Anecdotes & Images

September 16, 2007

Exploits of Capt. Carpenter of “The Jessie Scouts.”

Filed under: Mike Goad — Mike Goad @ 1:00 am

Anecdotes, Poetry and Incidents of the War: North and South. 1860-1865.
Collected and Arranged by Frank Moore, published 1867

            The secret history of any military campaign would be of absorbing interest; much more the secret story of our war. In all camps there are men whose occupation it is to gain for the commanding general information of the enemy’s force, positions and movements. Much depends on this and the most successful generals have always been the best informed.

            In our own service, during the present war, the spy service has been performed by different classes of men. Some of our commanders have had the wit and fortune to secure the services of men whose hearts were full of zeal for the Union and of hatred for the slave aristocracy and their rebellion. Such men, when they have also the activity, presence of mind, ingenuity, and courage needed for this office, are the best that can be got. Such, we have reason to know, are the company known as the “Jessie Scouts,” who first served under Gen. Fremont in Missouri, afterwards in Tennessee under Grant, McClernand, and others, and again in Virginia under Fremont, Milroy, &c.

            There is another class, hirelings, who serve not for the sake of the cause, but for the sake of the reward. Such men, too, are valuable; but a great commander seeks rather to use men who, from devotion to a principle, or else by reason of some personal wrong, are animated by enmity to the opposite side.

            Our spy system has not always been well conducted , else Stuart’s “raids” would not have become famous; else Jackson could not have made his march down the Valley; else Corinth could not have been secretly evacuated by Beauregard, nor Yorktown by Johnson, nor Winchester before the first battle of Bull Run, by the same officer. If we had an efficient spy service, Gen. McClellan would have known that after the battle of Fair Oaks, Richmond lay in his power; and Patterson would have held Johnson in check, or else followed him pell-mell into the first battle-field of Bull Run, and saved the day.

            There is a story told of that first campaign in Virginia which does not redound to the credit of our military authorities. Some weeks before Bull Run, Patterson, it is said, sent a man as spy into Winchester. The fellow rode there, examined thoroughly the rebel camp, works, and forces, and returned with a full report. He was sent to Washington to get his pay, and when he got there, received from the officer under Gen. Scott, who attended to his case, the sum of twenty-five dollars, which did not pay the expenses of his journey. It is added that be swore be would go over to the enemy; probably he did. If spies and scouts were treated thus in our first Virginia campaign, no wonder Johnson got away from Patterson.

            Probably no man in this war has lived through as many exciting and desperate adventures as Capt. Carpenter, who was leader of the “Jessie Scouts.” He was originally one of “John Brown’s men,” and participated in the attack on Harper’s Ferry, where he escaped by crawling through a long culvert, or covered drain, which led from the famous engine-house to the river. The Captain does not love the slave lords; he has notions about the crime of claiming ownership in men which to some would seem extreme, and he certainly thinks almost anything good enough for a man-selling aristocrat who rebels against the Union.

            The writer of this passed a few quiet hours with Capt. Carpenter lately, while the latter was an invalid from a severe wound received last fall in Western Virginia. Some of the campaigning stories then heard will interest the reader, and will attract the sympathy of all who admire daring, skill, and invention —especially where, as in this case, all these faculties are sharpened and vivified by a single-hearted and fiery devotion to liberty and the Union. Capt. Carpenter boasts, in a quiet way, that no army for which he has scouted has ever suffered from a “raid” in its rear, or has ever been surprised. He has an idea that such things cannot be done where trustworthy and zealous scouts are employed.

            “Did you ever see Price?” he was asked.

            He replied, “Several times.”

            Once he drove a team in Price’s army two days, at the end of which time, unluckily, the team and wagon, and a negro who happened to be in it, ran away, “and curiously enough, never stopped till we got into our own lines,” said the Captain, with a twinkle in his eye.

            “The black man is working for himself now in Iowa, and I sold the mules to pay my expenses.”

            Once he rode down to the rebel pickets at Wilson’s Creek, dressed as a woman, to deliver a letter to a supposititious brother in Price’s army. He bears witness to the politeness of the rebel officer who escorted the lady half back to our lines. This trip was made because “the General” wanted to know precisely the position of a part of the rebel lines.

            “After the surrender of Lexington,” said the Captain, “Gen. Fremont suspected that the telegraph operators between Hannibal and St. Joseph were disloyal, and had given information to the enemy, and I was ordered to make an investigation. The fact was, however, the rebels had tapped the wire. A woman in St. Louis told me. She asked me if I knew a rebel spy was in town. I asked who he was and what he did; and she replied that he had a telegraph apparatus on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, and had told her so. He was to see her and take her to a theatre that evening.

            “I told her I would give her fifty dollars if she would say, when he came, that she was sick and would not go. She agreed, and I arranged that she should introduce me to him as a rebel spy from Pillow’s camp, which she did. I immediately gained his confidence. We drank wine together, and the fool told me everything. Soon he left the city, and I took one of my men with me, and off we started after him.

            “We found him on the Grand River, near the railroad, just where he had said. He had a hut in the brush, where the telegraphing operations were carried on. There were two men my man and another. We crept up to them, and on a survey, came to the conclusion that as we might not be able to capture them, the best way was to shoot them. I shot my man, but Hale only wounded his. We rushed up. He made fight. I had to despatch him with my pistol. We got the telegraph instruments, with twenty-two hundred feet of silk wire, two horses, blankets, and sixty-five dollars in money. There were also two daguerreotypes.

