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[135]

How Lieut. Walter Bowie of Mosby's command met his end. [from the Richmond, Va., Times, June 23, 1900.

In the McClure Magazine for December, 1898, an account of the death of Lieutenant Walter Bowie, of Mosby's Command, appears over the signature of ‘Roy Stannard Baker,’ in which he cleverly shows how Detective Trail secured the Lieutenant's shot-gun from his home in Prince George county, Maryland, and with it followed him and his two comrades while scouting in Maryland during the war between the States, and when a favorable opportunity presented itself he killed the Lieutenant by emptying both barrels of his gun, loaded with buck-shot, into his breast, and then overpowered his comrades with an empty gun! How strange to those who know differently.

I read this story with interest, because of the novel sense shown in it, yet with no little astonishment, on account of the vast amount of ingenuity displayed in its make-up. To be frank, Mr. Baker so disfigured the circumstances that attended Walter Bowie's death that those who were with him at the time of its occurence fail to recognize them. Distorted history, especially war history, is so distasteful to me that if I be pardoned for the personal element that may appear in this paper, I shall endeavor to give an account of the raid on which Lieutenant Bowie was killed.

About the 25th of September, 1864. Lieutenant Walter Bowie, Company F, 43d Virginia Battalion (Mosby's Battalion), received intelligence that the ‘White House’ at Annapolis, Md., was not guarded, and that with a small force the Governor could be captured and conveyed to Richmond, Va. This the Lieutenant reported to Colonel Mosby and asked for permission to capture His Excellency and hold him as a hostage for friends of his in southern Maryland, who had been lodged in the old Capitol prison at Washington, because of their southern proclivities. This request was made with so much earnestness that the Colonel espoused the cause of the young officer at once, and gave him a force of twenty-five men, with orders to proceed on the expedition.

All preliminary arrangements being completed, we were ordered to meet at Upperville, Va., at a given time. Every man answered [136] to his name at the time appointed. Lieutenant Bowie made a short address to his followers, acquainting them with the fact that on the expedition they were about to make dangers and trials awaited them. He was cheered to the echo by the men, who were armed cap-a-pie and as ready for the tilt as any knight of old. The line of march was now taken up for Mathias Point on the Potomac river, via Fredericksburg and King George Courthouse, Va., making the point of our destination the evening of the second day about dusk. Here we bivouacked on the premises of Mr. Marcus Tennant, a gentleman of culture and means, and as true to the South as the needle is to the pole. He was particularly kind to us, feeding and permitting us to sleep in his house. The next day was spent in lounging about the yard and along the shore of the river, watching the United States gun-boats passing to and fro doing scout duty. The Lieutenant in the meantime was actively engaged in looking after the ways and means of crossing the ‘Rubicon.’ The way was clearly seen, but the how to effect the going was the question. There were no available boats on the Virginia side, but near the Maryland shore a little schooner laid at anchor, which, judging from her dimensions at long range, Bowie thought would meet the requirements to a dot.

