Sunday, October 6, 2013

Civil War derring-do: Pinkerton agents spy for the Union

In the mid 1850s, a 25-year-old Welshman named Pryce Lewis arrived in the United States from England, looking for opportunities. He eventually landed in Chicago, where he was hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Allan Pinkerton and Pryce were simpatico, and the Englishman was a quick study. 
When the Civil War broke out, General George McClellan (commander of the Department of the Ohio) hired Pinkerton and his agents to operate a secret service. Lewis's initial success was in gathering intelligence for the Union armies in the strategically crucial state of Tennessee. Masquerading as an English cotton mill owner, Lewis was next sent to Northwestern Virginia to ascertain the size of Confederate forces in Charleston, the seat of Kanawha County. The information he garnered meant that the Union forces held northwest Virginia early in the war, and it later became the new Union state of West Virginia.
In one of his first assignments as a Union spy, Lewis was sent by Pinkerton to infiltrate Confederate camps in the Kanawha Valley. Pryce is seen here with Captain George S. Patton at Camp Tompkins near St. Albans, in what is now West Virginia.
McClellan next directed the Pinkerton Agency to focus on counterintelligence. Lewis was called upon to ferret out people disloyal to the Union in Baltimore and Washington. Then came the crucial and most painful mission of his life and career. But first let's backtrack a little.
At the beginning of 1861, Pinkerton had sent agents Timothy Webster and Hattie Lawton to Baltimore to pose as a married couple who were pro-Confederate. While there, Webster helped foil the "Baltimore Plot" to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration (left, Allan Pinkerton with Lincoln). Webster was subsequently sent to Richmond, Virginia, on an intelligence-gathering mission. While in Richmond in 1862, he had a bout of inflammatory rheumatism and was too sick to make reports. Pinkerton sent two other agents, Lewis and John Scully, to track him down. The pair were recognized as Union spies, and they and Webster were arrested. Threatened with hanging if they did not tell what they knew about Webster, Lewis applied to the British Counsel for help, and some believe that the Confederate government did not carry out his initial sentence to avoid offending the British. In addition, he and Scully had not received and passed valuable documents from Confederate officers, as had Webster. However, some people (including Pinkerton) believed that Pryce became a turncoat of some sort. Time Life books' The Civil War: Spies, Scouts and Raiders asserts that "Scully saved his own skin by confessing that Webster was a far more important spy than he." After 19 months in prison, Pryce and Scully were exchanged north. The very talented Webster had the unfortunate distinction of being the first person executed for spying in the Civil War. After learning about Webster’s death sentence, Pinkerton went to Lincoln, who sent Confederacy President Jefferson Davis a message threatening to hang Confederates then held as spies if Webster were executed.
Hattie Lawton, also jailed but not executed, pleaded with Confederate authorities to grant Webster's wish to be shot, rather than to make him suffer a felon's death by hanging. Despite Lincoln’s message and Hattie's plea, Webster was hanged on April 29, 1862. "He was" wrote Pinkerton, "a faithful, brave, true-hearted man" for whom "Fear was an element entirely unknown."
British-born Union spy and Pinkerton operative Timothy Webster was a former New York City police officer expert at striking up acquaintances with people who unwittingly became sources. As Pinkerton later wrote, everyone who met Webster “yielded to the magic of his blandishments and was disposed to serve him whenever possible.”
Lewis next went to work finding and arresting deserters for Colonel Lafayette Baker, head of the federal secret service in Washington. After the war he tried to start his own detective agency, which failed due to his partner’s drinking problem. A memoir by Pinkerton, who blamed Lewis for Webster's hanging, put the kibosh on his second attempt. For much more on Lewis's tragic life, I refer you to Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War’s Most Daring Spy. The book also expands on the early days of the Pinkerton Agency, as well as making use of the primary documents and photographs in St. Lawrence University's Pryce Lewis collection.


  1. The Baltimore plot involved an Italian immigrant barber, who would have shot Lincoln and then escaped with the aid of Southern sympathizing law enforcement. Lincoln entered the city at night, in a "disguise", and lived to be ridiculed for it by newspapers denouncing his lack of manly courage.
    I wonder what they had to say 4 years later.
    And where was the Pinkerton intelligence then, when Booth was aided by a red-herring pursuit during his escape?
    The police superintendent who gave information about the 1861 plot was named John Kennedy--a coincidence or an eerie cosmology?

  2. Pryce is seen here with Captain George S. Patton...

    The grandfather, of course, of the much better known WWII general George S. Patton, about whom I learned a great deal to write a magazine cover story a few years ago.

    p.s. Lincoln (and also Lewis) really did wear those stove pipe hats back then!

    1. Higher hats for hotter heads!

  3. For more on T. Webster, there's a new biography out about him as well (A Spy for the Union).

  4. If only confederates use some spyware applications, the war would be over in days or mere month.

  5. Interesting. Why not visiting this source to find out how you can spy on someones facebook.