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

One morning, while the army was on the advance up the Peninsula, I was strolling about the camp, when I encountered a group of soldiers gathered around one of their number, who appeared to be entertaining them immensely with his droll anecdotes and dry witticisms. Approaching closer, I became one of the crowd that surrounded the narrator, and listened to an amusing incident admirably told, which had happened to him a day or two before while out with a scouting party.

He was a man about thirty years of age, of medium height, strongly and compactly built, and with a good, firm, intelligent face, over which he had the most perfect control. So perfect was his command over his facial expression that he could make his hearers roar with laughter, while he, to use a homely phrase, would “never crack a smile.” I noticed on joining the little crowd that had gathered around him, that the fellow stuttered amazingly, which fact, together with his imperturbable gravity, seemed to be the secret of his always having a good audience about him to listen to his stories and to enjoy his droll humor. I was struck with the man’s appearance at first sight and at once concluded that, unless I was much deceived in him, he was a man whom I could use to good advantage, and I determined to ascertain who he was and where he belonged.

Turning to a soldier at my side, I inquired the man’s name. Looking at me as though surprised at my ignorance, he answered:

“Why, that’s ‘Stuttering Dave,’ the drollest, smartest man in this regiment, and one of the best fellows you ever met.”

“What regiment does he belong to?” I asked.

“To the Twenty-first New York,” said the soldier, “but ever since I have known him, he has been with a scouting party. He used to live in Virginia before the war, and is well acquainted about here.”

That day I called upon the Colonel of the regiment to which the man belonged, and informed him of my wishes, which, if agreeable to him, I would ask him to send “Stuttering Dave” to my quarters.

Shortly after sundown he came, and to my astonishment, I found that his stuttering propensity had entirely disappeared, and that he conversed with me with surprising ease and intelligence, and a quiet earnestness that betokened a solid and well-informed man. The fact was that stuttering with him was only a favorite amusement, and so naturally was it simulated, that no one would suspect he was shamming or that he was anything else but a confirmed stutterer of the most incorrigible type. In the interview which followed he signified his willingness to enter the secret service, and a day or two later he was detailed to my force. Here he served with such ability and credit that he was shortly discharged from his regiment altogether, and for the rest of the war was one of my most faithful and valued operatives.

A few days after this interview, David Graham, for that was his real name, otherwise known as “Stuttering Dave,” set out under my instructions, on a trip within the rebel lines. As he was about leaving my tent, he shook hands with me, and said in his dry manner:

“G-g-go-good-by, M-m-m-major, I’m g-g-g-oin to have s-s-some fun before I g-g-get home, if I d-d-don’t I’m a g-g-goat, that’s all.”

Cautioning him against allowing his propensity for “fun” to get him into trouble, I accompanied him to the edge of the camp, and saw him set out in the direction of the Confederate forces.

Graham had adopted the disguise of a peddler of notions, and carried in his pack a goodly supply of buttons, needles, thread, pins and such a trifling articles as he knew would be in great demand by the soldiers. Discarding his uniform, and dressed in a suit of butternut jean, with a broad-brimmed hat, a stout stick, and a pack across his shoulder, he appeared a veritable tramping peddler. No one, to have seen him, would have imagined that he was an emissary of the secret service, and they would little have suspected that the stuttering, harmless-looking fellow who was hawking his wares, knew aught about military affairs, or the plans and movements of an army.

It was in the fast deepening twilight of a beautiful evening, and but a few days after he had left the Union lines, that a party of rebel soldiers, weary and hungry with the toilsome march of the day, were resting around a camp-fire, engaged in the preparations of their evening meal.

While thus employed, they were approached by a strange-looking individual, who walked right into their midst, and without ceremony, flung down his pack and seated himself among them.

“B-b-boys,” said he, “I’m most d-d-darned hungry, w-w-w-what do you s-s-say to givin’ me a b-b-b-bite to eat; d-d-dang my buttons, I’m willin’ to p-p-pay for it in t-t-trade or cash.”

“How did you manage to get inside the camp?” inquired one, who seemed to be the leader of the mess.

“F-f-f-followed my legs, and they b-b-b-brought me right in,” replied Stuttering Dave, as he coolly produced a short-stemmed, dirty-looking pipe, which he deliberately filled, and then lighted with a coal from the glowing embers at his feet.

“What have you got to sell?” asked a soldier at his side.

“O, n-n-needles, p-p-pins, thread, b-b-buttons and n-n-notions.”

“Did you come from the Yanks?” now asked the man who had first addressed him.

“D-d-d-am the Yanks!” ejaculated Dave, “I d-d-don’t know anything about ’em. Ain’t them your s-s-sentiments?” he added, nudging the fellow who sat nearest to him.

His companion evidently did not relish this sly poke, for he growled:

“I, for one, am gettin’ most thunderin’ tired of runnin’ around the country, and nothin’ would suit me better than for us to stop long enough to giv’ ’em a good lickin’.”

“You l-licked ’em like the d-d-devil at Williamsburgh, d-d-d-didn’t you?” said Dave.

