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Chapter 7:

  • Webster on his way to the capital.
  • -- Wrecked trains and broken bridges. -- an adventure with a cavalryman. -- rebel emissary. -- President Lincoln and Timothy Webster.

Everywhere along the route the greatest excitement prevailed, and the people were in a state of wildest commotion. A rumor had spread throughout the country that the government, indignant at the riotous conduct of the Baltimoreans, had ordered the guns of Fort McHenry to fire upon the city, that the bombardment was now going on, and that half the town was reduced to ashes. This rumor was false, as Webster learned on arriving in Philadelphia, although even in the staid old Quaker City there was manifest a degree of excitement scarcely to be expected in a community so sedate and easygoing as Philadelphians usually are.

Leaving the train at Philadelphia, Webster made his way through the crowded streets to the center of the city. He deemed it best to take counsel with some of the railroad and express officials, with whom he was very well acquainted, by reason of his connection with the discovery of the conspiracy to [115] assassinate President Lincoln in Baltimore in the month of February immediately preceding.

At that time Webster had been enrolled as a member of a volunteer company of cavalry at Perrymansville, in Maryland, and, gaining the confidence of his officers, had assisted in discovering the plans of the conspirators, and partly through his efforts, I had been successful in frustrating their murderous designs. This operation had brought him in close association with several gentlemen who were connected with the railroad and express companies, whose travel lay between Philadelphia and the now riotous and isolated city of Baltimore. As he was walking leisurely down Chestnut street he was accosted by Mr. Dunn, a gentleman who was connected with a leading express company in the city, and who was now upon his return from a visit to the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore depot. After an interchange of salutations, Webster inquired of Mr. Dunn the condition of affairs in and around Baltimore.

“Very bad, indeed,” replied that gentleman; “the bridges are all down, and the tracks have been torn up all along the road from Perrysville to Baltimore. The telegraph-wires have been cut, and no communications have been received from Baltimore or Washington except through couriers. The roads are guarded with soldiery, whose sympathies are with the rebellion, and it is almost impossible for any one who cannot identify himself as a Southern [116] man to pass the guards who are stationed along the highways.”

“It does not look very favorable for my reaching Washington to-morrow, then?” said Webster, inquiringly.

“ No, sir. I am afraid that you will find it difficult, if not dangerous, to attempt such a journey, particularly by the way of Baltimore; and perhaps you had better delay your departure until it can be more safely accomplished,” said Mr. Dunn.

“ It may be as you say,” replied Webster, “but I left Chicago for Washington, and my line of travel was laid out through Baltimore. I will obey my orders to the letter, and I will arrive in Washington to-morrow night, or lose my life in attempting it!”

“ I see that you are determined to go,” said Mr. Dunn, “and further argument would be of no avail; but I assure you, that you cannot travel further by rail than Perrysville; you may succeed in getting across the river to Havre de Grace, but after that you will have to rely entirely upon yourself.”

“Never fear for me,” replied Webster, with a smile, “I will get through all right, I feel confident. I will have but little time now to catch the train, Mr. Dunn, and if you will be kind enough to telegraph to Mr. Pinkerton according to my directions, I will esteem it a great favor.”

“Certainly, Webster; anything I can do for you, or Mr. Pinkerton, will be done cheerfully.” [117]

Writing out a message, informing me of his arrival in Philadelphia and of his intentions, he requested Mr. Dunn to forward the same, and then, bidding that gentleman good-bye, he made his way to the Baltimore depot, and was soon on the road to that city.

As the train went speeding along upon its journey, Webster had ample time for the consideration of his plans. He was pretty well acquainted with the country between Havre de Grace and Baltimore, and had no fear of losing his way, even if the journey must be made by foot. He was impressed, however, with the necessity of using the utmost caution. While he did not fear for his own personal safety — for fear was an element entirely unknown to him-he realized the importance of his mission too well to rashly imperil its success by any useless exposure, or unnecessary risk. To reach Washington, however, he was determined, and to accomplish that object no danger would be too great, no hardship too severe. He nevertheless felt that he must rely solely upon himself, that he would have no one to advise him, and his own discretion and wisdom would have to be depended upon under all circumstances. Arriving at the Perrysville station, he found that the train could go no further, and that, to reach Havre de Grace, upon the opposite side of the Susquehanna River, the passengers would be required to take small boats and be rowed over, after which each man must make his way as best he could. [118]

As the boat touched the land Webster sprang ashore, and, going directly to the hotel, inquired for the landlord. He found that gentleman engaged in earnest conversation with an individual who at once instinctively awakened the suspicions of my operative. This gentleman was a tall, fine-looking man, with the erect carriage and and self-reliant air of the soldier, but there was something in the nervousness of his manner, and in the furtive glances of his eyes, which convinced Webster that he was concealing something and would bear watching.