At this particular juncture, Long, the famous blockade-runner, as though he had previously been informed of our presence by ‘grapevine’ telegraphy, cast anchor at our landing. The Lieutenant recognized in him a faithful and true friend, one who had rendered him valuable assistance on several previous occasions. Their meeting was most cordial, and after a short interview between them, Long was enlisted heart and hand in our cause, expressing a willingness to do all in his power to further our purpose. A short study of him revealed a genius in a minature way—a man of nerve, sagacity and honesty of purpose. A little danger sweetened and gave color to the life of this adventurous spirit. From love for the Southern cause, and a desire to aid the Confederates, some of whom were constantly passing his way, Long made it his business to cultivate the acquaintance of the crew of all vessels that anchored in his bailliwick, and being questioned as to the character of the crew of our coveted boat, he replied favorably to a probable capitulation to a small force. At any rate the ‘commander’ concluded to give her a trial. He selected John Randolph and myself to accompany him, and ordered the rest of the men to remain where they were until further orders. All aboard in Long's boat, with the latter and I at the oars, and the Lieutenant at the helm, we were about to weigh [137] anchor, when a lady from Georgia professing to be in the secret service of the Confederate States, under orders from the War Department at Richmond to proceed to New York with important dispatches, made her appearance and requested to be allowed to cross the river under our escort. On being examined by Lieutenant Bowie for proof of her loyalty to the South and the truth of her statement concerning her mission, our little heroine pronounced the shibboleth so clearly that she was permitted to pass under the suspended ear of corn with us. Oars were now dipped and we were soon well out in the stream. The night was clear and cold, necessitating our keeping a close watch on the enemy's gunboats, which were much in evidence and on the alert; being watchful ourselves, however, we were enabled to make the run without being detected by the lynxeyed Yankees, effecting a landing at the ‘Big Walnut,’ Charles county, Md., eight miles below Port Tobacco. After concealing his boat in the bushes, Long guided us to the house of a Southern sympathizer, who received us kindly and otherwise conduced to our comfort by giving us quarters for the night and a good hot breakfast in the morning. Here we parted with the heroine of our story, whom, I regret to say, I have not since heard from.

Having said good-bye to the lady and gentleman of the house, we took up a position in a quiet spot in the woods overlooking the river, where we could see without being seen by the enemy. It was an ideal morning and full of beauty. I shall never forget the impression it made upon me. A poet could draw a beautiful word-picture from what was presented to our eyes. The sun was just peeping through the boughs of the trees that fringed the shore, his pencils of light leaped over, flirted with and painted in gorgeous colors the waves wherever they touched. In contrast with what we left in Virginia, all was quiet along the Potomac; not a sound was to be heard save the swish of the waves against the pebbled beach. The bosom of the river was dotted with white-winged vessels going to and from the various marts of the country. About a cable's length from shore rode at anchor the sloop upon which we had an evil eye, her crew little dreaming of our designs upon her.

It was the Lieutenant's purpose to board this boat at a given hour that night, but shortly before the appointed time to carry his purpose into execution, he decided that he could conduct his expedition more successfully with a smaller force than the one he started with from Virginia; therefore he would not need a larger boat than Long's for his purpose. Five more men were needed to complete [138] our party. After a short conference with Randolph and myself as to the most suitable men for the specific work before us, George O'Bannon, Charles Vest, George Smith, Haney, an ex-Lieutenant in the regular army, and George Radcliffe were detailed from those left in Virginia. Straws were drawn to determine who should go after the detail. He who drew the longest straw should enjoy this prerogative. Before the straws were drawn, however, Randolph and I held a hurried council of war and determined that in the event of the longest straw falling to the ‘commander,’ I should take his place. As fate decreed it and we anticipated, the duty fell upon him. And he, as though there was an exquisite pleasure in store for him, set about to perform it. Long, by order, was bringing his boat from its place of concealment, and the Lieutenant was just in the act of boarding the little craft, when our attention was called to two gentlemen approaching us from the direction of Port Tobacco, driving a pair of splendid black horses. They proved to be friends of the Lieutenant from the latter place, whom he received most cordially. Quite a lengthy confidential chat followed, for they had much in common to interest each other; during which time Randolph and I looked the horses over.

They were indeed things of beauty, perfect at every point and shone like two blackheart cherries, altogether tempting to a horseman enough to make one break the commandments, indeed I fear I did commit a misdemeanor to the extent of feeling how I could adapt myself to the one on the near side. The other, John Randolph eyed most covetously. Seeing that John was sinking as deep in the mud as I was in the mire, I whispered: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's horse,’ but this gentle reminder of the scriptural injunction did not remove the mote from John's eye. Here the Lieutenant and his friends joined us, leading to an episode that might prove interesting. After the usual introductory remarks on such occasions a significant ‘black bottle’ was brought from its place of hiding in the corner of the buggy and introduced to the armed presence, it made the diplomatic bow of a courtier, and with an air of suspicion asked why this armed force on the sacred ground of the grand old Commonwealth of Maryland. After being assured by the ‘commander’ that our visit to Maryland was of a friendly character, most cordial relations were established between us at once. But all pleasures must have an ending—a military necessity confronted us, and Bowie was not one to sacrifice duty upon the altar of pleasure.