             “I went into Price’s camp when Mulligan was at Lexington. I had a double-barrelled shot-gun with both locks broken, and rode into the camp with numbers of country people who were flocking to join Price. I rode around freely, talking secession, and very soon saw how things were going. I could see plainly that Mulligan was in a tight place, and I started off for St. Louis as soon as possible, and gave the information that Mulligan must surrender. Twelve hours after, news came that he had surrendered.

            “Fremont did all he could to help Mulligan, but the telegraph ‘tapper’ (who was afterwards killed) got a despatch which was sent by Fremont for Sturgis to move across the river to the support of Mulligan; and the rebels, having possession of our plans, moved against Sturgis, and compelled him to fall back.

            “Henry Hale, one of the best scouts in the country, left Leavenworth, while Mulligan was before Lexington, with despatches. As he rode along, men from every direction were going to join Price. He saw one old secessionist with a little shot-gun, and thought it would be a nice thing to drive off the fellow, and take his horse into Lexington. So he engaged the man in conversation, and getting an opportunity, put his revolver to the secessionist’s head, ordered him to tie his gun to the saddle, to dismount, and finally to skedaddle.’ The old man made tracks rapidly, glad to escape with his life. Hale took the horse by the bridle, and rode on whistling ‘Yankee Doodle.’ He had ridden a mile or two, when at a turn of the road, he was suddenly ordered to halt. The old secessionist had procured another gun, and got ahead of him. The gun was squarely aimed at Hale’s head. ‘Get off that horse,’ cried the secessionist. Hale got down. ‘Tie that revolver to the saddle.’ He obeyed. ‘Pull off your pants.’ Hale did it. ‘Skedaddle!’ an order which Hale at once carried into effect, merely saying, ‘Well, Captain, I thought my shirt would come next good-bye.’ The secessionist went off with the two horses, whistling ‘Dixie;’ while Hale marched seven miles into Lexington, with only his coat and shirt on. His coat contained his despatches. He will never be permitted to forget that seven miles’ march.

            “I burned Randolph, Mo. The town was a rebel depot, where their supplies were gathered. The country people came in every day with provisions, and these provisions and other goods were conveyed to the enemy. I went over with twenty-two men, and routed two hundred and fifty. It was a year ago on the 10th or 12th of September. I divided my men, and had them approach from different directions. I made them all officers, and up we went, every man of us shouting, out orders as though each had a regiment at his back.

            “The rebels were frightened. They ran in all directions, but we killed several of them. One of my men was badly wounded, and I was wounded also. I tackled one fellow with a sabre. He fought savagely, but I killed him after he had given me a thrust over the eye that might have finished me. He had been a soldier in the regular army, but deserted, and went over to the rebels. He belonged to the First United States Dragoons. We took seventeen prisoners. Of course we could not, with our small force, hold the town; so we set fire to the rebel stores, and destroyed them.

            “I was captured back of Paducah — Lieutenant Robb and I; and we were placed under guard, to stay all night. There were thirteen guardsmen in all; but ten of them went to a party, and got drunk. The others got some whiskey, too. Robb and I concluded to rebel. We managed to seize their revolvers. Robb tapped one, that came at us first, over the head and stunned him, and before the others could come to his assistance we shot them. Then we made off. We went by Fort Donelson, clear across the country, and told Zollicoffer that we were spies, and had despatches for Breckinridge. We had forged despatches for the purpose, and thus passed. As we had just come from the rebels, we knew enough to deceive the old fellow, who treated us with great kindness, told us to be careful of the Yankees, gave us horses through his lines, and good horses, and in three hours and a half we were inside our lines.

            “At Platte City I made a speech to the rebels in favor of Jeff. Davis, which was very successful; but in the afternoon a fellow in town recognized me, and had me seized. They put me under guard, in a house; but the same night I got out, got on a horse which fell in my way, and rode out till I ran in the dark against two rebel videttes. They stopped me; I explained to them that I was hurrying off to bring up some recruits who were wanted; but the men were obstinate, and would not let me go without a pass. So I proposed to one to go in with me to headquarters, and I would get him my pass. He consented; we walked our horses along the road. My case was desperate; if they caught me they would hang me. I talked to the man in the dark till we were some distance in, then suddenly pulled out my knife, and with one stab slew him.

            “I waited a while, then rode back to where the other vidette remained, and handed him a piece of an old letter, saying, ‘There’s the pass.’ He must go to the smouldering fire in the wood near by to examine it, and as he did so I knocked him over, and rode off.

            “I rode into Jeff. Thompson’s camp, half naked, as a crazy man, shouting and whooping so that the whole camp was aroused. No better way to get in occurred to me just then. General Thompson is much of a gentleman. He caused a surgeon to examine me, who reported that I had lost my senses from a blow on the temple, the mark of which was still fresh. He said I was quite harmless, and the General proposed to send me into the Yankee lines, because they could take care of such a poor fellow better than he.

            “I lay down under a wagon, near the General’s tent, when it came dark, and listened to hear what I could hear. About midnight a messenger rode in, on a fine horse, and tied it near me. When he got into the tent, and no one was looking, I got on the horse, and, having the best road in my mind, rode out as hard as I could drive, the pickets firing at me, but without effect; and I got safely in to make my report.

            “I went into Fort Henry two days before the attack on it, and brought General Grant an accurate account of the position and number of the rebel forces and defences. I have General Grant’s letter certifying to that.

            “Also I went into Fort Donelson, while our troops lay at Fort Henry. I went in there in Confederate uniform; and I have General McClernand’s letter to show that I brought him information which proved to be accurate. On my way out a cavalry force passed me, while I lay by the roadside; and its commander told one of his men to leave a fine flag, which he feared would be torn on the way. The flag was stuck into the road, that a returning rebel picket might carry it in. But I got it, wrapped it around my body, and rode into Fort Henry with it.”

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