Read CHAPTER XXIII of The Spy of the Rebellion, free online book, by Allan Pinkerton, on

The next afternoon, Webster and Doctor Gurley started for their point of debarkation. The medical deserter was exceedingly downcast about the loss of valuable papers, although he had entirely recovered from the physical effects of his attack. He indulged in curses, loud and deep, upon the perpetrator of the theft, and speculated with grave seriousness as to the effect of their loss. Webster, who felt that he could be liberal in dealing out his sympathy, was profuse in his expressions of regret and condolence, though I am afraid, that an observer who was acquainted with the facts of the case, would have detected a sly twinkle of merriment in his eyes, that belied his words. They were driven to a farm-house, situated on a little creek that ran in from the bay, where they were met by a man named James Gough, to whom Webster had a letter of introduction from Mr. Miller at the hotel. After reading the letter, Mr. Gough invited the travelers to enter, and informed them that the boat would attempt to cross the bay that night, if the weather would permit. After partaking of a bountiful supper, the party repaired to the landing, and although there were indications of a storm, the captain, who was in waiting, determined to make an effort to get across. A large amount of merchandise had already been placed on board, and soon after the arrival of Webster and the Doctor, who were to be the only passengers, they put off. Their trip was made in safety, and by midnight they reached the Virginia side. Here they went to the house of a Mr. Woodward, who was a partner with Mr. Gough, in shipping goods into the rebel country, and who took charge of the cargo that came over with our travelers in the boat.

Remaining at the house of Mr. Woodward during the night, on the following morning they went to Tappahannock, where they boarded a packet for Fredericksburg. Here they met a Colonel Prickett, who was an old acquaintance of Doctor Gurley, and from the general conversation that ensued, Webster obtained material information of the location of the rebel forces. That evening they proceeded to Richmond, and Webster, parting with his traveling companion, set about delivering some letters which he had brought with him. Finding that several of his friends, from whom he had hoped to receive information, were absent from the city, and that it would be impossible to do much good service, he resolved to return to Washington. He went to the office of the Secretary of War, and, obtaining a pass to Norfolk, he returned by that route, taking notes by the wayside, and arrived in Washington in due time.

John Scobell remained in Leonardstown a few days after Webster’s departure, mingling with the colored people of that locality, and posting himself upon several points that would be of benefit to him further on. The desire for freedom, and the expectation that the result of the war would determine that question, had now become universal among the colored men of the South. Although as yet debarred from taking up arms in defense of their rights, their efforts in behalf of the Northern troops were freely given when opportunity offered, and consequently, Scobell made hosts of friends among the black-skinned people, who advised him cheerfully and were profuse in their offers of assistance.

During the time that he remained in Leonardstown Scobell made his home with an old negro who was an active member of the League, and who had conceived a wonderful friendship for my bright and intelligent colored operative. Uncle Turner, as he was called, was a genuine Virginia darky, who, having been reared as a house servant, had been enabled to acquire more than the average amount of intelligence, and obtaining his freedom, had settled himself in Leonardstown, where he obtained a livelihood by performing a variety of duties for the people in the town. Here, with his aged wife, a fat, good-natured negress, he lived in comparative comfort, and a more thorough abolitionist never existed than was Uncle Turner.

Through this old negro, Scobell had made arrangements with a young colored man to set him across the river in a skiff, and after spending the day among his new-found friends, and amply provided with a substantial lunch from Aunt Judy, Scobell made his way to the river bank, where he found his man waiting for him, carefully concealed among some bushes that grew along the shore.

After remunerating the boatman, and bidding him a hearty farewell, Scobell started up the river. His first plan was to walk as far as Dumfries, and from that point commence his operations among the rebel camps, but after reflection, he concluded to make his way to the Rappahannock, and endeavor to work his way on one of the river boats as far as Fredericksburg, which would save him a walk of some fifty miles and materially expedite his journey. He accordingly set out for the river and, walking briskly, he found himself about noon at Leestown, a small landing-place on the Rappahannock. Feeling somewhat fatigued by his long tramp, he remained over night, and early on the following morning repaired to the wharf, where he was in hopes of finding a boat on which he could secure his passage. He had not long to wait, for shortly after his arrival the packet boat “Virginia” steamed up to the landing, and soon the men were engaged in putting on board a quantity of miscellaneous freight, that was destined for Fredericksburg. Finding that there was plenty of work to do, Scobell stepped quickly on board and seeking the captain politely asked permission to work his passage. The Captain, who was a kind and genial man at heart, although he carefully veiled these characteristics under a rough exterior, and a bluff and impetuous demeanor, listened to the request, and being in want of some extra help, turned to Scobell and said:

“You black rascal, what do you want at Fredericksburg? Come now, no lies, or I’ll throw you into the river!”

