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Chapter 17:

  • Timothy Webster in Baltimore.
  • -- an encounter with a fire-eater. -- Webster Defends himself. -- treason rampant in the Monumental city.

The city of Baltimore at this time was also under military rule. It was garrisoned by United States troops, commanded successively by Butler, Banks and Dix, for the purpose of enforcing respect and obedience to the laws, and of presenting any violations of order within its limits, by the malignant and traitorous element of the people. Marshal Kane, the Chief of Police, as well as the active members of the police commissioners, were arrested and held in custody at Fort McHenry, because of the alleged encouragement and protection which were given to those unlawful combinations of men who were secretly aiding in numerous ways the people at war with the government. General Banks appointed a Provost-Marshal for the proper execution of the laws, in conjunction with the subordinate officers of the police department. This condition of things was of course a direct result of the great riot of the 19th of April, and the intention was to curb those mutinous spirits, whose passions otherwise would [272] have led them into committing all sorts of crimes and outrages against the government. Notwithstanding these measures, however, the disturbing element was not by any means passive and inert, although appearances may have warranted such a conclusion. Secret bands of conspirators were still in existence, and were working assiduously for the advancement of the Southern cause.

By direction of General McClellan, I sent several of my best operatives to Baltimore, chief among whom was Timothy Webster, with whom the others were to co-operate whenever their assistance were required by him. The principal object in this was to enable Webster to associate with the secessionists of that city, and by becoming familiar and popular with them, to pave his way for an early trip into the rebel lines.

During his residence in Baltimore he was directed to represent himself as a gentleman of means and leisure, and to enable him the better to carry out this idea, I provided him with a span of fine horses and a carriage, for his own pleasure. He made his home at Miller's Hotel, lived in good style, and in his own irresistible way he set about establishing himself in the good graces of a large number of people, of that class whose confidence it was desirable to obtain. This task was made comparatively easy by the fact that he already had numerous acquaintances in the city, who introduced him about with great enthusiasm, [273] representing him to be — as they really believed he was — a gentleman whose whole heart and soul was in the cause of the South. Thus, by easy stages, he soon reached the distinction of being the center and principal figure of an admiring crowd. Before a week had elapsed he had become a quietly-recognized leader in the clique with which he associated, and soon regarded as a man of superior judgment and power in all matters relating to political and state affairs.

During fair weather he would frequently drive out with one or more of his friends, and his handsome equipage became well known on the streets, and at the race-course. He was introduced into the houses of many warm sympathizers with the South, and by his agreeable and fascinating manners he became a favorite with the female members of the family. Through all, he was apparently an earnest and consistent advocate of Southern rights, never overdoing the matter by any exhibition of strained excitement or loud avowals, but always conversing on the subject with an air of calm conviction, using the strongest arguments he could invent in support of his pretended views. In compliance with the request of many of his Southern friends, he and John Scully, another of my operatives, went to a photograph gallery one day and had their pictures taken, holding a large Confederate flag between them, while Webster wore the rebel hat which the doughty Dr. Burton had presented to him in Memphis. [274]

During all this time Webster was gathering information from every quarter concerning the secret plots and movements of the disloyal citizens, and promptly conveying it to me, and for this purpose he made frequent trips to Washington for verbal instructions, and to report in person the success of his operations. Sometimes he would be accompanied by one or more of his intimate associates, and these occasions were not without profit, for when thus accompanied, although necessarily prevented from reaching my office, he was enabled to increase his acquaintance with the traitorous element of Washington, and finally was enabled to unmask several guilty ones whose loyalty had never been impeached or suspected.

Once, on returning to Baltimore, after a longer absence than usual, his friends greeted him warmly.

“ By Jove, Webster, we had begun to think you were in trouble,” one of them exclaimed.

“ No danger of that,” was the laughing response. “I have no intention of being trapped before I fulfill my mission. I have some valuable work to do for the Southern Confederacy before the Yankees can get the upper hand of me.”

They were in a saloon — a favorite rendezvous of these men-and Webster was in the midst of his crowd. He was telling them about some imaginary “points” which he had picked up in Washington, and assuring them he would in some manner transmit the information [275] he had received to the rebel commanders before he was a week older. While thus entertaining his hearers, his attention was attracted by a man who entered the saloon with a swaggering gait, his hands in his pockets, and his hat tipped over one side of his head. He knew this man as a ruffian and bully of the worst stripe, Bill Zigler, and one of the ringleaders of the mob that had attacked the Union troops on the i9th of April; consequently, he entertained a wholesome contempt for the fellow, and avoided him as much as possible.

