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How S-overheard his death-warrant.


In “Hunted down,” I have attempted to give some idea of scout life on the Rappahannock during the late war. Another narrative of the same description may interest those readers who relish wild adventure; and the present incident will be found more curious than the former. It befell the same personage, S--, one of General Stuart's scouts, and I again beg to warn the worthy reader against regarding these relations as fanciful. Imagination has nothing to do with this one; if it possesses no other merit, I am sure it does possess that of truth. It was told me by the brave man whom it concerns, and I never knew him to boast or exaggerate.

The incident took place during the summer of 1863, in the country beyond the Rappahannock, not far from the foot of the Blue Ridge. This region — the county of Fauquier--was the true Paradise of the scout. On its winding and unfrequented roads, and amid its rolling hills and mountain spurs, the scout and ranger wandered at will, bidding defiance to all comers. The thick woods enabled him to approach unseen until almost in contact with the Federal parties or their encampments; and if pursued, he had only to leap the nearest stone wall, rush under a crest of a hill, and disappear like a shadow, or one of those phantoms of diablerie which vanish in the recesses of the earth. For secret operations of every description, no country in the [484] world is more favourable; and the present writer has journeyed by roads and across fords in the immediate vicinity of hostile forces, by which a column of ten thousand men might have moved with no more difficulty than a solitary horseman. No prying eyes followed the scout upon his way; the extensive uplands were pasture ground for grazing great herds of cattle. The traveller went on, mile after mile, unespied by any one, and in presence only of tall forests and azure mountains.

In Fauquier, S- had many friends whom he was fond of visiting on his adventurous excursions; but unfortunately he had also a number of enemies in the persons of Federal soldiers. Detached bodies of the enemy had pitched their tents in the region, and the Federal cavalry scouted the main roads, greatly harassing the inhabitants. To harass their parties in return was the work of the ranger; and scarce a day passed without some collision in the extensive fields or the forest glades, in which, on one side or both, blood would flow.

Among the Federal forces, S-had achieved a high reputation as a scout and a partisan; and had also aroused in his enemies a profound hatred. His daring reconnoissances, secret scouts, and audacious attacks on foraging parties, had made them pass a lively time-and great was the joy of a Federal Colonel commanding pickets on the upper Rappahannock when he received intelligence one day in this summer of 1863 that the well known S— was alone at a house not far from camp, where his capture would be easy.

S— was, in fact, at the house indicated, without the least suspicion that his presence had been discovered. He had been sent upon a scout in that region, and finding himself in the neighbourhood of the family with whom he had long been on terms of intimacy, embraced the occasion to visit them and rest for a few hours before proceeding upon his way. On the evening when the events about to be related occurred, he was seated in the parlour, conversing with one of the young ladies of the family, and perfectly at his ease both in body and mind. His horse — an excellent one, captured a few days before from the enemy — was in the stable, enjoying a plentiful supply of corn; [485] he had himself just partaken of a most inviting supper, to which bright eyes and smiles had communicated an additional attraction; and he was now sitting on the sofa, engaged in conversation, not dreaming of the existence of an enemy within a thousand miles. Let it not be supposed, however, that S-was disarmed either of his caution or his weapons. His eye wandered unconsciously, from pure habit, every few moments toward the door, and around his waist was still buckled the well-worn belt containing his pistols. These never left his person day or night as long as he was in the vicinity of his enemies.

Such was the comfortable and peaceful “interiour” which the mansion presented when the incident I purpose to relate took place. S- was tranquilly enjoying himself in the society of his kind hostess, and laughing with the light-hearted carelessness of a boy who finds a “spirit of mirth” in everything, when suddenly his quick ear caught the clatter of hoofs upon the road without, and rising, he went to the window to reconnoitre. A glance told him that the new-comers were the enemy; and the crack through which he looked was sufficiently large to enable him to see that they consisted of a detachment of Federal cavalry, who now rapidly approached the house. With such rapidity did they advance, that before S- could move they had reached the very door; and no sooner had they done so, than at a brief order from the officer commanding, several men detached themselves from the troop, hurried to the rear of the house, and in an instant every avenue of escape was effectually cut off.

S— was now fairly entrapped. It was obvious that in some manner the enemy had gained intelligence of his presence at the house, and sent out a detachment for his capture or destruction. The scout required no better proof of this than the systematic manner in which they went to work to surround the house, as though perfectly sure of their game, and the business-like method of proceeding generally on the part of the men and officers. To meet this sudden and dangerous advance of his foes, S — saw that he must act with rapidity. Skill and decision would alone save him, if anything could; and in a few rapid [486] words he explained the state of affairs. He informed his entertainers that he was the game for whom they were hunting; he had heard that a price was set upon his head; if there was no means of leaving the house or concealing himself, he did not mean to surrender; he would not be taken alive, but would fight his way through the whole party and make his escape, or die defending himself.

