- 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
When I asked him for a passport for myself and Mclnnis on the steamer Owl , commanded by Captain Maffit, adding that I was the bearer of important dispatches to Richmond and showing him my papers, he said that he wanted to see the dispatches himself. To this I demurred, stating that my positive instructions were to not let anyone read them and to destroy them before capture. This made him very angry, and he said that he believed I was a Yankee spy and he would not let me go with the ship.
Mclnnis and I held a consultation and concluded to visit the captain of the Owl and see what he had to say. We went aboard and had a very pleasant interview with Captain Maffit, but it did no good, because he said he was under the control of Major Helm, who was a representative of the government, and if he violated instructions, his commission would be taken from him. He was a very courtly man but had the look of a thorough seaman—strong and heavily built, with a strong and kindly face. The boat was to sail two days afterward, and we were very much disappointed. She was a little blockade-runner, belonging to the government, as trim as a bird, but not very large—perhaps three hundred and fifty tons; but they said she could beat anything in those waters, running away from the big Federal blockaders.
The passengers who were going on the ship were all known to us, as we had come all the way from Halifax to Havana with them, and they were splendid fellows. There was Dr. Garnett, a courtly, noble man of the old school, and Dr. Watson of Richmond, Virginia; a Mr. Edward Carrington of the same place, and a naval lieutenant, Edward A. Archer. Then there was Rahm and Godwin and Major; and John D. Mclnnis and myself.
We gave our grips to the party the morning they were to board the ship and told them what our plans were, and all our crowd went aboard together. I was ahead of Mclnnis as we climbed the ladderway and struck the deck. Just then the first officer, whose name was Cook, came to me and said, “ You cannot come aboard this ship, we are about to sail. ” I answered, “We are not going with the ship; we only came down to tell our friends goodbye and see them off.” He then replied, “When you hear the bell you must go ashore,” and I said, “Certainly, we shall do so.”
He went off about his work, and John and I darted down the big hatchway. We crawled back into the piles of coal and there hid ourselves from about ten-thirty in the morning until nearly five in the afternoon. The ship got out to sea promptly at eleven o’clock, and although our hiding place was about the hottest place that I ever got into, I do not think we should have worried but for the fact that under a tremendous pressure of steam it seemed to us that we might be blown up at any minute. The ship shook all over as if she had chills, and every now and then we could hear the sound of a distant gun.
When we came up the hatchway and they tore off the tarpaulin, already nailed down, sure enough there was a Federal cruiser, called the Cherokee , about two miles in our wake, doing the best she could to run us down and shoot us down at the same time. Captain Maffit was up in the pilothouse using his speaking tubes about every moment, ordering the stokers below to fire and give her all she could carry. He looked as mad as a wet hornet, and when his first officer told him about these stowaways, he came down to where John and I were standing, mute and frightened, and said he had a damned good notion to throw us overboard; later he said, “I’ll just buck and gag you and teach you a lesson; but if the Yankees were not after me right now, I’d put you ashore.”
The sailors rustled to get the marlin pin and ropes, and I looked that old salt right squarely in the eye. John did not seem frightened at all, but I know that I was trembling all over. However, I thought I would take a chance, and I said to the captain, “If you are going to buck and gag us, please, Captain, do it in the right way so we can tell the boys about it when we get back into the army.”
Amazed at this impertinence, he said, “Well, you are great boys after all,” and turned around, giving this order: “Steward, bring two cases of champagne to my room, and fix two extra berths for these young men.”
The ship made two efforts to run in to the Florida coast, but every time the fog would lift, the blockaders were in sight and we had to go to sea again. On the afternoon of the third day, about five o’clock in the evening, the captain called us all together, and said this: “You see, I have done the best I could, and have not been able to land. I may be captured any moment. Now you men can take your pick of the lifeboats on the ship, and I will give it to you, supplied with water and provision, and run in just as near the coast as I dare to, and you all can get out and take your own chances.”
We expressed our gratitude with a cheer, and the boat headed for the land; when she got in as near as he could carry her, we all got into the lifeboat, fourteen in number, but as we were about to cut loose, Dr. Watson and somebody else said, “We are too deeply loaded, and we will go back to the ship.” This left twelve in the lifeboat, and Dr. Garnett was immediately elected captain of our party, and we sailed away at once.