He was much surprised when the new-comer stopped in the middle of the room, and exclaimed, gruffly:

Hello, Webster! You're here, are you? By G-d, I've been looking for you!

Webster turned toward him a look of surprised inquiry.

“Did you speak to me, sir?” he asked, quietly.

“Yes, I spoke to you, sir!” mimicked Bill Zigler, in a bullying voice. “I say I've been lookina for you, and when I've spoke my piece I reckon this town will be too hot to hold you many hours longer.”

“ I don't understand you,” protested Webster.

“ Ha! ha! ha!” laughed the ruffian, a glitter of triumph and hatred in his eyes. “You've been playina it fine on the boys here for the last three weeks, but d-n you, I'll spoil your little game!” [276]

“What do you mean?” demanded Webster, his anger beginning to rise. “You speak in riddles.”

“I'll tell you what I mean!” blustered the bully. “Gentlemen,” turning toward the crowd, and pointing his finger toward the detective; “that man is leagued with the Yankees, and comes among you as a spy.”

There was a general start of astonishment, and Webster himself was dumbfounded.

“ Oh, nonsense, Zigler,” spoke up one of the men, after a death-like silence of several moments. “You must be drunk to make such an assertion as that. There is not a better Southern man in Baltimore than Mr. Webster.”

“ I am as sober as the soberest man here,” declared Zigler; “and I reckon I know what I am talking about. I saw that fellow in Washington yesterday.”

“ I can well believe that you saw me in Washington yesterday,” said Webster, quietly, “for I certainly was there. I have just been telling these gentlemen what I saw and heard while there.”

“Maybe you have, but I'll bet ten dollars you didn't tell 'em that you had a conversation with the chief of the detective force while you were there!”

Webster, it must be admitted, was wholly unprepared for this, but he realized in an instant that the bully's insinuation must be denied and overcome. With an assumption of uncontrollable rage he cried out “You are a liar and a scoundrel!” [277]

“I am, eh?” hissed Zigler through his clenched teeth, and before any one could make a movement to restrain him he sprang furiously toward Webster.

Quick as was this movement, however, Webster was prepared for him. Like a flash of lightning his fist flew straight out from the shoulder, striking the ruffian between the eyes, with a force that would have felled an ox. The man reeled half-way across the room, and fell prostrate between two tables.

With a roar like that of a baffled beast, Zigler gathered himself up and rushed at Webster, flourishing above his head a murderous-looking knife. But, as if by magic, a revolver appeared in the detective's hand, the muzzle of which covered his adversary's heart.

“Stop!” cried Webster, in a tone of stern command. “Hold your distance, you miserable cur, or your blood will be upon your own head!”

Zigler involuntarily recoiled. The frowning muzzle of the pistol, the unmistakable meaning of those words, and the deadly purpose expressed in the cold, calm face before him, were too much even for his boasted bravery. He turned pale and drew back, muttering and growling.

Coward!” exclaimed Webster, “if I served you right I would shoot you down like a dog; and I am afraid I can't resist the temptation to do so anyway, if you don't immediately leave the room. Go! and [278] in future be careful who you accuse of being in league with the accursed Yankees.”

By this time a number of the other men had recovered from their astonishment, and they immediately joined their threats to those of Webster, commanding Zigler to leave the saloon at once, if he desired to “save his bacon.”

Zigler did not dare to disobey. Sullenly putting up his knife, and muttering curses on the whole crowd, he slunk out, stopping at the door long enough to glance back at Webster, with the exclamation :

“I'll fix you yet, d-n you!”

When he was gone, Webster said:

“I cannot conceive what that fellow has against me, that he should try to defame my character by such an accusation.”

Several of the men broke into a derisive laugh.

“ I'd as soon suspect Jeff Davis of being a Yankee spy,” said one, with a boisterous guffaw.

Lord, Webster,” spoke up another, “you needn't calculate that anything that fellow can say is going to injure you with the people here.”

