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

It was Christmas morning, in Washington, and the bells were ringing merrily throughout the city. The sun was just peeping over the hills, and lighting up the winter landscape with a beauty and brilliancy that would defy the skill of an artist. Washington was alive with soldiers. Throughout the city the military was the predominating element, and for miles around the country was dotted with the white tents that marked the encampments of the country’s defenders. Thousands of muskets gleamed in the morning light, as with the rattle of the drum or the shrill blast of the bugle, the reveille awoke the hills and valleys from the death-like silence and slumber of the night.

The Union army was encamped around the capital, and General McClellan was in command. For months the process of drilling and disciplining the volunteer troops had been going on under his watchful eye and masterful hand, and the “Army of the Potomac” was rapidly approaching a degree of efficiency that was eminently calculated to make them formidable adversaries to their reckless and determined enemies.

This morning, at my headquarters on I street, Timothy Webster was engaged in completing his arrangements for another extended journey into Rebeldom. By this time he had succeeded in thoroughly ingratiating himself into the favor of the rebel authorities, and at the War Department in Richmond he was regarded as a trusted emissary of the Confederate government.

Upon the trips which he had previously made he had carried numerous letters from Northern residents to their secessionist relatives in the South, and then, upon returning, he had delivered communications from Southern people to individuals north of the line. Of course these letters and communications, before being delivered to the parties to whom they were addressed, were first submitted to the inspection of trusted employees of my office, and anything which tended to convey information of the movements and intentions of the Southern leaders was carefully noted, and the Federal authorities duly notified. By this means a double purpose was served. Webster not only won the entire confidence of the Southern authorities, but he was very frequently the bearer of important dispatches, whose contents were often valuable to the Northern leaders.

After finishing his preparations, Webster came into my room, where Mr. Bangs and I were seated, and announcing his readiness to start, inquired if I had any further orders for him.

“I am ready now, Major,” said he, cheerily, “have you any further commands?”

“No, Webster,” said I, “I believe everything has been carefully arranged, and I have no commands to give except for you to take good care of yourself.”

“I’ll try to do that,” he replied with a laugh, and then, tapping his breast lightly, where his letters were sewed into the lining of his waistcoat, “I will take care of my mail too.”

With a warm clasp of the hand, and a hearty good-bye, Webster went out into the bright sunlight and frosty air of a winter’s morning, and was soon lost to view.

Procuring a conveyance, Webster left Washington, passing the guards without difficulty, and made his way toward Leonardstown, in Maryland. This journey was accomplished without event or accident, and early on the following morning, he drove up before the hotel, and was warmly greeted by John Moore, the landlord of the hostelry at that place.

This Moore was a strong secessionist at heart, although openly professing to be a Union man, and regarding Webster as a Southern emissary his greeting was always cordial, and his hospitality unstinted. The air was cold and frosty, and riding all night in a stagecoach, which was far from being weather-proof, Webster was chilled through when the stage stopped before the comfortable inn of John Moore. Very soon, however, a jug of steaming punch, and the genial warmth from a fire of crackling logs in the large open fire-place, were instrumental in loosening the stiffened joints of my tired operative, and contributing materially to his comfort.

“Well, John,” said Webster at length, “what is the prospect for crossing the river to-night?”

“We can’t cross here at all any more, Webster,” replied Moore, with an oath; “the damned Yankees are too sharp for us.”

“Is there no way of getting over about here at all?” asked Webster, somewhat troubled at the unexpected information.

“There’s a way for some people,” replied Moore with a laugh, and a significant wink, “and I guess you are included in the number.”

“All right,” said Webster, immeasurably relieved, “but how do we manage it?”

“Well,” replied Moore, “you will have to go up to Cob Neck, and then I will see that you are taken care of.”

Cob Neck is a point of land extending out from the main shore, about fourteen miles distant from Leonardstown, and was very well adapted for the purpose in view. On each side of the point, or neck, there was a wide bay or inlet where a boat could put out, and the ground, which was soft and marshy, was completely covered with a growth of pine thickets and underbrush, which prevented the placing of vigilant pickets at this point. Being perfectly acquainted with the locality named, Webster had no fears of being able to get safely across the Potomac into Virginia, and then continuing his way to the rebel capital.

“By the way,” said Moore, “I have a favor to ask of you, Webster.”

“Well,” replied Webster, “anything I can do will be cheerfully done for you, Moore.”