“I done tell no lies, Massa Cap’n,” replied Scobell, with a broad grin overspreading his face, “but I’ve bin back in de kentry to see some ob my folks dar, and I dun got no money fur ter git back.”

“So you want me to take you to Fredericksburg, do you?” ejaculated the Captain, good-naturedly. “Well, go below and tell the cook to put you to work!”

Scobell was about to express his thanks, when the Captain blurted out:

“Clear out, d n you! I’ve no time for talk now.”

Scobell hurried below, and seeking out the cook was soon busily engaged at work; before he had been very long employed he made a friend of his sable instructor, and was as merry as a cricket. The run to Fredericksburg was about twelve hours, but owing to shoal water they were obliged to stop at Coulter’s Wharf to wait for the rising of the tide. In the evening the negro hands gathered on the deck around the smoke-stack, and with the stars twinkling overhead, they made the shores ring with their mirthful melodies. Among the party was an old negro, who had spent almost his entire life upon the river, and who was an excellent performer on the banjo, and he accompanied the singers with his instrument. “Nelly Gray,” “Bob Ridley,” “Way down upon de Swanee River,” and a host of the most popular songs of the day were rendered in a style that elicited the heartiest applause from the delighted passengers. The climax of enjoyment was reached, however, when my Scobell, in his splendid baritone, and accompanied by the old negro and his banjo, sang that sweet old Scottish ballad:

“Maxwelton’s braes are bonny,
Where early fa’s the dew.”

The applause which greeted him upon its conclusion was most hearty and enthusiastic, and when he gave them

“A man’s a man for a’ that,”

the passengers crowded around him and began to ply him with eager questions as to his knowledge of the music of the beloved bard of Scotia. The idea of a darky singing Scotch ballads, and with such true emotional pathos and sweetness, was such a novelty to them that all were anxious to learn where he had heard them. Scobell briefly and modestly informed them that he had been raised by a gentleman who was a native of Scotland, who was himself a good singer, and that his master had taught him the music he loved so well. The Captain, who was also a Scotchman, and who had listened to the melodies with the tears trickling over his rubicund nose, now stepped forward and said heartily:

“Look here, young fellow, I need an extra man on this boat, and I’ll give you forty dollars a month to work for me. The work is light now what do you say?”

Here was a dilemma entirely unexpected. Scobell had not only sung himself into the good graces of the passengers, but of the rough old Captain also. It was plain that this offer came from the very heart of the old salt, who was as deeply touched by the melodies as was any one else, and he wanted to secure Scobell’s services as much for the songs he could sing as for the work he could do.

Scobell bowed his thanks to the Captain, and said:

“I’m werry much obliged to yer Cap’n; I’se bin lookin’ fur a job ebber since I left ole Mississippi, an’ I’ll do my best to please you, sure.”

“All right,” replied the Captain. “It’s time to turn in now, so go below and tell the mate to take your time; your pay will commence from to-day.”

All hands went below, where Scobell duly reported to the mate, a bunk was assigned to him and he was made one of the crew of the steam-packet “Virginia.” This was a rather different turn of affairs than he had expected, but he had done the best he could under the circumstances, and regretting that he was compelled to deceive the honest old Captain, he turned in for the night and slept soundly.

When he awoke the next morning, the boat was in motion, and he knew that he was on his way to Fredericksburg. How to get away was the next question to be decided, but he resolved to await the operation of events and adopt any chance that afforded for getting away. In due time the boat landed at her destination and soon all was bustle and confusion in discharging the freight. Scobell assisted manfully in landing the cargo, and earned the encomiums of the Captain for his diligent labor. Learning that the boat would not start on her return trip until the next morning, he requested permission to go on shore until they were prepared to start. This was readily granted by the unsuspecting and really good-natured Captain, who also gave him a small sum of money to defray his expenses, and cautioned him to report on time or the boat would start without him. Scobell promised to be punctual, and then took his leave.

It is not necessary to state that the “Virginia” on her down trip went without the ballad-singing negro, for by the time she was ready to put off, he was on his way to Dumfries and the Accoquan.

Carefully noting everything that came in his way he traveled through Dumfries, Accoquan, Manassas and Centreville, and after spending nearly ten days in these localities he finally made his way to Leesburg, and thence down the Potomac to Washington. His experiences on this trip were quite numerous and varied, and only a lack of space prevents their narration. Sometimes, as a vender of delicacies through the camps, a laborer on the earthworks at Manassas, or a cook at Centreville, he made his way uninterruptedly until he obtained the desired information and successfully accomplished the object of his mission.

His return to Washington was accomplished in safety and his full and concise report fully justified me in the selection I had made of a good, reliable and intelligent operative.