He now bade his friends good-bye and ordered Long to bring his [139] boat ashore that he might go aboard. Just as he was in the act of doing so, however, as previously agreed upon by Randolph and myself, I leaped into and pushed the boat off, saying: ‘Lieutenant, I will return at 11 o'clock to-night.’ Bowie smiled and said: ‘That fellow Wiltshire is the devil.’ I was then, for the first time in my life, commander of a gunboat, and I showed my authority by ordering Long to pull for the Tennant Landing. It was still light and I had not gone far from under the bushes along the shore when I discovered that it was too light for our safety. So we had to rest on our oars until darkness covered us, for the enemy's gunboats were actively scouring the river in search of blockade runners. We again pulled for our objective point, making the run in good order and without incident. On landing, much to our surprise and delight, we discovered a beautiful little cutter lying high and dry on the beach, as though she were put there for our special use. At any rate, I so construed the providence and put her in commission, making with Longs's quite a little flotilla. I found the boys waiting rather impatiently for our return; and when I informed them of the change made in the programme, those who were left out in the detail grew indignant. I gave them my regrets and the Lieutenant's order to the Sergeant in command, to return to the Colonel. My detail, on the other hand, were in high glee, and after taking leave of our comrades and the Tennants, we were soon aboard of our boats and off for the Maryland shore, reaching there, according to promise, at 11 o'clock. The Lieutenant and Randolph were snugly tucked in on a bed of shucks, sleeping the sleep of the ‘babes in the woods.’ I disliked so much to disturb them, but the military necessity still confronted us. A touch on the shoulder and a call in a low voice were sufficient to call the Lieutenant to his feet. ‘Ha, ho, boys, are you here so soon?’ was his greeting. ‘Yes, we are here,’ was the reply. ‘Fall in; forward march,’ came next. Although sleepy and tired we marched to within two miles of Port Tobacco by morning, where we camped until the following night, when we again took up the line of march for Port Tobacco, arriving there between 8 and 9 o'clock. A good supper was served us at the Hotel Brawner by its proprietor, one of the gentlemen who called on us up the river. We had a jolly good time, telling war stories to our Maryland friends until the dead hour, when all good soldiers are supposed to have had taps and turned in for the night. The Lieutenant had gotten full particulars concerning the disposition of the garrison from a friend in the town. [140]

In his usual quiet way, he informed us that we had a pleasant task before us. There were twenty of the 8th Illinois Cavalry quartered in the courthouse, and to capture them and their horses was necessary to the success of our expedition. This could be done, he added, by stratagem, or storming the castle. We could choose either plan. The former seemed to carry a charm about it, and it was adopted without a dissenting voice Here the guerilla idea of war was carried out in its strictest sense. As quietly as possible we took up position in front of the courthouse, under a cedar tree. From this point we could see the guard around the horses walking his beat. Leaving the rest of the men, the Lieutenant and I walked directly to and captured him with perfect case. The prisoner was put in charge of George Smith. The rest of us walked briskly to the courthouse door, where Charlie Vest was left with orders to allow no one to pass out. Randolph, Haney, O'Bannon and Radciffe were ordered to remain with Vest until they heard the enemy stir, when they were to rush in with a flurry. ‘Wiltshire, follow me’ was the next command. Elbow to elbow, Bowie and I walked to the centre of the floor, when the former lighted a match and held it over his eyes, revealing the presence of twenty as brave men as were in the United States army, sleeping peacefully. Not a man stirred up to this moment. By the aid of this and another match, we found our way to the judge's stand. Here the stillness of the moment was broken by a big German springing to his feet and ramming his pistol against the lieutenant, exclaiming: ‘By dams, me shoots.’ As these words issued from his lips, I put my pistol against his ribs, saying, with a slight emphasis of profane adjectives: ‘Surrender, or I will bore you through.’ Finding such strong objections to his carrying his threat into execution, the Teuton fell back in bed, declaring, ‘by dams, me no shoots.’ At this juncture the ‘big four’ rushed in, making more noise than the whole of Mosby's Battalion would have done. Surrender! Surrender!! Surrender!!! came from the Confederates.

