Harper's Weekly 01/09/1864


It was in the bleak mountain country of East
Tennessee; the evening was growing late, and the
camp-fire was smouldering lower and lower, but we
still sat around it, for the spell of the scout's mar-
velous gift of story-telling we were none of us will-
ing to dissolve. Captain Charlie Leighton had been
a Lieutenant in a Michigan Battery at the com-
mencement of the war, but a natural love of excite-
ment and restlessness of soul had early prompted
him to seek employment as a scout, in which he
soon rose to unusual eminence. He is a man of
much refinement, well educated, and of a “quick,
inventive brain.” The tale I am about to relate is
my best recollection of it as it fell from his lips, and
if there is aught of elegance in its diction as here
presented it is all his own. He had been delight-
ing us with incidents of the war, most of which were
derived from his own experience, when I expressed
a desire to know something of his first attempt at
scouting. He willingly assented, took a long pull
at my brandy flask, and commenced his yarn; and
I thought that I had never seen a handsomer man
than Charlie Leighton the scout, as he carelessly
lounged there, with the ruddy gleams of the dying
camp-fire occasionally flickering over his strongly-
marked intelligent face, and his curling black hair
waving fitfully in the night wind, which now came
down from the mountain fresher and chillier.

It happened in Western Virginia, said he. I
had been personally acquainted with our command-
er, General R., before the war commenced, and
having intimated, a short time previous to the date
of my story, that I desired to try my luck in the
scouting service—of which a vast deal was required
to counteract the guerrillas with which the Blue
Ridge fairly teemed at that time—one night, late in
the fall of the year, I was delighted to receive or-
ders to report at his head-quarters. The General
was a man of few words, and my instructions were

“Listen,” said he. “My only reliable scout
(Mackworth) was killed last night at the lower
ford; and General F. (the rebel commander) has
his head-quarters at the Sedley Mansion on the
Romney road.”

“Very well,” said I, beginning to feel a little

“I want you to go to the Sedley Mansion,” was
the cool rejoinder.

“To go there! Why it's in the heart of the en-
emy's position!” was my amazed ejaculation.

“Just the reason I want it done,” resumed the
General. “Listen: I attack to-morrow at day-
break. F. knows it, or half suspects it, and will
mass either on the centre or the left wing. I must
know which. The task is thick with danger—reg-
ular life and death. Two miles from here, midway
to the enemy's outposts, and six paces beyond the
second mile-stone, are two rockets propped on the
inside of a hollow stump. Mackworth placed them
there yesterday. You are to slip to F.'s quarters
to-night, learn what I want, and hurry back to the
hollow stump. If he masses on the centre, let off
one rocket; if on the left, let off both. This duty,
I repeat, abounds with danger. You must start
immediately, and alone. Will you go?”

Every thing considered, I think I voted in the
affirmative pretty readily, but it required a slight
struggle. Nevertheless, consent I did, and imme-
diately left the tent to make ready.

It was nearly ten o'clock when, having received
a few additional words of advice from the chief, I
set forth on my perilous ride. The country was
quite familiar to me, so I had little fear of losing
my way, which was no inconsiderable advantage, I
can tell you. Riding slowly at first, as soon as I
bad passed our last outpost, I put spurs to my horse
(a glorious gray thorough-bred which the General
had lent me for the occasion) and fled down the
mountain at a breakneck pace. It was a cool,
misty, uncertain night—almost frosty, and the
country was wild and desolate. Mountains and
ravines were the ruling features, with now and then
that diversification of the broomy, irregular plateau
with which our mountain scenery is occasionally
softened. I continued my rapid pace with but little
caution until I arrived at the further extremity of
one of these plateaux. Here I brought up sharply
beside a block of granite, which I recognized as the
second mile-stone. Dismounting, I proceeded to
the hollow stump which the General had intimated,
and finding the rockets there, examined them well
to make sure of their efficiency—remounted, and
was away again. But now I exercised much more
caution in my movements. I rode more slowly,
kept my horse on the turf at the edge of the road,
in order to deaden the hoof-beats, and also short-
ened the chain of my sabre, binding the scabbard
with my knee to prevent its jingling. Still I was
not satisfied, but tore my handkerchief in two and
made fast to either heel the rowel of my spurs,
which otherwise had a little tinkle of their own.
Then I kept wide awake, with my eyes every
where at once in the hope of catching a glimpse of
some clew or landmark—the glimmer of a camp-
fire—a tent-top in the moonlight, which now began
to shine faintly—or to hear the snort of a steed, the
signal of a picket—any thing, any thing to guide
me or to give warning of the lurking foe. But no:
if there had been any camp-fires they were dead;
if there had been any tents they were struck. Not
a sign—not a sound. Every thing was quiet as the
tomb. The great mountains rose around me in
their mantles of pine and hoods of mist, cheerless
and repelling, as if their solitude had never been
broken. The moon was driving through a weird
and ragged sky, with something desolate and sol-
emn in her haggard face that seemed like an omen
of ill. And in spite of my efforts to be cheerful I
felt the iron loneliness and sense of danger creep
through my flesh and touch the bones.