Such was the tenor of the brief address made by S to his fair entertainers; but they informed him in quick words that he need not despair, they would conceal him; and then the brave hearts set to work. One ran to the window and demanded who was without; another closed the door in rear, the front door being already shut; and while these movements were in progress S— was hurried up the staircase by one of the young ladies, who was to show him his hiding-place. Before he had reached the head of the staircase a novel proof was given by the Federal cavalry of the terror which they attached to his name. A sudden explosion from without shook the windows; six or eight carbineballs pierced the front door, passed through and whistled around the ladies; and a loud shout was heard, followed by heavy shoulders thrust against the door. It was afterwards discovered that the rattle of the door-latch in the wind had occasioned the volley; the noise was supposed to be that made by S— as he was about to rush out upon them!

The scout had, meanwhile, been conducted by his fair guide to his hiding-place, which was in a garret entirely destitute of furniture, with bare walls, and apparently without any imaginable facility for enabling a man to escape the prying eyes of the “party of observation.” Here, nevertheless, S — was concealed; and his hiding-place was excellent, from its very simplicity. The garret had no ceiling; and the joists were even unboarded; but upon them were stretched two or three loose planks. The young lady hurriedly pointed to these. S- understood in an instant; and, swinging himself up, he reached the joist, lay down at full length upon one of the planks next to the caves, and found himself completely protected from observation, unless the search for him was so minute as to leave no corner unexplored. [487]

Having assisted the scout to ensconce himself in his hiding place, the young lady hastened down from the garret, and descended the main staircase, just as the Federal soldiers burst open the front door and swarmed into the passage. From the plank beneath the eaves, as the door of the garret had been left open, S- informed me he heard every word of the following colloquy:

Where is the guerilla we are after?

exclaimed the officer in command, sternly addressing the lady of the house.

“What guerilla?” she asked.

“He was here, but is gone.”

“That is untrue, and I am not to be trifled with!” was the irate reply. “I shall search this house-but first read the orders to the men!” he added, addressing a non-commissioned officer of the troop.

This command was obeyed by a sergeant, holding an official paper in his hand; and S- had the satisfaction of hearing read aloud a paper which recited his various exploits, commented upon his character in terms far from flattering, declared him a bushwhacker and guerilla, and ordered him to be put to death wherever he was found — the men being expressly forbidden to take him prisoner. This order was from Colonel--, commanding the neighbouring force, and S- heard every word of it. He was to be pistoled or sabred. No hope of mercyno surrender taken. Death to him!

Peril unnerves the coward, but arouses a fierce pride and courage in the breast of the brave, to dare all, and fight to the death. S-was made of the stuff which does not cower before danger, but enables a man to look the King of Terrours in the face without the shudder of a nerve. He was armed as usual with two pistols carefully loaded and capped — for he never neglected his arms-and before he was taken, or rather killed, he hoped to lay low more than one of his assailants. This was his calculation; but the scout was still a long way from regarding his fate as sealed, his death as certain. He had an obstinate faculty of hoping, and took the brightest view of his critical situation. [488] He might not be discovered; or if discovered, he was in a position to fight to an advantage which would make the issue of the struggle exceedingly doubtful. He intended to spring to the door, shoot the one or two men who would probably penetrate to the garret, and hurl them down the staircase-and then placing himself at the head of the stairs, sheltered from bullets by a projection of the wood-work, defy them to ascend. “They never could have got me out of there,” said S- with a laugh, “unless they had burned the house, or brought a piece of artillery to shell me out. I had two pistols, and could have held my ground against the whole of them all day.”

But not to digress from the actual res gestoe of the occasion, the search for S- speedily commenced. First the parlour and dining-room were subjected to a rigid examination, and finding there no traces of the scout, the men scattered themselves over the house, ransacking every apartment, and compelling the young ladies to throw open the most private recesses of their chambers. They looked under beds, into closets, and behind dresses hanging up in the wardrobes, in vain search for the game. Sabres were thrust into beds, to pierce and immolate the dangerous wild animal if he were lying perdu between the mattresses; and the points of the weapons did not spare the female clothing depending from pegs in the closets. The scout might be straightened up against the wall, behind those white garments in closet or wardrobe; but an assiduous search failed to discover him, and soon no portion of the whole esablishment remained unexplored but the garret. To this the party now directed their attention.

“What room is up there?” was the curt question of one of the men to the young lady who stood near him.

“A garret,” was the reply.

“He may be up there-show me the way!”

“You see the way — I do not wish to go up there; the dust will soil my dress.”

