John Harwood Pierce: Ranger of
the Plains

  Biography:     Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6    
  Genealogy:     1st     2nd     3rd     4th     5th     6th     7th     8th    

The Spy
A true story of the Civil War
By John Harwood Pierce

It was a Grand Review, and the General, very abruptly and without any semblance of a smile, asked my Captain, speaking of me and watching me intently. "Are you right sure that boy ain't a girl?"

The prompt, emphatic and smiling response settled the quiz. "Oh, he's a boy all right."

I was company clerk, and it was an angry Captain when he reluctantly sent me to division headquarters in response to a detail.

"Because I've got the best penman in the Regiment, I must give him up to division headquarters. Oh, well, I'm only a Captain, and he is a General, so he can take and no one can stop him."

At the General's tent, I was directed to a Staff Officer, and he, after hours of examination and instruction, told me that I was in the Secret Service; plainly speaking, a spy.

Accompanied by an aged mulatto, I was sent through the lines with a message for the commander of the Union forces on the West bank of the Mississippi. We were told to cross the river in a pirogue, the local name for the log canoes common in those parts, but we did not chance an open crossing, for the banks swarmed with scouts from both armies, so we surrounded our canoe with light dead branches of cottonwood, and loaded that with dead moss, which hung in festoons, sometimes yards in length, and thus our canoe became, in appearance, a mass of floodwood, common when the banks were full and the river rising. In this way, we crossed the Mississippi unchallenged. I delivered my dispatches successfully, and was greatly elated.

I was in girl's clothes, and was, for a little time, the guest of headquarters, where I was ogled by curious people of both sexes, which made me nervous, and I was anxious to go on to Vicksburg, where I had important duties. An escort was furnished to the point where our gunboats lay, far above the city.

In response to the wigwagging of the Sergeant, a launch came and took us on board of the Carondalet. The lieutenant in command told me that it would be possible some pitch dark night to carry me near enough to the city to make it accessible to good swimmers, with life preservers.

While waiting for the black night, I was courted by a score or more of the officers, petty officers and sailors, and this was a nuisance to the Lieutenant, who felt responsible for my safety, and had taken me on board in violation of regulations, because I was a spy on an important mission. He finally decided to let me chance my self to the style of going by which we had crossed the river.

We were taken to the eastern bank at night, and the next day, while gathering dry floodwood and moss, a band of Confederate cavalry took us, and that night I heard enough to convince me that my life was to be taken, not because they knew I was a spay, but because they believed I was one. No one evidently suspicioned that I was a boy. Like Custer and many other cavalrymen, officers and privates, I wore long hair, and too young to have even a down on my lip. The mulatto did some good talking for me, but it failed to convince, and I , not knowing much that would help me, made out that I was semi idiotic. Hence, I said little that was connected or sensible, dropped my jaw, half closed my eyes, and leered with a silly smirk. They tied me hand and foot with cords, and left me under guard near the river bank. That night, I deliberately rolled into the river, and about one hour later, I was picked up by a boat from one of the gunboats, and the next day, I was back on board the Carondalet. I was an expert swimmer, and on my back in the warm water, I enjoyed the trip down stream.

The next visit to the shore was made with a force of sailors, with orders to stay by me until I was safely launched, and this they did, and although without a canoe, I had an admirable collections of dry branches and moss, all fastened together with rope, and I was instructed to land on a raft boomed above a sawmill, on the upper side of the city. My swimming made this easy and without incident. I arrived. I soon put on my clothing, which was held high above the water in the branches of the tree top that was part of my raft.

I made friends with the relatives of the mulatto, and they gave me a bed in their cave, for all were underground like rats. The colored people were house servants to a banker's family, and I was supposed to be the orphan daughter of the wife of a Captain of an upriver stern-wheeler destroyed by a gunboat with all on board, save two or three. I knew of the incident, and met the daughter, who was about my own age, and she was really a war waif.

The banker's daughter, whether because I had the magnetism of a boy, or through sympathy, fell violently in love with me. One night I was told to sleep with her. She had a little cave all her own, and it was comfortable. In Scripture language, I had never known a woman, and I slept with her, and the next day we were both as innocent as the day we were born, in so far as sex was concerned, but I refused to duplicate that night.

