Civil War Spies


       Confederate troops were massing in the Kanawha Valley (West) Virginia in the early summer of 1861, just after the break of hostilities. Local militia companies were being recruited to war strength and were pouring into Camp Tompkins, a short distance below the mouth of the Coal River. Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise was reported to be enroute to the valley with a very strong force. General McClellan, in command of the western Virginia area for the Union with headquarters at Cincinnati, was greatly disturbed. He needed information badly as to the secessionist strength and movements .

      No espionage system had been developed by the army command; therefore, he had to rely on civilian spies. He had employed Allan Pinkerton, head of the famous detective agency, to do secret service work, one incident of which , involving Charleston, was one of the most spectacular feats of espionage in the early days of the war.

      McClellan called Pinkerton to his headquarters and asked that he send several operatives into the Kanawha Valley to map the country and to ascertain the exact position and design of the secessionists. Pinkerton countered with the suggestion that one or two men could do the job better and with less danger of being suspected of espionage. McClellan agreed, and Pinkerton selected Pryce Lewis for the job. He was a 29-year-old British subject who had been working with the detective agency, and was well qualified to carry out the impersonation of a well-to-do Englishman in travel imperious and demanding.

      At first it was the plan to send Lewis into the valley in the guise of a British Lord, and to that end he was supplied with an elaborate system of props, including forged identification papers. In his youth Lewis had lived near Lord Tracy in England, and it was his purpose to pose as a son of the nobleman. Sam Bridgeman, a sharp-witted Virginian, also a Pinkerton operative, was picked to accompany him in the capacity of coachman, groom, and body servant, as occasion should demand.

      Lewis was rigged out in a new suit of baggy tweeds, tall silk hat, his flowing beard trimmed to the latest English style, and he was entrusted with Pinkerton's heavy gold watch and diamond ring. Another personal prop was an ornate cigar case with the British lion inset in ivory. He cut a dashing figure in his new dress, and to match his personal outfit he was provided with a carriage, a span of horses, with harness and equipment that any Lord would feel proud of. A British army trunk was strapped on the rear of the carriage, and this bit of luggage carried a passport that helped him over the rough spots; it was packed with several boxes of cigars, a case of champagne, and one of port.

      Taking passage on the Steamer "Cricket," Lord Tracy and his footman, with their carriage and equipment, left Cincinnati on June 27. debarking at Guyandotte (the border of Kentucky/West Virginia on the Ohio River) the following day. While en route Lewis decided to abandon the pose of a British Lord, but, when possible, to be vague about his antecedents so as to leave the impression that he was connected with the nobility. He destroyed his forged identification papers and registered at the hotel under his true name. However, he was careful to make it appear that he was traveling incognito. Sam Bridgeman was a most obsequious manservant, lifting his hat when spoken to and once in a while, as if slipping in speech, casually referred to "his lordship."

      Starting early the next morning, but stopping a time or two to inquire the way to White Sulphur Springs (even at that time a well known resort), the party was halted by Confederate pickets at about five o'clock, when nearing the mouth of Coal River. Under vigorous protest, Lewis was escorted to the Camp Tompkins headquarters, in the Tompkins brick home, where he confronted Capt. George S. Patton, commander of the Kanawha Riflemen and second in command at Camp Tompkins.

      Lewis feigned proper indignation; he was an English gentleman traveling peacefully through the country; he wanted to see the great natural curiosities of Virginia before returning to London, and named Gauley Bridge, the Hawk's Nest, White Sulphur Springs, the Natural Bridge, and other scenic spots which could be seen on the route to Richmond. Capt. Patton was impressed. He ordered his adjutant to make out a pass to Charleston, at the same time extending an invitation to Lewis to stay for dinner, or to remain overnight at headquarters. Considerably mollified, Lewis ordered his carriage, which had been left some distance away, and had Sam break out a bottle of champagne, damning him roundly for his clumsiness in serving it. For more than an hour he regaled Patton with tales of the Crimean War. He claimed to have been a member of Lord Raglan's staff, though his only knowledge of that struggle was obtained from a history which he had sold while on one of his detective assignments.

      Pinkerton says the meal served by Capt. Patton was "far more appetizing than soldier's fare usually is." But the more factual Lewis says the supper consisted of coffee without milk, pork and crackers served on a tin plate. Sam opened a bottle of port and the conversation on military matters became more general. Patton said: "I have fortifications here that with 600 Confederates I can defend against 10,000 Yankees for ten years." He invited Lewis to inspect the fortifications. In order not to appear too eager, Lewis demurred. He said he had seen enough of fortifications in the Crimea.

