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
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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