Approaching the spot where the two men were conversing, Webster at once addressed the landlord in a hearty manner. “Landlord, I must get to Baltimore to-day. How am I going to do it?”

“ I do not know,” replied the hotel-keeper, “this gentleman is anxious to do the same thing, but I am afraid I cannot help either of you.”

The gentleman thus referred to turned to Webster, saying:

Yes, I am very anxious to get through. I am a bearer of dispatches to the British Consul at Washington, and it is of the utmost importance that they should be delivered at once.

While he was speaking a man drove up to the front of the hotel with a fine, strong team of horses attached to a covered road wagon, and throwing the reins across the back of his horses, leaped lightly to the ground. [119]

“ Here is a man who can help you,” said the landlord, as the new-comer entered the room; and then he called out:

Harris, come here!

The driver of the team came over to where the three men were standing, and the landlord at once made known to him the wishes of Webster and the messenger of the British Consul.

“ Harris, these gentlemen want to get to Baltimore to-day. Do you think you can manage it for them?”

The man addressed as Harris gazed at Webster and his companion in a scrutinizing manner, and finally, apparently satisfied with his investigation, signified his willingness to make the attempt, provided the price he demanded, which was fifty dollars, was agreed to.

Both men assented to the payment of the sum named, and after dinner had been partaken of, the two men took their seats in the vehicle, the driver cracked his whip, and they were upon their way.

“ I cannot promise to take you through to Baltimore,” remarked the driver, after they had started; “I was stopped twice on the road yesterday, and I may not be able to pass the guards to-day.”

“Do the best you can,” said Webster, good-naturedly, “and we will take the risk of a safe arrival.”

Webster then turned to his companion, who had remained silent and watchful ever since they had set [120] out, and endeavored to engage him in conversation. The bearer of dispatches, however, was very little inclined to be sociable, and Webster had great difficulty in breaking through the reserve which he resolved to maintain.

The further they journeyed, the more Webster became convinced that this man was not what he assumed to be, but he vailed his suspicions carefully, and appeared as frank and cordial in his manner as though they were brothers.

Nothing worthy of note transpired upon the route until the party arrived at the outskirts of Perrymansville, which had been the scene of Webster's first experience in military service, and where, a few months before, he had been a member of a company of cavalry. They were trotting along quietly, and as the day was balmy and bright the ride was quite an enjoyable one, and for a moment the detective forgot the grave duties which he had undertaken and the dangers that might surround him, and gave himself up to the full enjoyment of the scenes around him. His pleasant reflections were short-lived, however, for just as they were entering the town they saw a mounted cavalryman approaching, who, as he reached the carriage, commanded them to halt.

The driver suddenly pulled up his horses, and then the soldier, in a tone of authority: “Who are you, and where are you going?”

“We are residents of Baltimore,” answered Webster, [121] not at all dismayed by the stern appearance and manner of his soldierly interlocutor, “and we are endeavoring to get home.”

“You will have to go with me,” replied the soldier, decisively, “you can't go any further without permission.”

Here was a detention as unwelcome as it was unexpected, but Webster had recognized the uniform worn by the soldier as that of the very company of cavalry he had previously been a member of, and a duplicate of one in which he had previously arrayed himself. The man who had accosted him, however, was unknown to him, and he could, therefore, do nothing but submit quietly to his orders and await a favorable operation of circumstances.

As Webster glanced casually at his companion, the British messenger, he was surprised at the change which was apparent in the expression of his features. Instead of the calm, dignified air of watchful repose which he had observed before, his face had grown pale, and there was such an unmistakable evidence of fear about the man, that Webster's suspicions were confirmed, and come what might he resolved to ascertain the nature of his business before they parted company.

They had traveled but a short distance under the escort of their guard when they met another man dressed in a similar uniform, and evidently a member of the same company, and as Webster gazed at the [122] new-comer he experienced a sensation of relief and joy, for in him he recognized an old companion in arms.

As this man approached nearer, Webster called out from the carriage, in a cheery voice:

Hello, Taylor! how are you?

Thus suddenly accosted, the soldier rode up to the vehicle, and after a momentary glance at the features of the detective, he reached forth his hand and cordially saluted him.