A growl greeted these quiet words, and the trooper turned to a black servant-girl who had been made to go around with the party in their search, holding a lighted candle. [489]

“You go before, and show us the way,” said the trooper. The girl laughed, declared that nobody was up there; but on hearing the order repeated, ascended the stairs, followed by the man.

S-- had listened attentively and lost nothing; the architecture of the house enabling him to catch the least sound without difficulty. After the protracted search in the rooms beneath, during which his hiding-place had not been approached, he began to hope that the danger was over. This hope, however, was found to be illusory, and he prepared for the crisis.

The steps of the servant-girl were heard ascending, followed by the tramp of the trooper, whose heavy sabre rattled against the stairs as he moved. Then a long streak of light ran over the garret floor; and cautiously thrusting out his head from his hiding-place, S-saw the head of the girl and her companion, as step by step they mounted to the apartment. The girl held up her dress with affected horror of the dust; and when she had reached a position from which a full stream of light could be directed into the room, she paused, and with a low laugh called her companion's attention to the fact that there was nothing whatever in the garret.

This, however, did not satisfy him, and he insisted upon making a thorough search. The girl was obliged to obey his order, and in a moment they were both standing in the room.


S— measured the man before, or rather beneath him, through a crevice in the plank, and calculated where he could shoot him to the best advantage. This resource seemed all that was left. Discovery appeared inevitable. The scout was lying upon a single plank, directly over the head of his enemy, and it was only necessary, apparently, for the latter to possess ordinary eyesight to discover him. This was the scout's conviction, as he now cautiously moved his finger to the trigger of the pistol, which he had drawn and cocked, in expectation of the coming struggle. He would certainly be discovered in ten seconds, and then for an exhibition of his prowess as a Confederate soldier [490] and scout, which should either extricate him from his peril, or force his very enemies to respect the courage of the man they overwhelmed and put to death! His plan, as I have said, was simple. He would throw himself upon this man, shoot him through the heart, hurl the body upon the heads of those below, and then hold his position against the whole party at the pistol's muzzle. It was improbable that the Federal troopers could be induced to mount the narrow stairway, at the head of which stood at bay a desperate and determined man, armed with a revolver in each hand. It would be certain death to them; he must either be burned out or shelled out with artillery! That either of these courses, however, would be resorted to, appeared improbable; they would place a guard around the house, and either starve or attempt to dislodge him in some other manner. But then he would gain time; now if time were only gained, the scout had so much confidence in his own resources that he believed himself safe.

To return to the scene actually occurring: the Federal trooper gazed around the garret for some hidden nook or cranny wherein a rebel could be stowed away. Some empty boxes attracted his attention, but an examination of them resulted in nothing. Then, all at once, the eyes of the man were directed toward the spot where the scout was concealed.

S— gave himself up for lost; his finger was on the trigger, and he was about to forestall his enemy by sending a ball through his brain, when suddenly he drew a long breath, removed his finger from the trigger, and flattened himself almost to nonentity on his plank. The girl had adopted an excellent ruse, and as simple as it was excellent. Whilst conversing carelessly with the man, she had moved directly beneath S , in consequence of which movement the candle threw the shadow of the plank on which he lay directly upward. Thus the person of the scout, prone on the plank, was wholly hidden from view. In vain did the man move from side to side, evidently suspecting something, and order the girl to hold the light in such a manner as to illuminate the dusky recess beneath the rafters. She readily did so, but so adroitly that at every movement the shadow was made still to [491] conceal the scout; and ere long this comedy, in the issue of which the life of a man was involved, came to an end. Satisfied that the garret contained no one, the man retired, and the clank of his sabre on the staircase as he descended gradually receded from the hearing of S . He was saved.

The Federal troopers remained at the house some time longer, their officer exhibiting the utmost anger and disappointment at the result of the expedition; but they finally departed, warning the lady of the mansion that if she harboured “guerillas” thereafter, her house would be burned. Leaving videttes behind, the officer then departed with his detachment.

This was the signal for S— to descend, which he did at once. A brief reconnoissance through the window revealed the dark figures posted at stated intervals around the housebut these only made him laugh. He did not fear them, and had only one regret — the impossibility of getting his horse off. The attempt would reveal his presence, involve the family in danger, and might fail. He accordingly resolved to retire on foot. This was at once and successfully accomplished. S- bade his kind friends farewell, stole out of the back door, glided along the garden fence, beneath the shadow of the trees, and gained the wood near by without being challenged.

In an hour he was safe from all pursuit, at a friend's, on one of the spurs of the Blue Ridge. Soon afterwards he was relating this narrative to the present writer, near Orange.

I was interested in it, and thought that the reader might share this interest. He knows, at least, how S- overheard his death-warrant.

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Fauquier (Virginia, United States) (2)
Orange, N. J. (New Jersey, United States) (1)

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Hardeman Stuart (1)
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1863 AD (2)
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