The fellow looked at him in surprise, but failed to detect any evidence of an intended sarcasm in the immovable gravity of his face, so mentally concluding that the peddler was a fool and one of nature’s own at that, he dropped the conversation.

By this time the meal was ready, and Dave, being invited to join them, gladly assented, and fell to with an appetite that showed how thoroughly he enjoyed the repast. Supper over, the party spent the evening in chatting and telling yarns. The detective opened his pack, and displaying his goods, soon disposed of quite a large quantity, in return for which he demanded, and would take, nothing but silver or gold. When “taps” were called, he turned in with the party, and placing his pack under his head for a pillow, he soon slept soundly, until reveille in the early morning aroused him from his slumbers.

Having eaten his breakfast, he sauntered through the camp, taking keen notice of the number of troops, and finding out all he could concerning their intended plans and movements. During the day, he did a thriving business with his small stock of notions, and was everywhere followed by a crowd, who were attracted by his droll humor and witty sayings.

On one of these occasions, and while he was driving some lively bargains with the soldiers that were gathered around him, he was approached by an officer, who slapped him familiarly on the shoulder and exclaimed:

“Here, my good fellow, we can use men like you; hadn’t you better enlist with us? You can do your country a great deal more good than you are doing, tramping around the country selling needles and pins.”

The detective turned around, and seeing who it was addressing him, replied:

“C-Captain, I d-d-don’t think you would want me; I t-t-tried t-to enlist s-s-s-sometime ago, b-b-b-but the d-d-doctor said, m-my f-f-fits and stuttering b-b-being so b-b-bad, he c-c-couldn’t p-p-pass me.”

“Are you subject to fits?” the officer now asked, as a sympathetic look came over his face.

“Had ’em ever s-s-since I was t-t-ten years old,” replied Dave, “have ’em every f-f-full of the m-m-moon.”

“Where do you live?” interrupted the officer.

“On t-t-the other s-s-side of the river,” he answered.

“What is your name?”

“They c-c-call me St-st-stuttering Dave,” replied the detective, with an idiotic grin.

The officer now turned and walked away, feeling no longer any interest in the fellow, except to pity his condition; and thoroughly satisfied that there was no harm in him, and that he was utterly unfit for a soldier.

Well pleased to have shaken off the curious officer as easily as he had, Dave now turned again to the soldiers and resumed his occupation of dickering with the crowd about him; having concluded his business here, he ambled off to another part of the grounds where a large quantity of ammunition was stored in the wagons.

Instantly, an idea occurred to him which he resolved to carry out if possible. It was to undertake the dangerous feat of firing the ammunition, and depriving his enemies of that much destructive material at all events. He lost all interest in disposing of his goods for a time, and proceeded to make a careful examination of the grounds about the wagons, and formed his plans for carrying out his project that very night.

He soon decided that by laying a train of powder from the wagons and running it to a safe distance, he could readily set fire to it, and make his escape in the confusion that would follow. At midnight, therefore, he stole around to the wagons and quietly commenced his work. He had taken the precaution that afternoon, to supply himself with a quantity of powder fuses, by rolling the powder up loosely in long strips of rags.

Placing these in position to connect with the ammunition in the wagons, and laying his train from one to another, the next thing was to lay a long train, that would enable him after firing it to get out of harm’s way before the explosion occurred. Having completed his arrangements, he now took himself off, to wait until the whole camp should be quietly wrapped in slumber, before he started his “fireworks,” as he called them.

About midnight, had the sentinel on guard at the wagons containing the ammunition been awake, and looking sharply about him, instead of dozing at his post, he might have observed a man stealthily steal up to the stores, and silently and quickly disappear into the woods beyond. Fortunately, however, for our friend, and the enterprise he had on hand, he only snored quietly and peacefully against a neighboring tree, little dreaming of the surprise that was in store for him.

A few minutes later, a long, quick flash of light darted along the ground, which was immediately followed by a loud, stunning report, and the murky darkness was illumined with a brilliant, flaming light, and great volumes of smoke.

Instantly the entire camp was aroused, and the half-dressed and fully-frightened soldiers came rushing to the scene, which was now only a scattered pile of burning ruins. How it occurred, no one knew, or could tell aught about it, and wild conjectures were freely indulged in as to the probable cause of the disaster. In the meantime, the only man in the world who could tell anything about the affair, was traveling as fast as his legs could carry him in the direction of the Union camp.

In a few days he made his appearance at my headquarters, and related the success of his journey. I could not refrain from laughing heartily at his peculiar and independent system of warfare, but advised him to be more careful in the future as to how he tampered with the stores of the enemy.

I was not disappointed as to the ability of the man, however, and for months he served me faithfully and well, needing but little instruction, and always performing his work to the entire satisfaction of every one. He at times adopted various disguises, but generally depended upon his own natural shrewdness, and his natural adaptiveness for the rôle of an itinerant peddler to carry him through successfully.

He was always fortunate in his trips, and, so far as I knew, his identity was never discovered, and in the peddler who stuttered and “sometimes had fits,” the rebels never recognized an emissary of the Secret Service.