“Why, Webster, how do you do? The boys said you would not come back, now that the war had commenced, but I knew better, and I am glad to see you.”

The face of the reputed Englishman cleared in an instant, as he found that his companion was among friends, and this effect was not lost upon Webster, who had been furtively observing him. He turned his attention, however, to the soldier who had addressed him.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, “I have come back; and my friend here and I are anxious to get to Baltimore as soon as possible.”

“That will be all right,” said the soldier; and then, turning to his comrade, he said: “These men are all right, you will permit them to pass.”

After a few minutes spent in a pleasant conversation, the soldier handed to Webster a pass which would prevent further interruption to their journey, [123] and with a mutual pull at a flask with which Webster had provided himself before starting, the parties separated, and they proceeded on their way.

This little incident produced a marked change in the demeanor of Webster's companion, and on being informed that the soldiers were Southerners, and not Federals, he seemed quite relieved.

By the time they were approaching the suburbs of Baltimore the stranger had grown exceedingly communicative, and upon Webster hinting to him that he also was engaged in the cause of the South, he without hesitation informed my operative that he was similarly employed, and that he was at present carrying dispatches to prominent Southern sympathizers then residing in Washington.

As he communicated this important item of information Webster grasped him warmly by the hand, and greeted him as a fellow-patriot, after which, with rare good humor, they cemented their acquaintance and confidence with a friendly draught from the spirit bottle.

Several times on their journey they were halted by the guards along the roads, but the talismanic pass obtained at Perrymansville avoided all questioning, and gained for the travelers a safe passage to their destination. Arriving safely at the outskirts of Baltimore, the two men left the carriage, and walking a short distance, they entered a street car, and were driven to a retired hotel, where Webster had frequently [124] stopped when in the city on former occasions. Here they engaged quarters for the night, and Webster's companion had by this time formed such an attachment for his fellow-traveler that communicating rooms were engaged, and after partaking of a hearty repast, the two men lighted their cigars and strolled out through the city.

There were still many evidences of the riotous affrays which had but lately taken place. The people were in a feverish state of excitement, the drinking saloons and the corridors of the hotels were filled with crowds of excited men, each of whom seemed to vie with the other in giving loud expressions of their opinions, and of denouncing the attempt of the government to transport armed troops through the streets of a peaceful city. Ever mindful of the important duty devolving upon him, Webster wisely forebore to engage in any conversation with those whom he met, and among the number of the most outspoken of the Southern sympathizers were many whom he had previously met, and to whom he was known as an adherent of the South. At an early hour he and his newly found companion returned to their hotel, and shortly afterward retired for the night.

Arising early on the following morning, they found the same difficulty was to be encountered that had been successfully overcome at the commencement of their journey. The railroads between Baltimore [125] and Washington had also been torn up, so as to render the running of the trains an impossibility. This fact necessitated the procuring of a team that would convey them to the capital; but this time Webster's acquaintance with the proprietors of the hotel, and several of the permanent guests of the house, enabled them without difficulty or delay to secure a pair of horses and a road wagon, with a trusty driver, who guaranteed to carry them to Washington for the same amount which had been paid upon the other portion of their journey, and at an early hour they were upon the road to the seat of government.

Meantime Webster had been seriously considering his course of action with regard to his fellow-passenger. That he was an agent of the Confederacy he had already admitted, and that he was the bearer of dispatches to prominent sympathizers with the South who were now living in Washington, was also well known to the detective. How, therefore, to arrange his plans, so that these papers would be intercepted and the ambassador detained without arousing his suspicion? It must be accomplished so that no delay should result to his own journey, as he had resolved that his dispatches must be delivered that day. Just before starting out an idea occurred to him, and requesting the driver to wait a few minutes, as he had forgotten something in his room, he re-entered the hotel, and going to the room they had occupied the [126] evening before, he hurriedly wrote a note which he folded up and placed in his pocket. The note was as follows :

To whom it may concern:
My companion is an emissary of the Confederacy, carrying dispatches to Southern sympathizers in Washington. Apprehend him, but do so discreetly and without compromising me.

T. W.

He then descended the stairs, and entering the wagon, they were driven away towards Washington. The day was exceedingly warm, and the horses, unused to long journeys, early began to show signs of weakness, but they kept on without incident, save an occasional question from a passer-by as to their destination, and about noon arrived at a hotel known as the “Twelve-mile House,” so called from its being located at that distance from Washington.