None but those who have actually experienced it
can properly conceive of the apprehensions which
throng the breast of him, howsoever brave, who
knows himself to be alone in the midst of enemies
who are invisible. The lion-hunter of Abyssinia is
encompassed with peril when he makes a pillow of
his gun in the desert; and our own pioneer slum-
bers but lightly in his new cabin when he knows
that the savage, whose monomania is vengeance, is
prowling the forest that skirts his clearing. But
the lion is not always hungry; and even the Indian
may be conciliated. The hunter confronts his ter-
rible antagonist with something deadlier than feroc-
ity. The hand that levels and the eye that directs
the rifled tube are nerved and fired by “the mind, the
spirit, the Promethean spark,” which, in this case,
is indeed a “tower of strength.” And the settler,
with promises and alcohol, may have won the sav-
age to himself. But to the solitary scout, at mid-
night, every turn of the road may conceal a finger on
a hair-trigger; every stump or bush may hold a foe
in waiting. If he rides through a forest it is only
in the deepest shadow that he dares ride upright;
and should he cross an open glade, where the star-
light or moonshine drops freely, he crouches low on
the saddle and hurries across, for every second he
feels he may be a target. His senses are painfully
alive, his faculties strained to their utmost tension.

By way of a little episode, I knew a very success-
ful scout, who met his death, however, on the Penin-
sula, who would always require a long sleep imme-
diately after an expedition of peril, if it had lasted
but a few hours, and had apparently called forth no
more muscular exertion than was necessary to sit
the saddle. But, strange as it may seem, he would
complain of overpowering fatigue, and immediately
drop into the most profound slumber. And I have
been informed that this is very frequently the case.
I can only attribute it to the fact that, owing to the
extreme and almost abnormal vivacity—I think of
no better word—of the faculties and senses, a man
on these momentous occasions lives twice or thrice
as fast
as ordinarily; and the usual nerve-play and
wakefulness of a day and night may thus be con-
centrated in the brief period of a few hours.

But to resume: I felt to the full this apprehen-
sion, this anxiety, this exhaustion, but the knowl-
edge of my position and the issues at stake kept my
blood flowing. I had come to the termination of
the last plateau or plain, when the road led me
down the side of a ravine, with a prospect ahead of
nothing but darkness. Here, too, I was compelled
to make more noise, as there was no sod for my
horse to tread on, and the road was flinty and rough
in the extreme. But I kept on as cautiously as pos-
sible, when suddenly, just at the bottom of the
ravine, where the road began to ascend the oppo-
site declivity, I came to a dead halt, confronted by
a group of several horsemen, so suddenly that they
seemed to have sprung from the earth like phan-

“Why do you return so slowly?” said one of
them, impatiently. “What have you seen? Did
you meet Colonel Craig?”

For a moment—a brief one—I gave myself up for
lost; but, with the rapid reflection and keen inven-
tion which a desperate strait will sometimes super-
induce, I grasped the language of the speaker, and
formed my plan accordingly. “Why do you re-
turn so slowly?” I had been sent somewhere, then.
“What have you seen?” I had been sent as a spy,
then. “Did you meet Colonel Craig?” Oho! I
thought, I will be Colonel Craig. No, I won't: I
will be Colonel Craig's orderly. So I spoke out

“Colonel Craig met your messenger, who had
seen nothing, and advised him to scout down the
edge of the creek for half a mile. But he dispatch-
ed me, his orderly, to say that the enemy appear to
be retreating in heavy masses. I am also to con-
vey this intelligence to General F.”

