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Chapter 28:

  • Another trip to Richmond.
  • -- a rebel General taken in. -- Curtis Makes valuable acquaintances. -- “the subterranean headquarters.”

Early in 1862, it becoming necessary to obtain more fully the plans and intentions of the enemy, and their numbers around Richmond, I in April of that year dispatched one of my keenest and shrewdest operatives on this important mission.

The man selected for this delicate and dangerous work was George Curtis, a young man about twenty-five years of age, tall, well-formed, with dark complexion, clear gray eyes, and possessing handsome, intelligent features. He was one of those men rarely met, who was by nature a detective; cool-headed, brave and determined, with ready wit and sagacious mind, he was especially qualified for efficient work in that important branch, the secret service.

He was a native of New York, and had at the opening of the war enlisted in an infantry regiment from that State.

Learning of his desire to enter the secret service, I had procured his discharge from his regiment, and he was detailed on my force, where he served until the close of the war. [415]

It was a beautiful April morning when, with his instructions carefully treasured in memory, for he dared take no written ones, he left my office on “I” street, in Washington, and set out on his perilous trip.

I had previously made arrangements that he should accompany General McClellan down the river on his boat, the “Commodore,” and on which he had established his headquarters, to Fortress Monroe, and landing there, make his way to Richmond.

The morning of the first, he left Washington, and the next day he arrived at Old Point Comfort, and landed under the frowning walls of the old fort. He remained here until the morning of the second day after his arrival, where he was provided with a horse, and set across the river and proceeded on his way towards the rebel capital.

He had now a journey of near seventy miles before him, through a country filled with enemies to the cause he espoused, and from whom, should his true character and mission become known, he might expect anything but kind treatment at their hands. His object in crossing the James at this point was to place himself in less danger from suspicion as a spy, and to better enable him to learn the sentiment of the people, as well as to gain accurate knowledge of the condition of the country as to roads, bridges, streams, etc., all of which information is of essential importance for the General of an invading army to know. [416]

He, therefore, on horseback, and apparently as a man traveling for pleasure and recreation, proceeded on his way up the valley of the river and towards the objective point of his journey, the rebel capital.

Nothing worthy of note occurred during the day; he stopped at noon at a house by the wayside, and obtained dinner for himself and horse. In a conversation with his host, who was a well-to-do old farmer, he apparently in a careless manner betrayed the fact that he himself followed the same occupation, that he lived on the river in the county of Norfolk, below, and was on his way to visit among friends at Petersburgh.

It was towards evening that he neared the outskirts of the city, when he suddenly encountered the rebel pickets, stationed outside the town, who halted him and demanded to know his name and business. “My name is Curtis,” replied the operative, “and I am from Norfolk; my business I will state to your commander when I am taken to him.”

Without further ceremony he was turned over to the officer of the guard, who sent him under escort to General Hill, the general in command.

“ Whom have you here?” queried the General, as in the company of his escort the detective was led into his presence.

“ A man who says he is from Norfolk,” replied the guard, “but who refuses to tell his business to any one but yourself.” [417]

“You may retire,” said the General, and the escort immediately left the room. “Now,” he exclaimed, turning to Curtis, “What is your business? Please be as brief as possible, as I am very busy.”

“Well, to come to the point at once,” replied the detective; “in the first place, then, I spoke falsely to your pickets when I told them I was from Norfolk. My name is Curtis, and I am from Washington. As to my business, I deal in what the Yankees are pleased to term contraband goods; yet I don't see how gun-caps, ammunition of all kinds, and quinine should be considered contraband, for the simple reason that I, as a dealer, find a better market South than North for my goods. My desire,” he continued, “is to get through to Richmond, where I hope to be able to effect contracts, with Secretary Benjamin, to furnish my goods to the Confederate government.”

“ How did you get through the Union lines?” asked the General, still, evidently, a little suspicious of the sincerity of the detective's story.

“ I came down on the ‘ Commodore,’ General McClellan's boat, three days ago,” he answered, “was set across the river there, procured a horse from a friend, and here I am.”

“ Do you know anything of McClellan's plans for an advance?” asked the General.

“ I can tell you nothing about them,” answered Curtis, “as everything is kept secret from even his own staff, I am told.” [418]

The General mused, thoughtfully, a moment, and then said: “I will give you a pass to Richmond, and you can proceed on your way in the morning.”

“ Thank you, General,” exclaimed the detective, “I assure you the cause shall suffer no loss by any efforts of mine. I shall, in all probability, return by this way, in a few weeks at farthest, when, if I can be of any service to you, you have only to command me.”

“By the way,” said the General, “I have some letters to parties in Richmond, which ought to go at once. If you will do me the favor to deliver them I shall be obliged to you.”

“ I shall be happy to serve you, General, and will take pleasure in seeing that your letters reach their destination all right.”

“Very well, then; call at my quarters in the morning, before you start, and I will have them ready for you, and will give you also your pass to Richmond.”

Curtis thanked him again, and, bidding him goodnight, repaired to the hotel, and secured for himself and horse supper and lodging for the night.