      Patton apologized for the absence of the band; it had gone to Charleston the day before to serenade Gen. Wise who had just arrived from Richmond to take command. Lewis declined to spend the night at headquarters and Patton gave him a note to a friend who lived near Charleston, who put him up for the night.

      Arriving at Charleston the next morning, Lewis' carriage drew up in front of the Kanawha House. Sam hopped down from the box, lifted his hat and opened the door of the carriage. Mine host John G. Wright was properly impressed, but to make room for his distinguished guest he had to turn a Confederate officer out of a room, which happened to be directly across the hall from that occupied by Gen. Wise.

       The pass furnished by Capt. Patton was good only to Charleston. On the evening of arrival, more to get acquainted with the Gen. and to make an impression on him, Lewis requested an interview. When admitted to the room he found Gen. Wise crusty, irritable, and even lacking in courtesy. Lewis told his story and asked for a pass to Richmond, which was peremptorily refused. Lewis was indignant. He knew his rights as a British subject and would appeal to the British Consul at Richmond. That evening he did write a long letter to the Consul, keeping his pose, well knowing that in the disrupted condition of the mail service it would take a couple of weeks to get a reply. Also, he hoped that to strengthen his simulated status the letter would be opened and its content reported to Wise.

      Failure to get a pass to continue his travels left Lewis and Sam high and dry. Though ignoring the pseudo Englishman, Gen. Wise made no effort to curb his movements about town, or his visits to the military camps at Kanawha Two-Mile and the Fair Grounds. While Lewis moved about in the top circles and fraternized with the young bloods of the Richmond Light Inf. Blues, Sam haunted the saloons, the stables, and other places where soldiers congregated, picking up stray bits of information here and there. But Sam overdid it one night when he partook too freely, got boiling drunk, and cussed out some Confederate officers. He came within a gnat's hair of betraying both Lewis and himself. But Lewis was able to smooth over the incident by tactful diplomacy, bluster, and apologies all around. Same went on the water wagon after that evening.

      The situation was growing critical for the Pinkerton man. He could not, he thought, leave Charleston without a military pass. He saw an opportunity to escape when Gen. Wise left to take part in the July 4th raid on Ripley, leaving Col. C.Q. Tompkins in command. He was friendly terms with Tompkins, and he was stranded at Charleston until he could hear from the British Consul, Tompkins exclaimed. "You don't need a pass to go to Richmond. The roads are all open in that direction."

      Lewis lost little time getting out of town before Wise returned. Sam had the carriage ready early the next morning and they were permitted to leave without interference; in fact, Landlord Wright accompanied him across the river. Lewis had no thought of going to Richmond; he wanted to get back to Cincinnati as guickly as possible, and he knew he would need to take a long, roundabout route to reach that place. At Brownstown (now Marmet) he turned to the south on a rough, rutted mountain road and, by hard driving, managed to reach Logan that day. There, it seemed he had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire; before they knew it, they were in the midst of an assembly of rebel troops, and again under strong suspicion.

       When questioned, Lewis claimed to be the son of an English cotton manufacturer; that he had been in the South to buy cotton and was now en route to Louisville to see the British Consul about getting his purchases released and shipped overseas. Col. Browning, commander of the Confederates, was called. Lewis turned on the charm and, with the aid of his last bottle of champagne, was able to convince the Colonel that he was an innocent English traveler and didn't know what all this pother was about.

      In fact, Lewis made a hit with Browning, who pressed him to make a speech to his troops. And, on parting, dictated route memoranda directing the travelers to Pikeville, Kentucky, which they reached on the second day after leaving Logan. Then pressing on as fast as possible, Lewis and Bridgeman made their way into Catlettsburg, where their first sight was an American flag flying from a tall staff. For the first time they felt safe. Reaching Cincinnati a couple of days later, after an absence of nineteen days, Lewis made his report to Pinkerton, who immediately ordered him back to join Gen. Cox at Red House, on the Kanawha.

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West Virginia in the Civil War, by B.B. Boyd -- Spy of the Rebellion (1883) -- Spies for the Blue and Gray (1954) by H.T. Kane -- Davis and Elkins Historical Magazine (1949) by Dr. H.T. Shoen