The troopers had started at the tones of a strange
voice, but seemed to listen with interest and with-
out suspicion.

“Did the Colonel think the movement a real re-
treat or only a feint?” asked the leader.

“He was uncertain, “I replied, beginning to feel
secure and roguish at the same time; “but he bade
me to say that he would ascertain; and in an hour
or two, if you should see one rocket up to the north
there, you might conclude that the Yankees were
retreating; if you should see two, then you might
guess that they were not retreating, but stationary,
with likelihood of remaining inert for another day.”

“Good!” cried the rebel. “Do you know the
way to the General's quarters?”

“I think I can find it,” said I; “although I am
not familiar with this side of the mountain.”

“It's a mile this side of the Sedley Mansion,”
said the trooper. “You will find some pickets at
the head of the road. You must there leave your
horse, and climb the steep, when you will see a
farm-house, and fifteen minutes' walk toward it will
bring you to the General's tent. I will go with you
to the top of the road.” And, setting off at a gal-
lop, the speaker left me to follow, which I hesitated
not to do. Now, owing to their mistake, the coun-
tersign had not been thought of; but the next picket
would not be likely to swallow the same dose of si-
lence, and it was a lucky thing that the trooper led
the way, for he would each them first, and I would
have a chance to catch the pass-word from his lips.
But he passed the picket so quickly, and dropped
the precious syllables so indistinctly, that I only
caught the first of them—”Tally“—while the re-
mainder might as well have been Greek. Tally,
tally, tally
what? Good God! thought I, what can
it be? Tally, tally—here I am almost up to the
pickets!—what can it be? Tallyho? No, that's
English. Talleyrand? No, that's French. God
help me! Tally, tally

“Tallahassee!” I yelled, with the inspiration
of despair, as I dashed through the picket, and their
leveled carbines sank toothless before that wonder-
ful spell—the Countersign.

Blessing my stars, and without further mishap,
I reached the place indicated by the trooper, which
was high up on the side of the mountain—so high
that clouds were forming in the deep valley below.
Making my bridle fast, I clambered with some dif-
ficulty the still ascending slope on my left. Ex-
traordinary caution was required. I almost crept
toward the farm-house, and soon perceived the tent
of the rebel chief. a solitary guard was pacing be-
tween it and me—probably a hundred vards from
the tent. Perceiving that boldness was my only
plan, I sauntered up to him with as free-and-easy an
air as I could muster.

“Who goes there?”

“A friend.”

“Advance and give the countersign.”

I advanced as near as was safe, and whispered
“Tallahassee,” with some fears as to the result.

“It's a d—d lie!” said the sentry, bringing his
piece to the shoulder in the twinkle of an eye.
“That answers the pickets but not me.” Click,
click, went the rising hammer of the musket.

I am a dead man, thought I to myself; I am a
dead man unless the cap fails. Wonderful, mar-
velous to relate, the cap did fail. The hammer
dropped with a dull, harmless thug on the nipple.
With the rapidity of thought and the stealth of a
panther I glided forward and clutched his wind-
pipe, forcing him to his knees, while the gun slipped
to the ground. There was a fierce but silent strug-
gle. The fellow could not speak for my hand on
his throat; but he was a powerful man, with a
bowie-knife in his belt, if he could only get at it.
But I got it first, hesitated a moment, and then
drove it in his midriff to the hilt; and just at
that instant his grinders closed on my arm and bit
to the bone. Restraining a cry with the utmost
difficulty, I got in another blow, this time home,
and the jaws of the rebel flew apart with a start, for
my blade had pressed the spring of the casket.
Breathless from the struggle, I lay still to collect
my thoughts, and listened to know if the inmates
of the tent had been disturbed. But no; a light
was shining through the canvas, and I could hear
the low murmur of voices from within, which I had
before noticed, and which seemed to be those of a
number of men in earnest consultation. I looked
at the corpse of the rebel remorsefully. The slouched
hat had fallen off in the scuffle, and the pale face of
the dead man was upturned to the scant moonlight.
It was a young, noble, and exceedingly handsome
face, and I noticed that the hands and feet were small
and beautifully shaped; while every thing about
the body denoted it to have been the mansion of a
gallant, gentle soul. Was it a fair fight? did I
attack him justly? thought I; and, in the sudden
contrition of my heart, I almost knelt to the ground.
But the sense of my great peril recurred to me,
stifling every thing else, however worthy. I took
off the dead man's overcoat and put it on, threw my
cap away and replaced it with the fallen sombrero,
and then dragged the corpse behind an outhouse of
the farm that stood close by. Returning, I picked
up the gun, and began to saunter up and down in a
very commendable way indeed; but a sharp ob-
server might have noticed a furtiveness and anxiety
in the frequent glances I threw at the tent, which
would not have augured well for my safety. I
drew nearer and nearer to the tent at every turn,
until I could almost distinguish the voices within;
and presently after taking a most minute survey of
the premises, I crept up to the tent, crouched down
to the bottom of the trench, and listened with all
my might. I could also see under the canvas.
There were half a dozen rebel chieftains within,
and a map was spread on a table in the centre of
the apartment. At length the consultation was at
an end, and the company rose to depart. I ran
back to my place, and resumed the watchful saunter
of the guard with as indifferent an air as possible,
drawing the hat well over my eyes.