After he had partaken of a hearty meal, and provided himself with an excellent cigar, he sauntered out on to the veranda of the hotel, and, taking a comfortable seat, prepared to enjoy his fragrant weed, and amuse himself with listening to the conversation of those around him. [419]

He soon discovered that the war, and the prospects for a speedy victory for the South, were the subjects under discussion, and he listened with much interest to the ideas advanced, and the confidence that marked their assertions of the superiority of the Southern troops over the Northern mudsills, as they termed the Federalists.

“You may depend on it, that General Johnson will not permit the Yanks to approach any closer to Richmond than they now are, without contesting every inch of the ground as they advance,” remarked one gentleman of the party near which he was sitting.

“ No,” emphatically rejoined another, “when they take Richmond, it will be when they have annihilated the Southern people, when not a thousand able-bodied men are left on Southern soil to rally to its defense.”

“ Well, I am satisfied,” remarked another, “that right here is to be the contest, that is to decide this matter one way or the other.”

“ If the Yankees take Richmond, the South may as well surrender at once; if however they fail, as they are extremely liable to do, they, on the other hand, may as well withdraw their forces and acknowledge our independence.”

“ If I am not greatly mistaken,” now ventured my operative, “in the spirit of the Southern people, they will, to use a common phrase, ‘ fight to the bitter [420] end.’ And yet,” he continued, “to the thoughtful observer, it is not pleasant to contemplate the spectacle of brother arrayed against brother, as they are in this war. I tell you, gentlemen,” he added, “that while I am a Southern man, it grieves me to see our land so rent with strife and bloodshed and that the North has made it necessary for a resort to arms to settle a matter that should have been amicably adjusted.”

At this juncture, the party was joined by a newcomer, who had evidently just left the supper-room, as he carried an unlighted cigar in one hand, while with the other he was picking his teeth, with the manner of a man who had just eaten a hearty meal and who had enjoyed it.

He was a man past the middle age, hair generously sprinkled with gray, and with a face, that while bronzed by exposure to the weather, was keenly intelligent, not unhandsome, and strongly expressive of force and decision of character. He seated himself and soon joined in the conversation, with that freedom and nonchalance that characterizes the experienced yet courteous traveler, who has seen the world and is familiar with its ways.

“ We shall hear of some pretty hard fighting, shortly, I imagine,” finally observed the stranger; “McClellan has arrived at Fortress Monroe, and will no doubt commence hostilities at once.”

“ And we shall also hear of his army getting badly whipped,” put in one of the party. [421]

“Well,” rejoined the stranger, “that may be true; but, after all, the real contest will be before Richmond; the fighting that may occur now will only be the strategic moves preceding the final struggle. Lee and Johnson,” he continued, “are not yet ready for McClellan to advance upon Richmond, and they will see to it that it is put in the best possible condition of defense before he succeeds in reaching it.”

At this, my operative, who had taken little part in the conversation, except as an attentive listener, now arose and laughingly said: “Gentlemen, I guess we are all of one mind on this subject, let's adjourn down below and interview the bar-keeper; I don't profess to be a judge of military matters, but when it comes to a good article of whisky, I claim to be posted.”

The party, numbering near a dozen gentlemen about him, good-humoredly took the interruption and laughingly followed the detective, who now led the way to the bar-room.

They filled glasses all around and Curtis proposed the rather ambiguous toast, “May the right prevail, and death and confusion, attend its enemies” ambiguous in that it as much represented his real sentiments as it also met the approval of his secession friends.

After the party had drank, they separated, agreeing to meet later in the evening; Curtis was himself starting for a stroll about the town, when the [422] stranger, who had last joined the party on the veranda approached him and said: “I have just drank the toast you proposed, and judging from it and your conversation up stairs, I take you to be, at least, a friend to the South, if indeed you are not a Southern man. I should like much to have your company for a short stroll about the city; my name,” he added, “is Leroy, and I hail from Baltimore.”

“I shall be glad to accompany you, Mr. Leroy,” said my operative, heartily: “I was just thinking of going for a walk alone, but I assure you I shall be only too glad to have a companion. And since you have so kindly told me your name, I may as well tell you, that mine is George Curtis, and I am from Washington. But before we start,” he added, “let us have a fresh cigar.”

He then ordered the cigars and they started for their walk.

They had not proceeded far, before his new companion revealed the fact, that he also was in the contraband trade, and singularly enough, was on his way to Richmond on precisely the same business my operative had represented himself as engaged. Of course, Curtis reciprocated the confidence of his new-found friend, and with such results, that he not only returned from his walk much better posted on how to get goods through to Richmond, but actually returned a partner in an enterprise to furnish their goods in large quantities to the Confederate government, provided [423] they could succeed in making satisfactory arrangements with Mr. Benjamin, the Secretary of War. They returned to the hotel, where they had a long talk, completing their plans. It was arranged that my operative should leave his horse at Petersburg, and in the morning, they would proceed on their way to Richmond by rail.

On the following morning he arose early, and after breakfast, proceeded to call on General Hill at his quarters and obtained his pass, also the letters he was to carry for him to parties in Richmond. They then took a train for the rebel capital, and by noon found themselves in that city.