“I know that, Webster,” said Moore, heartily, “and there is no one in the world I would rather oblige than you. The fact is, I have got two ladies here, who are wives of army officers, now stationed in Richmond, they have been living North for some time, and are anxious to get to their husbands; they have three children with them, and I want you to take charge of the party, and see them safely on their way.”

“I’ll do that with pleasure,” replied Webster, “and I’ll take good care of them, too.”

That night, about nine o’clock, a close-covered carriage was driven away from the hotel, in the direction of Cob Neck. John Moore and Timothy Webster sat on the driver’s seat, while within were the families of the rebel officers, who had been placed in my operative’s charge. Reaching their destination in safety, the party alighted, and walking out to the end of the point, Moore uttered a shrill whistle, which was immediately answered in the same manner. Soon they heard the splashing of oars, and in a few minutes a boat was discernable through the darkness, and the voice of a man called out:

“Here I am, Cap’n! on time, as ye see.”

“All right, Tom,” replied Moore, “I’ve got a party here that you must take good care of.”

“Very well, Cap’n, I’ll do the best I can, but I’m afraid the wind ain’t right for landin’ on t’other side.”

“Well,” said Moore, “you must do your best, and I guess you will get over all right.”

The night was dark and cold, the wind was blowing sharp and chill, and heavy clouds were shifting overhead. The river was running swiftly, and was of that inky blackness that invariably presages a storm. The wind through the low pines was sighing like a human being in distress, and the ladies gazed fearfully and shudderingly at the dark waters and the frail craft which was to carry them to the opposite shore. Webster uttered words of courage and assurance to the shrinking ladies, and assisted in comfortably bestowing them in the boat, and then, with a parting salutation to John Moore, the boat pushed off from the shore.

After getting clear of the land they hoisted sail, and were soon flying rapidly over the water, before the driving wind. As the wind was against them, they were obliged to make short and frequent tacks, and thus their approach to the opposite shore was accomplished by slow and labored degrees. The ladies were huddled together in the stern, clasping their frightened children nervously in their arms, while Webster, active and alert, rendered such assistance in managing the boat as was in his power.

“The storm’s coming!” shouted the boatman, after a long silence, “and the women had better cover up.”

The storm came, sure enough. A blinding rain, icy cold, which beat pitilessly down upon the unprotected voyagers, while the little vessel rocked to and fro at the mercy of the dashing waves. The wind suddenly changed, the frail yacht gave a sudden lurch, and in a twinkling the keel of the boat was heard scraping upon the bottom of the river, and they were aground. They had been blown out of their course, and had drifted into the shallow water, a mile below their landing place, and within a hundred feet of the shore.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Webster bade the boatman lower his sail, and then, jumping into the water, which was waist deep, and as cold as ice, he took two of the children in his strong arms, and carried them safely to the river-bank. Returning again, he assisted in carrying the ladies and the remaining child ashore, although he was so chilled that his lips were blue and his knees knocked together with the cold. The nearest place of shelter was a mile away, but unmindful of the cold and the pelting storm, Webster cheered his companions by his hearty words, and bidding the boatman take care of one of the children, he picked up another, and the weary party set out to walk through the icy rain to the little hut, whose welcome light was gleaming in the distance.

Thanks to a flask of good brandy, which Webster fortunately had with him, the ladies were strengthened and sustained sufficiently to make the journey; and when they arrived at last at the comfortable cabin, their words of gratitude to Webster were heartily and unstintingly uttered.

After warming themselves before the fire, and drying their drenched and dripping garments as far as practicable, the ladies retired to another room, leaving Webster, who, overcome with fatigue, was obliged to sleep in his wet clothing in the room to which they were first admitted. Unmindful of himself, however, his only solicitude was for the ladies who had been placed in his charge, and after they had been comfortably disposed of, he prepared to take his own much-needed rest.

He spread a blanket before the roaring blaze, and was about to stretch his weary limbs upon it, when he noticed, lying upon the floor, a short distance from him, a small packet, wrapped in oiled-cloth, and tied with red tape. It had evidently been dropped by one of the ladies, and its loss had escaped her notice. Picking it up, he examined it carefully by the light of the fire, and to his surprise he found that it was directed to Mr. Benjamin, the Rebel Secretary of War. As “all things are fair in love and war,” Timothy lost no time in secreting the precious document about his own person. He had no objection at all to assisting two ladies to reach their husbands, even if they were enemies; but he objected decidedly to lend his aid to the forwarding of dangerous information to those who were fighting against the cause he held so dear. His conscience, therefore, gave him but little uneasiness as he pocketed the mysterious little packet, and with the resolve to discover its contents on the morrow, he stretched himself before the burning logs, and was soon sound asleep.