The generals came outside of the tent and looked
about a little before they disappeared. Two of
them came close to me and passed almost within a
yard of the sentry's body. But they passed on,
and I drew a deep breath of relief. A light still
glimmered through the tent, but presently that,
too, vanished, and all was still. But occasionally
I would hear the voice of a fellow sentry, or per-
haps the rattle of a halter in some distant manger.

I looked at my watch. It was two o'clock—
would be five before I could fire the signal, and the
attack was to be at daybreak.

Cautiously as before, I started on my return,
reaching my horse without accident. Here I aban-
doned the gun and overcoat, remounted, and started
down the mountain. “Tallahassee” let me through
the first picket again, but something was wrong
when I centered down the ravine to the troopers to
whom I had been so confidentially dispatched by
Colonel Craig. Probably the genuine messenger,
or perhaps the gallant Colonel himself had paid
them a visit during my absence. At any rate, I
saw that something unpleasant was up, but resolved
to make the best of it.

“Tallahassee!” I cried, as I began to descend the

“Halt, or you're a dead man!” roared the lead-
ing trooper. “He's a Yank!”“Cut him down!”
chimed in the others.

“Tallahassee! Tallahassee!” I yelled. And com-
mitting my soul to God, I plunged down the gully
with sabre and revolver in either hand.

Click—bang! something grazed my cheek like a
hot iron. Click—bang again! something whistled
by my ear with an ugly intonation. And then I
was in their midst, shooting, stabbing, slashing,
and swearing like a fiend. The rim of my hat
flopped over my face from a sabre cut, and I felt
blood trickling down my neck. But I burst away
from them, up the bank of the ravine, and along
the bare plateau, all the time yelling “Tallahas-
see! Tallahassee!” without knowing why. I could
hear the alarm spread back over the mountain by
halloos and drums, and presently the clatter of pur-
suing steeds. But I fled onward like a whirlwind,
almost fainting from excitement and loss of blood,
until I reeled off at the hollow stump.

Fiz, fiz! one, two! and my heart leaped with ex-
ultation as the rushing rockets followed each other
in quick succession to the zenith, and burst on the
gloom in glittering showers. Emptying the re-
maining tubes of my pistol at the nearest pursuer,
now but fifty yards off, I was in the saddle and
away again, without waiting to see the result of my
aim. It was a ride for life for a few moments; but
I pressed as noble a steed as ever spurned the foot-
stool, and as we neared the Union lines the pursuit
dropped off. When I attained the summit of the
first ridge of our position, and saw the day break
faintly and rosily beyond the pine-tops and along
the crags, the air fluttered violently in my face, the
solid earth quivered beneath my feet, as a hundred
cannon opened simultaneously above, below, and
around me. Serried columns of men were swing-
ing irresistibly down the mountain toward the op-
posite slope; flying field-pieces were dashing off
into position; long lines of cavalry were haunting
the gullies, or hovering like vultures on the steep;
and the blare of bugles rose above the roar of the
artillery with a wild, victorious peal. The two
rockets had been answered, and the veterans of the
Union were bearing down upon the enemy's weak-
ened centre like an avalanche of fire.

“So that is all,” said the scout, rising and yawn-
ing. “The battle had begun in earnest. And
maybe I didn't dine with General R. when it was
over and the victory gained. Let's go to bed.”

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