- Historic Sites
A Confederate Odyssey
All this Florida boy wanted to do was rejoin his regiment. Instead they drafted him into the Confederate secret service.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
During the day I had frequently gone to the water tank, which was directly behind us, for water, and just as I saw the lights of the city of Buffalo in the distance glimmering through the darkness, I said to him, “I will get a drink of water,” and just as I finished the drink I jerked open the door and sprang from the platform. The snow was about three feet deep on the ground, had partly frozen when the first fall came, and had then fallen later on top of that. I was young and active and, when I struck the ground, did not get hurt. Jumping up quickly, I took a well-beaten path along the track and to the right of it, where men had tramped every day, and I had not gone more than one hundred yards before innumerable tracks divided right and left. Had I jumped off only that short distance from where I did, it is probable that I should have been killed.
I traveled rapidly and crossed and recrossed other tracks in many places, and when I reached the heart of the city I followed the way to the poorest settlements and at last lodged myself over a beer saloon, along about midnight. The inmates could not speak English. I paid some small sum for my bed, and before daylight had crossed the city and, reaching Niagara River just below it, I came across a boatman who was bailing out his boat, as I supposed, to go fishing. Asking him what he would charge to take me across, he said, “One dollar.” I gladly paid that and was soon on the British side.
I returned to Toronto at once, and in a few days was asked if I would complete the mission by making a second effort. This time I went into the camps and spent one day and night at Cleveland with the Federal soldiers, informing myself thoroughly. I got all the information needed at the other points without any trouble, and then went to the Niagara bridge to make my crossing. There I put my foot into it by being ignorant of the fact that under the bridge was a wagon and foot crossing. Just as I turned into the under crossing, I ran into a lieutenant and three guards so abruptly that I was completely unnerved, but it was a life-and-death game, and I had to do something to save myself.
I played deaf and passed the lieutenant and his guards, simply nodding my head. When I got a few feet away from them, I heard the word “Halt!” and I made up my mind that they might call “Halt” as many times as they wished, but if they would let me get fifty yards away I would take all the chances and run for it. I heard the second as well as the third “Halt!” but they did not fire simply to frighten me, as I expected, and I kept on walking as rapidly as I could without showing any undue effort to get away. In a moment I heard feet behind me and directly felt the grasp of a hand on my my shoulder.
When I turned on the man, I threw my hand up to my ear to let him know I was stone deaf. He sang out at the top of his voice, telling me to come back. I nodded my head and went back. The plan was not a bad one; it gave me the advantage of all they had to say, and left me the opportunity to think over what was going on and to meet it with a ready answer.
The lieutenant wanted to know where I had been and where I lived. I told him that I lived in Toronto. He took me into the sentry box, stripped me, and examined all my clothing and said that at twelve o’clock he would take me to headquarters. Before that time came, there passed, crossing the bridge, a great, big, strapping fellow from Michigan. He had been in the Army of the Potomac and had seen many Confederate prisoners. Asking what I was under arrest for, all of which I heard without appearing to do so, this Michigan lumberman, as he afterward proved to be, told them that I was no Rebel, that the fact alone that I was deaf was proof enough, as they would not have a deaf man in either army. When he got ready to cross the bridge, he persuaded the lieutenant to let me go with him, and I was released. As the lumberman was so bighearted, after I got over to Clifton, I told him the story and drank to his health. He said, “Well, boy, good luck to you! It don’t make any difference to me.”
I found more than once that the man on the other side, unless he was under the requirement of duty, was about as generous as you could wish him to be.
I reported promptly to headquarters in Toronto and was selected by Captain Beall to go with him on several other expeditions into New York State. It was the plan to capture a train at Silver Creek, sixteen miles west of Buffalo, which passed there about three o’clock in the morning, heavily laden with gold and currency for the army paymasters at Washington.
We got on the train, and I was instructed to go into the first coach next to the engine and take prisoner any who might be there. I found but one man in the coach, and he was the brakeman. I had him cut the bell rope and lock the door next to the main body of the train. He was greatly frightened when I told him we were Confederate soldiers and had captured the train. He begged me not to hurt him, and I told him we would not hurt anybody if we could help it. With that he got down on the floor between the seats, and I stood over him with my six-shooter drawn.