The next morning, when he arose, his clothing was dry, but he experienced acute pains in his limbs, and a sense of weariness, that boded no good to his physical condition. Ignoring his own ailments, however, he busied himself in securing the comfort of his charges, and after a hearty breakfast, the party set out upon their trip to Richmond. They traveled for several miles in an ox-cart, and then by team, to a place called Hop Yard Wharf, on the Rappahannock River. Here the party embarked on a steamboat, and traveled as far as Fredericksburg, where Webster was obliged to remain for two days, owing to an acute attack of rheumatism, which was caused by his exposure in behalf of the ladies, whose safety he had undertaken to insure. At this time he received a striking illustration of the gratitude which one earns by the performance of a kindly act of self-sacrifice. No sooner had the boat landed at Fredericksburg, than these ladies expressed their impatient desire to push on directly to the rebel capital. Notwithstanding Webster’s precarious condition, the danger in leaving him alone, and the fact that his sufferings had been occasioned by his efforts in their behalf, these high-toned Southern dames, intent only upon their selfish pleasures, left him to his own resources, and without displaying the slightest interest in his welfare they went their way, and Webster, unable to move himself, was obliged to depend upon the services of absolute strangers, for that care and attention of which he stood in so much need.

It was while he was detained at Fredericksburg, that he seized the opportunity of examining the package, which had come into his possession in the little cabin at Monroe’s Creek. Removing the enfolding wrappers, he discovered that the contents of the bundle were complete maps of the country surrounding Washington, with a correct statement of the number and location of the Federal troops. Several items of information were also conveyed, in regard to the probable intentions of the Union Commanders in the coming spring. From the nature of this information, it was evident that a trusted officer of the Federal government was unfaithful to his duty, and was assisting the enemies of the country. Webster congratulated himself upon the lucky chance which had thrown this little packet in his way, and he resolved to forward the same to me at the first opportunity that occurred.

On the second day, though suffering severely, he was able to resume his journey, and taking the train at Fredericksburg he was soon approaching the City of Richmond. Immediately upon his arrival, he repaired to the office of the Secretary of War, and delivered the letters which he had brought with him from the North, and which were to be forwarded to their various addresses by the Confederate authorities. Mr. Benjamin warmly congratulated Webster upon his success in passing through the Union lines, and for the information which he brought. He furnished him with passports, which would enable him to journey unrestricted and unquestioned throughout the Southern dominions, and requested a further interview at a later day.

Leaving the War Department, he went to the Monumental Hotel, where he engaged a room for himself, and where he found Mrs. Lawton, who had remained in the city during his absence. Mrs. Lawton informed Webster that she had just received a visit from Mr. Stanton, another of my operatives, who had arrived in Richmond from Nashville, Tenn., and that he was going to attempt to leave for Washington that night.

This was a lucky chance, and Webster resolved to see Stanton, and entrust to him the conveyance of the packet that had so fortunately come into his hands. Knowing the places at which he would be most apt to be found, he made a tour of the city, and was at length fortunate enough to discover the man he was in search of. Selecting a secluded place, Webster confided his package to Stanton, instructing him to deliver it to no one but myself under any circumstances, and then, feeling the need of rest, he went back to the hotel, and shortly afterward retired to bed. The next day he was unable to move. His sufferings were excruciating, and for weeks he was compelled to endure the agonies of an acute attack of inflammatory rheumatism, which confined him a prisoner to his bed.

Leaving Webster at the Monumental Hotel, we will return to the movements of my operative, who had been delegated to deliver the package which Webster had found. Mr. Stanton arrived safely in Washington, and after rendering a report of his own observations upon his journey from Nashville to Washington, he produced this packet of Webster’s, a careful examination of its contents revealed to me the author of the treasonable communications.

His name was James Howard, a native of the South, and he was a clerk in the Provost-Marshal’s office. I had frequently seen his handwriting, and knew it perfectly. There could be no possibility of mistake about this, and I lost no time in laying before the commanding officer, the proof of the suspected man’s guilt. Howard was confronted with the evidence against him, and finding it impossible to deny the truth, he confessed his treason, and implicated several others in the conspiracy. Before the shades of night had fallen over the tented city, James Howard, and his treasonable confederates, were placed within the enfolding walls of the old capital prison, and behind iron bars were left to meditate upon the heavy price they had paid for an attempt to betray their country.