Believing that no small party would attack them, the Federals surrendered without making the slightest resistance. They were made to saddle and bridle nine of their horses for our use and that of the Governor. While this was being done, the Lieutenant was arranging a parole with the Federal officer, that required the prisoners to remain in the courthouse until sunrise the next morning. ‘Mount your horses, forward, trot, march.’ ordered our commanding officer. ‘We can make the “Big Walnut” by daybreak.’ [141] This, of course, was a ruse. Instead of going by the ‘Big Walnut’ we went in the direction of Upper Marlboro, travelling hard until sunrise, when we halted in the woods until the following night, when we took up the line of march for Colonel W. W. Bowie's, the Lieutenant's father, arriving there about 4 A. M, where we were joined by Brune Bowie, then home on furlough. After a short sleep, and refreshments, we were introduced to the Bowies, who received us in good old Prince George style, and gave us a very delightful day. At nightfall, having paid our respects to the ladies, and received the Colonel's benediction, we sauntered along the pathway leading to our horses, waiting for the Lieutenant and Brune, who had tarried a while in the hall to say good-bye and receive a mother's blessing, to join us. The bright eye that we had just left under the chandelier in the great hall of ‘Eglington’ evidently had impressed the knights.

Looking back at the group in the hall, Randolph said: ‘How pleasant the day has been spent. I shall always recall our visit to the Bowies with pleasure.’ This seemed to touch dear old Charlie Vest's poetic center, for he thought a moment, and said: ‘Yes, their voice like the pleasings of a lute—enchanting—draw one to them in memory.’ O'Bannon was about to supplement what had been said with one of his graceful speeches, when the Lieutenant with Brune, in his intensely-practical way, broke in upon the muses, saying: ‘Come, boys, let us get to our horses and be off.’ Once in the saddle, we drew rein for Hardesty's Store, near Annapolis, where we camped in the woods for a few days, while the Lieutenant and Charlie Vest scouted the Governor's house. Finding His Excellency more closely guarded than had been reported, they returned to camp with a sad heart to tell us of the unfruitful termination of our raid, and that we would return to Virginia on the morrow. That evening, Brune, Bowie and I were dispatched to Young's Store for Richard Belt, who desired to enlist in our command. This increased our party to ten.