The Provost Marshall gave me a trader's permit on the endorsement of a Frenchman who had a store much patronized by soldiers, and from him I got such things as were exchangeable for Confederate script. I was well supplied with this medium of exchange before starting. In a few days' time, I had visited, as a peddler, every fort and the large and minor arsenals and learned a quantity of important facts that were unknown at our headquarters, and had gone where no one of our male spies could go. And then, I had communicated all of my work to the spy who operated a signal system. That was merely the raising and lowering of a spring roller curtain over the window of a house boat, in accordance with the Morse Code, while the operator of a powerful telescopic glass on one of the Union gunboats recorded the communications.

Soon, I was again a prisoner and in Military Prison No. 1. I endured the 3rd degree to compel me to confess that I was a spy, and to tell what I had learned. I had the worst treatment they dared to use. Chained hand and foot so that the blood could not freely circulate, the prison surgeon had to be called occasionally to keep me alive. I was deprived of water, starved, and abused until , at last, the Prison Sargeant took my part, and out of pity, furnished me with paper, and I wrote to General Pemberton, the Provost Marshall, and the Major, and some one in power became convinced that I was probably not a spy, and so I was unchained and sent to work on a magazine to store ammunition in.

It had become known, that I was a boy, and I was now booked as a suspicious character, and they put me with Union prisoners, and orders had been given to Confederates to watch for any signs of recognition given to me by Union prisoners, or to any of them by me, and as fresh fish -- name for new prisoners -- were caught almost daily, I knew my shooting or hanging could not long be delayed for this would follow my recognition as a Union soldier, as a matter of course.

One rainy evening, in the dark of the moon, I slid down a ventilating shaft on the top of which I usually placed the bucket in which I brought water for the prisoners, from a nearby well. My escape was discovered. "Count off in whole numbers from right to left. Count!" and the quick-eyed officer detected the kindly Irishman who counted twice to cover my absence. Then the roll was called, and again the Irishman was the victim of the now angry offier's abuse. "Four files from the right, scatter out and hunt up the boy that fetches the water."

Bayonets prodded everywhere. Finally, one man pointed his gun down the magazine shaft, and click, click, went the lock of his gun, and he drew back the hammer. The officer yelled an oath at him, and wanted to know if he had no sense at all, and wanted to kill himself and all the rest by blowing up the magazine.

"I thought as how he might have crawled in thar,"

Why, that's too small for any human being. You'r a fool or you'd know it. He's only a suspected chap, and a boy at that. Fall in!" and off they went.

After midnight, I wiggled out, wet, cold and stiff, but I had acrobatic stunts to do climbing embankments, swimming the ditches, scaling the chovaux de friese and the stockades, crossing innumerable boats of wary siege sentinels, and penetrating lines filled with men sleeping the uneasy sleep of the men in danger of their lives.

Don't ask me how I got through. I don't know. It is now a nightmare of the long ago. I was well armed long before I reached our lines. Stolen weapons? No, only borrowed, for we had them all, and their owners too, in a few days. My Confederate rags, thrown me when they took away my girl's cloths, helped, when twice I was discovered. Once the trick of imitating a pig nearly got me a bayonet thrust. Loose pigs were not plenty, but there were none in pens, and the loose one were very wild.

It was the break of day when I reached the Union lines, and saw our glorious banner dimly but surely waving near me, and there, when I dreamed I was absolutely safe, barring the enemy's shot and shell, death from a drum head court martial nearly became my end, for I was found in the dark sneaking on a sentry with a drawn Texas bowie knife in my hand and three loaded revolvers, one of them cocked and firmly held in front of me, and I was in a uniform that was said to belong to the band of knife men who had been busy at night stabbing sentries. One will talk hard when life is in the hazard, and I did not play idiot this time.

At last an officer said: "That boy knows more about us and our officers, our forces, their campaigns, and about Illinois than any one who is a Johnny reb. He says he knows General Dana, and if you will let me, I will take them there."

"You will not have him, unless you pledge your honor to bring him back to me," said the Officer of the Day. " for I shall have that boy shot."

At General Dans's headquarters, I was given a warm welcome, buttered toast and fried squab, although I had begged in vain a few moments before for one mouthful of hard tack and a swallow of coffee.

What became of the mulatto? Oh, he was, I learned when I met him after the war, in the pay of both sides, and he succeeded in keeping this fact a secret. His heart was true to the Union cause, but, like most darkies, he loved his master and mistress, and his white Southern friends. His blood, too, was mostly white, so he stood by his friends, as he deemed right, and he died at a good old age, honored by all white and black. He was a good man and very intelligent.

The spy was John H. Pierce, C. "H" 11th Illinois Cavalry and the story is true in every detail.

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Send all inquiries to the author, Barbara Case, at:  ~  Last Updated March 6, 2003