1910 That Forever Changed American Aviation, 2009, etc.) stumbled on an unpublished memoir that provided a new look at Civil War intelligence operations. A penniless Welsh immigrant in 1856, Pryce Lewis (1828–1911) was a grocery clerk before signing on with Pinkerton in 1860 and quickly demonstrating his talents. He was investigating a murder in Tennessee during the secession uproar and had no trouble impressing the locals, so he was a logical candidate for undercover assignments. In the summer of 1861, working for a little-known Ohio general, George McClellan, Pinkerton sent Lewis into western Virginia disguised as a British tourist. He performed brilliantly, ingratiating himself with local Confederate commanders and delivering accurate information on their strength (weaker than Union estimates). Union forces quickly conquered what is now West Virginia, a victory that catapulted McClellan to command of the Army of the Potomac. In early 1862, Pinkerton sent Lewis to Richmond, where he was quickly arrested and tried for treason. Reprieved a day before his scheduled execution, he spent more than a year and a half in Richmond prisons before being exchanged. Furious at Pinkerton, he resigned, spending much of the remaining war in other intelligence work. Like most wartime adventurers, life afterward became an anticlimax. His own detective agency foundered, and he descended into an impoverished old age, committing suicide in 1911. Despite access to fresh historical records, Mortimer does not wholly trust his material, larding his writing with invented dialogue and the characters’ thoughts and emotions.
Aside from the often corny narrative, the author provides an original contribution to the history of Civil War spying.