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Doc. 126.-expedition up the Neuse River, N. C.

Account by a participant.

United States steamer----, off Wilmington, N. C., March 2, 1864.
on the evening of the twenty-ninth of February, we started from our ship on an expedition; the Captain in his “gig,” with a master's mate and twelve oars. I had command of the first cutter, also pulling twelve oars, with the coxswain. We took with us an engineer and two firemen, and were, all told, twenty-five men and officers. The engineer and firemen accompanied us to take charge of and bring out a blockade-runner, in case we should meet any inside the forts. We are blockading at the mouth of the Neuse River. On each side of its mouth are forts, with guns of heavy calibre, some of them of immense range. Sometimes the blockade-runners come down to the forts, out of range of our guns, of course, and lie there waiting an opportunity to slip out in a dark stormy night, etc. Had we found one of them there, we would have boarded, surprised, and worked her out if possible. But to our expedition.

Our main object was to capture General Herbert, the rebel General commanding this department, and whose headquarters were at Smithville, a small village up the river, and inside all the forts. We supposed there were about three regiments of rebels at this place. It was a good dark night. With muffled oars, we passed the forts unseen, although we passed close to them. Orders were given in whispers, and the strictest silence was observed. Saw plenty of fires from salt-works, as we were pulling up the river. At last we passed Smithville, and returned to the village; could hear voices of workmen at the salt-works on the bank distinctly; pulled in; landed near a small landing-place, where was a sentry, whom we found to be fast asleep — we didn't disturb his dreams. To our surprise, on advancing from our boats, we found a sand-battery in our very front, not twenty yards from our boats. The Captain ordered four men to stay in the boats, while the balance, with the exception of our Captain, myself, another officer, and a coxswain, were left near the boats, with orders to hold on to them, in case we were discovered, to the last moment. Seeing a man at work at the beach near by, an officer and man were sent to secure him; they crept up on to him, put a revolver to his head, and brought him to us. On their return, they got another — both of them contrabands, and just what we wanted. The Captain clapped pistol to the head of one, and told him to lead us to General Herbert's headquarters, and point to us where the sentries were posted. He took the lead; we followed, four in all; passed close to a sentry, he was asleep, (every body sleeps here apparently;) finally we arrived at the General's headquarters, and sat down under the edge of the verandah to “take our bearings,” as Jack would say. It was a large house, with the verandah extending all around it. On the opposite side of the street was a long building, the barracks, where a battalion of soldiers were quartered. Learning from the “black” that the General's staff lived in the house with him, the Captain sent to the boat for four more men. Now we were eight, all told. The moon was now up and shining brightly; we tried the front-door, found it unlocked, and walked in; opened the door on the left side of the hall, and commenced hunting the General, “or any other man” that we could find. Our guide didn't know which was the General's chamber, so we had to explore, with strict orders not to fire, unless to prevent capture, and then only to fire when obliged to retreat. We were armed to the teeth — drawn cutlasses, and revolver in left hand. Captain struck a match in first room, [499] saw at once it was their mess-room; then tried right-hand door, found it locked; sent two men to watch in the rear of the house.

The rest of the party kept watch, while the Captain and I went up the stairs. (How the dogs did bark over the way about this time!) We went into an apartment on the landing, and were lighting a match, when we heard the door below slam violently, amid the crashing of glass. I said: “Captain, there's a row below; we must fight or go to Richmond!” We rushed down stairs, (a pretty good load of excitement on, as you may imagine;) coxswain told me a man had jumped out of the window, and was making off! I started to run back of the house to head him off, when I heard sounds of struggling in another room back — went in, and found the Captain had a fellow by the arm — revolver close to his head. “One word and you die!” said our Captain. This prisoner was in his drawers; two beds in the room, and one man had escaped. We asked prisoner if he was the General. He replied, “No; the General went to Wilmington this morning;” that he was “Captain Kelley, of the Engineer Corps, and on the staff of the General;” that “the officer who had escaped was Adjutant-General Hardeman,” etc. Captain ordered him to dress himself without delay, and prepare to go with us. He (Captain Kelley) was terribly excited, and exclaimed: “What, you take me, surrounded by my own troops! For God's sake, who are you!” Up went the pistol to his head, and on went his clothes — quick was our play. He could not believe we were from the fleet outside. My feet were wet and cold; the sight of a fine red blanket on the Adjutant-General's bed was too much for me; I took it as a memento and comforter. We ran Captain Kelley down to the boats, expecting every moment to hear the alarm, and to be surrounded or attacked: but luck was with us. We shoved off with our prisoners--(the Captain and two contrabands)--all right so far.

Now to get by the forts. Kelley said “we never could do it — would be blown out of the water,” etc. We pulled about twenty minutes down the river, when the enemy commenced making their night signals. Gracious! how the lights were flashing from all points, above and below us. Kelley understood these signals, of course; said they had telegraphed to the forts--“The enemy inside in boats.” We pulled along slowly; just about this time the moon was obscured by a thick bank of clouds — now was our time. If ever I saw boats jump, 'twas then; every man knew his danger, but was cool. How grim old Fort Caswell loomed up as we passed her! We knew that a thousand eyes were watching the river for us; but, thank God! we got by undiscovered, and got on board our good ship by four o'clock A. M., all safe.

We were much disappointed at finding the General “not at home;” we would surely have had him. Had not the Adjutant-General escaped, we would have paid a quiet visit to several other houses in Smithville, and also intended to spike a four-gun battery which lay very handy to that vicinity.

Next morning I went over in charge of a flag-of-truce boat, to arrange affairs with the commandant of Fort Caswell, (Colonel Jones,) so as to get the effects of Captain Kelley; landed on the beach under guns of the Fort. Colonel Jones and several of his officers were there to receive me. I introduced myself, and at once made known the object of the flag of truce, etc. I was obliged to wait there until they could send to Smithville for Captain Kelley's clothes, etc., etc. At first Colonel Jones was very reserved in his manner, and of course I was on my dignity as well. I could see that they felt a good deal mortified at our success. At last Colonel Jones (by the by, he is from Virginia — was a captain in the regular army when the war broke out) remarked: “Sir, you did a brave and gallant thing last night, and deserve great credit not only for the plan, but for the cool and daring manner in which it was executed. We know your object was to get our General, but, thank God! he was gone,” etc., etc. After this they became quite sociable. The Colonel said he much regretted he could not invite me into the Fort; but said he: “You have already seen more than I wish you had.” Refreshments were brought on, and we had a very pleasant chat. Adjutant-General Hardeman, who was there, (I told him I had his blanket, and the circumstances connected with my taking it,) laughingly said that any body who could think of being cold at such a time, etc., deserved an admiral's commission. The Colonel said that the sleepy sentries would be shot, and that some of the officers would be hauled over for negligence. He was surprised when I told him how many there were of our party. I told him “we were few but very select,” etc.

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B. F. Kelley (7)
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