The day following his arrival, in company with Leroy, he called on Mr. Benjamin and succeeded in closing contracts to furnish large quantities of their goods to his government, and at prices that were highly satisfactory to Mr. Leroy, who jovially remarked, as they left the Secretary's presence, that if they only had good luck, their fortunes were made. Curtis, however, felt highly gratified over the result of the interview, more from the reflection of the aid it would give him in prosecuting the real object of his visit, than from any financial benefit he expected to derive from it. He had received a pass from the Secretary that would enable him to pass in and out of Richmond at his pleasure, a most important privilege, and one that really removed all practical hindrances, and left him free to more fully accomplish his work. [424]

He had not been in the city a week before he discovered that through some source, the rebels had almost daily news from the front, concerning the movements and plans of the Union troops. This he now determined to ferret out, and the next day, he in a careless manner, inquired of his friend Leroy, how it was, they obtained news so promptly from the front.

“Why,” replied his friend, laughingly, “haven't you heard of the subterranean headquarters?”

“I confess I have not,” replied the detective.

“Then come along with me,” said Leroy. “I ought to have told you about this before, as it is intimately connected with our business.”

He then led the way to the very hotel at which they were stopping, and conducted Curtis to a large and elegantly furnished room on the third floor, and in which were seated a number of gentlemen-some reading, while others were engaged in writing at little tables that were ranged about the room.

“ Here,” said he, laughing, “are the subterranean headquarters, although they are above the top of the ground instead of beneath it. I need not tell you,” he added, “that the name is given as much to mislead as for any other purpose.”

They then took seats at one end of the room where they were alone, and he proceeded with his explanation:


he said, “you must know that this is a bureau of intelligence, and is managed partly by the [425] government and partly by wealthy merchants here and at Baltimore; besides being used in getting information concerning the movements of the Federal troops, it is also used by the merchants in getting our goods through from Baltimore. We employ,” he continued, “nearly fifty persons, some of whom are constantly in the field carrying dispatches, gaining and bringing in information from the Yankee lines. These persons are all under the control of a chief at their head, and are all known to that man yonder,” pointing to a gentleman seated at a desk at the opposite end of the room.

“Strange as it may seem to you,” he continued, “right here in this hotel, we have the most exclusive privacy. You noticed that man standing in the hall when we came in, the same one now sitting at the desk?”

Curtis nodded, and he proceeded: “Well, he knew me, and consequently he knew you were all right. Had you come alone, that door would have been closed, and would not have opened, had you tried it. Now,” he said, “I will call him here and introduce you.”

Touching a small bell that stood on the table, the gentleman, to whom he had alluded, instantly answered its summons and crossed the room to where they were sitting.

Mr. Wallace,” said Leroy, “this is my friend and partner, Mr. Curtis.” The two men bowed and [426] shook hands, and Wallace seating himself proved to be a pleasant and well-informed gentleman.

In the course of the conversation, Leroy asked, “What is the latest news from the front, Mr. Wallace?”

“We have nothing as yet to-day,” he answered, “but yesterday it was reported that McClellan had laid siege to Yorktown; the chances are, that we shall hear of a battle, in a few days at farthest.” During the interview, Curtis learned also, that the persons operating for this bureau had confederates, both at Baltimore and at Washington; these, he determined to discover, if possible, in addition to the information already gained.

To this end, he made himself very agreeable to Mr. Wallace, and in the course of the conversation, expressed his willingness to do what he could in aiding the force, and remarked that he should be passing back and forth, between Washington and Richmond, and could doubtless be of service.

Mr. Wallace thanked him heartily, and gave him a small plain badge of peculiar shape, that would at any time, if shown, admit him to the headquarters, and then taking him about the room, he introduced him to the gentlemen present, and after a short conversation with his new friends, he in company with Leroy took his departure, and together they went down to dinner.

That evening, as he was sitting in the bar-room [427] of the hotel, one of the men he had met up-stairs in the forenoon, came to him and told him that in a day or two, he was to start for Yorktown with important dispatches for General Magruder, but that owing, to sickness in his family, he did not want to leave home, unless it was impossible for him to get some one he could trust to undertake the task for him.

He then asked Curtis if he would object to making the trip for him. The detective thought a moment, and told him he would give him an answer in the morning. The two men then indulged in a friendly glass, after which they separated. The man had no sooner gone, than Curtis made up his mind to take the dispatches, not to General Magruder, but to me at Washington.

Accordingly, the next morning he informed his friend he would undertake the task for him, as he intended returning to Baltimore at any rate.

The next morning found him, with the dispatches carefully secreted about his person, at the depot, ready to take the first train for Petersburgh.

Here he arrived about noon, and proceeded to call on General Hill. After procuring his dinner at the hotel, he ordered his horse and started on his long ride for the Union camp, where he delivered his dispatches to Mr. Bangs, the superintendent of my headquarters in the field, and forwarded copies of the same to me at Washington, together with a full account of his trip and information he had gained; [428] not forgetting a full statement of his discovery of the “Subterranean headquarters,” and his enlistment as a member of its force of spies and agents, employed in transmitting intelligence of the movements and plans of the Union troops.

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