“I reckon Zigler is mad because you won't clique in with him and his gang,” said a third. “Nobody takes any stock in him. It would have been considered a good riddance if your pistol had gone off while it covered his heart. Bah! he isn't worth a thought Come, boys, let's licker.” [279]

And the affair ended in a witty cross-fire of jokes, frequent explosions of hearty laughter, and numerous bumpers of sparkling wine.

So far from proving disastrous to Webster or his mission, this little episode with Bill Zigler rather elevated him in the estimation of his companions. The neat knock-down with which he had met the bully's unprovoked assault; his air of virtuous indignation in resenting the imputation of disloyalty to the South, and the manner in which he had defeated and put to flight a man who was much feared among his fellows, only won for him new laurels, and caused him to be regarded as brave as he was loyal. His intimate acquaintances reposed such firm faith in him, that not one of them entertained for a moment the thought that there might possibly be a grain of justice in Zigler's accusation.

One morning, not long after this little episode, Webster left his hotel to walk down town, when he noticed that there was some unusual excitement on the streets. On every corner on Baltimore street, from the Exchange office, large numbers of men were standing in groups, evidently absorbed in some particular topic of conversation.

While wondering what all this meant, the detective was accosted by a man named Sam Sloan, one of the most faithful of his adherents.

Webster, I was just going up to see you. Have you heard the news?” [280]

“ I have heard nothing, Sam,” was the reply. “Is there a new sensation this morning?”

“Another of Lincoln's outrages,” said Sloan, with an indignant oath. “Major Brown, Ross Winans, and several others were arrested last night, and taken to Fort McHenry.”

“ What for?”

“ For no other purpose, I suppose, than to break up the election, which is to take place next month.”

“ But how can that interfere with the election?”

“By making us all afraid to go to the polls, or speak our minds.”

The two walked down the street together, and dropped into a drug store, which was known as one of the resorts of the unterrified. There they found a number of men conversing somewhat excitedly. The proprietor, a Mr. Rogers, turned toward the newcomers and said:

Good morning, Mr. Webster; we were just talking over last night's proceedings.

“ It beats anything I ever heard of,” said Webster, warmly. “But what can we do?”

“Nothing just now,” returned Rogers; “but I think there will soon be a time when we will have a chance to do something. In the meantime, gentlemen, we must make up our minds to say nothing. We have all been too free with our tongues. Hereafter, we must keep mum, or we will all get into Fort McHenry.” [281]

“We must just lay low, and wait till Jeff crosses the Potomac,” said one of the loungers.

“ If we only had arms,” said Webster, musingly.

“Arms!” echoed Rogers; “why, sir, we have from five to six thousand stand of arms right here in Baltimore.”

“That may be true,” said Webster, “but nobody seems to know where they are.”

“I am satisfied they will turn up at the right time,” said Rogers. “Marshal Kane, before he was arrested, put them in the hands of men who will take good care of them until they are wanted.”

“ And let us hope they will be wanted inside of two weeks,” put in Sloan. “We can afford to be quiet now, boys, but when the Southern army comes this way, we'll rise ten thousand strong, and help take Washington.”

The opinion seemed to have fixed itself in the minds of nearly all the Southern sympathizers in the city, that in a very brief space of time, three or four weeks at the utmost limit, Baltimore would be occupied by rebel soldiers, and Jeff Davis would be there in person.

“One thing is certain,” said Webster, firmly. “If this thing goes on much longer, there will be a general uprising one of these days, and the streets of Baltimore will run with blood a thousand times worse than they did on the 19th of April.”

“You are right, there,” said Rogers; “but for [282] heaven's sake, don't let any one outside of your circle hear you use that expression, or you will be the next one in limbo.”

“ If they want me, now is their time,” replied the detective, with a smile, “for I have made up my mind to undertake a journey down into southern Maryland and Virginia, at an early day.”

“The devil you have! You will find that a difficult and dangerous undertaking.”

“ Nevertheless, I shall attempt it. I find that if I can make the trip successfully I may be of service to some of our people here, by carrying letters and messages to their friends and relatives, with whom they are unable to communicate in any other way.”

Webster made this intention known to all of his associates, and gave them to understand that he desired to sell his horses and carriage before leaving. The sale was accomplished in a manner that seemed legitimate enough to all, though it was a mere pretense. One of my operatives, whom I sent to Baltimore for that purpose, made a sham purchase of the team and turned it over to me in Washington.

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