At the head of the little band, Lieutenant Bowie took up the line of march for Virginia, going around Washington, D. C., via Sandy Spring, Montgomery county, Md., quite a little hamlet of about fifty inhabitants. One store, owned by Mr. Alban Gilpin, supplied the good people of that vicinity with the necessities of life. Mr. Gilpin, from long experience in mercantile life, had become skilled in decorative art, as was shown by his tastefully-arranged windows. Furbelows, flounces and fine clothes were artistically displayed in them. [142] The picture was more than the eye of Mosby's men could withstand. Uninvited, we entered the store and opened negotiations with Mr. Gilpin for a few of his wares. He could not well refuse such a hungry-looking set, on the other hand, he instructed his courteous clerk, Mr. Alban G. Thomas, to let us have such articles as we needed. Here an episode took place between Mr. Thomas and myself that doubtless inconvenienced the former no little at the time, but since such pleasant interchange of courtesies has been established between us that I trust all memories of the rude acts of war have been obliterated: My boots were run down at the heels, making it very painful to me to walk. Thinking surely footwear was carried in stock, I requested Mr. Thomas to show me a pair of No. 8 boots. He replied, ‘Mine is the only pair of boots in the store, and they are No. 7 1/2.’ I was in a dilemma. The military necessity still confronted us. I insisted upon making the exchange. The clerk, true to his training in the Quaker-school, looked at me quizzically and said: ‘I reckon I will have to let you have them.’ I lost no time in adapting my No. 8 feet to his No. 7 1/2 boots. That it was a close fit goes without saying, and so long as I wore them, I was forcibly reminded of my Sandy Spring raid. Mr. Thomas has since told me that the boots I left him have served him many a good turn. Thanking Mr. Gilpin for his many kindnesses, we mounted our horses and took up a forced march for the Potomac; but alas, the night was too ‘far spent’ for us to make the haven of rest and safety. Near Rockville, day broke upon us, compelling us to go to the woods for the day. Having picketed our horses and breakfasted, we were sitting around the camp, discussing the events of the past night, and the prospects of our being in old Virginia to-morrow, when our attention was called to the tramp of approaching horsemen and a voice saying, ‘They have gone in here.’ We at first thought that the Federal cavalry were on our trail, but subsequent events proved that young Thomas had gotten the citizens of Sandy Spring together and had come after his boots. His force was ample, about forty, and well armed with shot-guns, to give us a great deal of anxiety. Lieutenant Bowie said: ‘Boys, we will charge them on foot.’

Forming a single line, we charged with a yell down to the road. A hot-fight ensued. Why there were no casualties here has always been a source of wonderment to me. Several of the citizens, one of which was Mr. Thomas, had dismounted to fight as infantry, while the rest kept to their horses as a reserve force. On making the road, [143] the Lieutenant mounted the first citizen's horse he came to, and ordered Vest and myself to mount ourselves and follow him. This we did with dispatch, the rest of the men holding the ground we had gained. The horse I fell heir to proved to be Thomas'. He was as swift as the wind and nimble as a cat. Hence he was not long forging his way by the side of Vest, who had gotten a start of me, both gaining considerably on our leader, who had just turned a bend in the road, when two shots were fired, striking the Lieutenant in the face and head with buckshot and knocking him from his horse, mortally wounded. Henry Ent, a blacksmith in Sandy Spring, armed with a double-barrel gun, had concealed himself behind a cedar tree, close to the road, and as the Lieutenant passed, he fired the fatal shots, and then fled through the thick underbush and dense forest. Vest and I retraced our way to the rest of the men with the sad news of our great loss. The command now devolved upon Randolph, who, in his usual cool way, said: ‘Mount your horses boys, and follow me.’ As though by a funeral dirge, we marched slowly to the spot where the Lieutenant lay wounded. What a sad scene. Although we were in danger of being attacked by the combined forces of the soldiers and citizens, we secured from a farmer nearby a wagon and conveyed our wounded commander to the kind man's house, where all was done by his brother, who remained with him, and the ladies of the house, to make his last moments comfortable, until death closed the scene. Brune now retired to his horse and endeavored to overtake us, but was intercepted by a body of Federal cavalay, and taken to the ‘Old Capitol,’ at Washington, a prisoner, where he remained until the close of the war.

The rest of our party, now reduced to eight, our original number, made our way to Virginia, taking the peak of the ‘Sugar-Loaf Mountain’ as our guide and inspiration, for this overlooked our place of safety—Virginia. The dreary and lonely ride was made in silence and without incident, reaching the mountains about noon, where we rested until dark, when a lady who had two sons in White's Battalion, invited us to supper, and informed us that the pickets on the river had been ordered to Virginia on a raid. This seemed proverbial. After partaking of the hospitality of our benefactress, we crossed the ‘Rubicon’ in safety—the end of a most eventful raid.

John Randolph made a report to Colonel Mosby of our sad casualty, who was much distressed at the loss of such a promising young officer.


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