Monday, March 14, 2011

My Capture of a Spy; Or, How I gained my Shoulder-Straps

Another fascinating article from the Youth's Companion, this time from May 5, 1864, longer than most others I have found thus far. I wish the author was identified, or had identified his regiment or given other specifics, but that did not happen. It sounds like something that could have happened in a border state like Maryland or Kentucky, where a family's loyalties were often in question.

This article is very well-written and descriptive, especially compared to writings of many Civil War soldiers. The author certainly painted himself in a good light, so I suppose some caution has to be used when deciding if this event occurred exactly as described, but it's still a good story to read and share.

My Capture of a Spy; Or, How I gained my Shoulder-Straps

Yes, there was certainly a spy in the camp, and a pretty shrewd one, too. We had positive evidence that our every movement was known to the enemy in season to put them on their guard. Who could the traitor be? Though every man in the regiment was thought to be perfectly loyal, a close watch was kept, and it would seem absolutely impossible for any of our men to betray us. At this time I was one night stationed as sentry at one of the  outposts. I had been nearly a year in the service, and obtained some little experience. I was pretty sharp, not afraid of a gun, and my sergeant told me I was brave. Altogether I felt well satisfied that I only needed an opportunity, in order to make myself famous.

Not far from my beat was a farm-house just outside of our lines. It lay at the foot of a  small eminence covered with a thicket of bushes and shrubbery. Far off in the distance could be seen the smoke of the evening's fires, rising here and there through the trees. The people in the house, though professing to be thoroughly Union, we knew to be at best lukewarm, and more than half suspected to be treacherous. At first we had carried on some intercourse with them, but at length were led to mistrust them, and were strictly forbidden to have any thing to do with them. This was by no means pleasant to the men, who had been in the habit of stopping at the place occasionally to have a little chat with one of the farmer's girls, who was quite pretty. But, though we acted with the greatest possible vigilance, we had not as yet been able to detect them in any act of treachery.

I was posted near the house at the edge of the thicket, which stretched away in two directions over the hill. I could not see the house nor could any one see me from it. It was star-light and cold, and I walked up and down for a long time over the short path, which former sentries had trodden smooth and bare. Every thing was quiet and motionless, and not even a falling star disturbed the perfect apathy of nature. I had been thus walking for almost two hours, when the stillness was broken by the baaing of a calf. This sudden outburst struck me as so absurd, that I was on the point of giving a hearty laugh; but danger makes me cautious, and I remained perfectly quiet. It was soon, however repeated. Now, under ordinary circumstances, this would not have been at all strange. The progress of the war had not then stripped Virginia of every living thing; the farmer still retained a few cattle. Among them were three or four calves. It was in the early spring, and, feed being scarce, the cattle were all kept in the barn. It was by no means impossible that some one of them might have the nightmare, or a fit of indigestion, or an anxiety to return under the old flag, which would wake him in his sleep, with a short wail to relieve his mind. Nor would it be remarkable that the contagion should spread, and another incipient cow should respond to her afflicted relative from motives of sympathy.

But the objection to this latter view of the case arose from the fact that the tow voices did not come from the same place. One cry came from the barn, the other from the thicket behind it. In the course of three of four moments the sound was repeated three times and each time a response was given, and will given, too, from the thicket. This seemed to me remarkable. It might not be perhaps, impossible that a calf in the barn would perform a midnight solo with an echo accompanist, or that two four -footed prima donnas might be carrying on a nocturnal duet; but it appeared to me, at the least, very improbable. However, I waited quietly a few moments, then I heard the sound of snapping twigs and rustling leaves indistinctly, in the distance. It soon died away, however, and I listened quietly again. And now there came a regular interchange of calfish voices, slow and regular, as if arranged in a definite system, like an alphabet. I was soon convinced that this was the case, and that there was a conversation going on not between calves, but human beings.

The voice from the barn was weaker than that from the woods, and I thought i might possibly discern something by going up to the former and taking a peep. Stealing noiselessly over the grass, I looked through a cranny in a door which was hanging by one hinge. I could see but faintly in the starlight, but i saw enough. In the center of the barn stood a female form draped in ghostly white, and bleating like a calf, at intervals. Though a real spirit is generally regarded as a rare sight, and somewhat fearsome, I did not  faint away "as falls a lifeless body," nor did the point of my bayonet turn blue. I merely thought that  spirit rather an interesting spectacle, and it seemed to be me that if I could catch both this ghost and the one in the thicket who was carrying on a correspondence with it, I might make a good thing of it. So, leaving the spectre and her calfish utterance, I stole back again to my post, and then beyond it, following the edge of the thicket round to the other side. Kicking off my shoes, I glided slowly and silently from hollow to hollow and tree to tree, towards the bleating of the other ghost.

I got pretty near before it heard me, and then there was a sudden cessation of the duet and a rapid flight. But I was too quick for the apparition, who at length stopped, when he felt the prick of my bayonet in his back. And who did it prove to be? Why, no less than Jake E____, a man who had not been at all suspected before.  I say it with grief, for I had known him well. In an evil hour for himself, he had been so far smitten with the charms of the farmer's pretty daughter, who turned out to be as smart a rebel as ever lived, that he had agreed to inform her of our movements and plans in this manner, for fear of discovery if any other ways were attempted. A system of signals had been easily arranged, and this traitor  had thus for weeks been betraying us. He was tried, and  sentenced to be shot, though I believe Old Abe finally pardoned him, as he possibly knows from experience the strength of woman's influence. As for me, I was "honorably mentioned," and now wear shoulder-straps in consequence.

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