Here the party halted for dinner, and while engaged at their repast Webster noticed at an opposite table a friend of years ago, who wore the uniform of a Lieutenant of infantry. Fortunately, however, the officer did not appear to recognize him, and during the progress of the dinner Webster kept his face hidden as much as possible from his new-found friend. As the Lieutenant ceased eating and arose from the table, Webster, who also had about completed the bill of fare, arose, and excusing himself to the driver and his companion, passed out into the hallway and [127] met the officer face to face. Cordial greetings were interchanged, and in a few minutes Webster had detailed to his friend the circumstances attending his meeting with the so-called British messenger, and his suspicions concerning them. It was not long before a plan had been arranged for the carrying out of the project of arresting the pseudo Englishman without occasioning the slightest suspicion to fall upon Timothy Webster, and shortly afterwards the Lieutenant mounted his horse and rode off in the direction of Washington.

After smoking their after-dinner cigars, Webster and his companion again resumed their journey. By this time they had become thoroughly acquainted, and they enlivened their drive with many a pleasing anecdote of experience or of invention, until they came in sight of Washington city. Here a difficulty awaited them, apparently unexpected by both travelers. A Lieutenant at the head of eight men emerged from a house by the wayside, and in a voice of authority directed the driver to stop his horses, after which he advanced to the vehicle and saluted the occupants with the utmost courtesy, saying:

Gentlemen, I am sorry to discommode you, but I have orders to intercept all persons entering the city, and hold them until they can satisfactorily account for themselves. You will be kind enough to consider yourselves under arrest and follow me.

Blank astonishment was depicted on the countenances [128] of both Webster and his companion, but realizing that to parley would be useless, the two men dismounted and followed the lieutenant and his men into the building, which proved to be a military guard-house.

Here they were separated and conducted to different apartments, where they were securely locked in, Webster's companion standing outside of the door of the room in which Webster was placed, and after witnessing the operation which confined Webster a prisoner, he was conducted to the room assigned to him, and the key was turned upon him.

In a few minutes afterwards Webster was quietly released by the Lieutenant who had effected his arrest, and who was none other than the friend to whom he had given the information. In less than half an hour thereafter my detective was ascending the steps of the White House, inquiring for his Excellency, the President of the United States.

Having also been provided with a letter to the President's private secretary, Mr. Nicolay, Webster was soon ushered into the presence of Mr. Lincoln, to whom he made known the nature of his business, and taking off his coat and vest, he removed the dispatches and letters, and handed them to the President, who had been silently watching his movements with a great deal of amused interest.

“You have brought quite a mail with you, Mr. Webster,” said the President, “more, perhaps, than [129] it would be quite safe to attempt to carry another time.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Webster. “I don't think I would like to carry so much through Baltimore another time.”

The President carefully looked over the papers he had just received, and finding that they required more consideration than could be given to them at that time, he turned to Webster and said:

Mr. Webster, I have a Cabinet conference this evening, and I will not be able to give these matters my attention until to-morrow. Come to me at ten o'clock and I will see you at that time.

Again thanking the detective for the service he had so successfully rendered, he bade him good evening, and Webster sought his hotel, thoroughly exhausted with his journey, and soon after he was sound asleep.

The next morning, on repairing to the White House, he was at once admitted, and the President greeted him with marked evidences of cordiality.

Mr. Webster, you have rendered the country an invaluable service. The bearer of dispatches who was arrested last evening by your efforts, proved, as you suspected, to be an emissary of the South, and the letters found upon him disclose a state of affairs here in Washington quite alarming. Several prominent families here are discovered to be in regular communication with the Southern leaders, and are [130] furnishing them with every item of information. Until this time we had only a suspicion of this, but suspicion has now resolved itself into a certainty. You have performed your duty well, and before many days there will be an account demanded of some of these people which they are far from expecting.”

“I am glad to be of any service,” replied Webster; “and I have done nothing more than my duty. If you have any further commands for me, Mr. President, I am ready to obey them.”

“Very well,” said the President; “take these telegrams, and when you have reached a point where communication is possible, send them to General McClellan, at Columbus, Ohio; they are important and must be sent without delay. Also telegraph to Mr. Pinkerton to come to Washington at once; his services are, I think, greatly needed by the government at this time.”

Rolling up the papers which he received, Webster placed them in the center of a hollow cane, which he carried; then, replacing the handle, and promising to attend faithfully to the duties assigned him, he left the executive mansion.

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