Unsung Hero of America's Civil War Was a Welsh Flannel-Weaver

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview
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Unsung Hero of America's Civil War Was a Welsh Flannel-Weaver


TALES of daring, secret missions behind enemy-l ines, fake identities and fighting for the sanctity of the United States of America sound like plotlines from a Hollywood blockbuster - not the escapades of a 19th century Welsh flannel-weaver.

But Pryce Lewis was no ordinary flannel-weaver.

Born into a life of poverty in Newtown, Powys, in 1832, Lewis could never have imagined the life of civil war espionage that awaited him across the Atlantic.

Having travelled to the US in 1856 in search of a better quality of life, by 1859 his itchy feet had led him to Chicago where he joined a detective agency belonging to Allan Pinkerton Two years later, the American Civil War broke out, with the Union states of the north and the Confederate states of the south battling over the contentious issue of slavery.

With the nation at war, Lewis became embroiled in infiltrating the southern forces to gather intelligence.

Lewis' information surrounding the town of Charleston and the Confederates' position there, was vital. Disguised as an English aristocrat, he befriended colonels and put his life on the line to get information across the battle-lines.

At one point the Welshman was even captured in the town of Richmond, Virginia but promptly escaped from Henrico County Jail along with eight others.

Shortly after this escape Lewis and the others were captured and the Welshman was sentenced to be hanged.

Ultimately he evaded the punishment because he was a British citizen.

After the war ended he became a bailiff and detective at the Old Capitol Prison, but he never settled in any job and died virtually destitute.

Gavin Mortimer has documented the life of Pryce Lewis in his book Double Death: the True Story of Pryce Lewis, The Civil War's Most Daring Spy.

"Arguably Lewis provided the Union cause with its most valuable piece of intelligence during the war, enabling the northern army to push through West Virginia and strike a blow that, while strategically wasn't massive, gave the north a crucial propaganda victory at a time when the war hadn't been going well," he said.

"It's an insult to Lewis that his contribution in defeating the south has been overlooked, in the US as in Britain "Perhaps he lacked the glamour, the intrigue, and the fact he was a man might have worked against him.

"Female spies were all the rage in the civil war.

"His greatest coup was to disguise himself as an English aristocrat and travel round the south, gathering intelligence.

"He was an extraordinary man, and spy, one who has been criminally neglected by history.

"Wales should be made more aware of his role in the civil war - and the fact he refused until his dying day to become a US citizen because of his pride in his heritage."

Despite his heroics Lewis committed suicide in New York in 1911 by throwing himself off the top of the Pulitzer Building in New York after spending his post-war years practically destitute after being refused a pension as he was still a British citizen.

David Pugh, chairman of the Newtown Civic Society, has carried out extensive research into Lewis' life, and aided Mr Mortimer's book.

"He was a remarkable man," said Mr Pugh.

"It seems to be a Welsh tradition to go somewhere else and do great things.

"The house he was born in, in Newtown is now called Lewis House and should have a blue plaque on it in my opinion."

But despite the colourful nature of Lewis' life, his remarkable tale may have been lost to history had it not been for the work of one Harriet Shoen - a friend of Lewis' only child with his wife Maria, Mary - who carried out extensive research into his life.

Those studies were then donated anonymously to the History Society of St Lawrence County, New York, after Ms Shoen's death in 1967.

The Pryce Lewis Collection is housed at the St Lawrence University Library, and where it was found by Mr Mortimer when he was researching the civil war.

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