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 scouts marvelous
gift of story-telling we were none of us willing to dissolve. Captain Charlie Leighton had
been a Lieutenant in a Michigan Battery at the commencement of the war, but a natural love
of excitement 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 delighting 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.
happened in Western Virginia, said he. I had been personally acquainted with our
commander, 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
serviceof which a vast deal was required to counteract the guerrillas with which the
Blue Ridge fairly teemed at that timeone night, late in the fall of the year, I was
delighted to receive orders to report at his head-quarters. The General was a man of few
words, and my instructions were brief.
"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 its in the heart of
the enemys position!" was my amazed ejaculation.
"Just the reason I want it done," resumed the
General. "Listen: I attack to-morrow at daybreak. 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 dangerregular life and death. Two miles from here, midway to the enemys
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
immediately left the tent to make ready.
It was nearly ten oclock 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 had 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 nightalmost 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 efficiencyremounted, 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 shortened 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 landmarkthe glimmer of a
campfirea tent-top in the moonlight, which now began to shine faintlyor to
hear the snort of a steed, the signal of a picketany 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 signnot 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 solemn 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
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 slumbers 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 terrible antagonist with something deadlier than ferocity. 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 savage to
himself. But to the solitary scout, at midnight, 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 starlight 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 tensions.
By way of a little episode, I knew a very successful
scout, who met his death, however, on the Peninsula, who would always require a long sleep
immediately 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 see, 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 vivacityI think of no better wordof 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 concentrated in the brief
period of a few hours.
But to resume: I felt to the full this apprehension, this
anxiety, this exhaustion, but the knowledge 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 read on, and
the road was flinty and rough in the extreme. But kept on as cautiously as possible, when
suddenly, just at the bottom of the ravine, where the road began to ascend the opposite
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 phantoms.
"Why do you return so slowly?" said on of them,
impatiently. "What have you seen? Did you meet Colonel Craig?"
For a momenta brief oneI gave myself up for
lost; but, with the rapid reflection and keen invention which a desperate strait will
sometimes superinduce, I grasped the language of the speaker, and formed my plan
accordingly. "Why do you return 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 wont: I will be Colonel
Craigs orderly. So I spoke out boldly:
"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
dispatched me, his orderly, to say that the enemy appear to be retreating in heavy masses.
I am also to convey this intelligence to General F.,"
The troopers had started at the tones of a strange voice,
but seemed to listen with interest and without suspicion.
"Did the Colonel think the movement a real retreat 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 northern 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
"Good!" cried the rebel. Do you know the way to
the Generals quarters?"
"I think I can find it," said I; "although
I am not familiar with this side of the mountain."
"Its a mile this side of 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 Generals tent. I will go with you
to the top of the road." And, setting off at a gallop, the speaker left me to follow,
which I hesitated not to do. Now, owing to their mistake, the countersign had not been
thought of; but the next picket would not be likely to swallow the same dose of silence,
and it was a lucky thing that the trooper led the way, for he would reach 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 remainder might as well have been
Greek. Tally, tally, tally what? Good God! Thought I, what can it be? Tally,
tallyhere I am almost up to the pickets!what can it be? Tallyho? No,
thats English. Talleyrand? No, thats 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 wonderful spellthe 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 mountainso
high that clouds were forming in the deep valley below. Making my bridle fast, I clambered
with some difficulty the still ascending slope on my left. Extraordinary caution was
required. I almost crept toward the farm-house, and soon perceived the tent of the rebel
chief. A solitary guard was pacing between it and meprobably a hundred yards 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?"
"Advance and give the countersign."
I advanced as near as was safe, and whispered
"Tallahassee," with some fears as to the result.
"Its a dd 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, marvelous 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 windpipe, forcing him to his knees,
while the gun slipped to the ground. There was a fierce but silent struggle. 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 look 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 notice 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 mans 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 observer might have notice 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 voice 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 sentrys 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 as
still. But occasionally I would hear the voice of a fellow sentry, or perhaps the rattle
of a halter in so me distant manger.
I looked at my watch. It was two oclockwould
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 abandoned the gun and overcoat, remounted, and started down
the mountain. "Tallahassee" let me through the first picket again, but something
was wrong when I cantered 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
"Halt, or youre a dead man!" roared the
leading trooper. "Hes a Yank!" "Cut him down!" chimed in the
"Tallahassee! Tallahassee!" I yelled. And
committing my soul to God, I plunged down the gully with sabre and revolver in either
Clickbang! Something grazed my cheek like a hot
iron. Clickbang 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 "Tallahassee! Tallahassee!" without knowing why. I could
hear the alarm spread back over the mountain by halloos and drums, and presently the
clatter of pursuing 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 exultation as
the rushing rockets followed each other in quick succession to the zenith, and burst on
the gloom in glittering showers. Emptying the remaining 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 footstool, 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 swinging
irresistibly down the mountain toward the opposite 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 enemys weakened centre like an avalanche of fire.
"So that is all," said the scout, rising and
yawning. "The battle had begun in earnest. And maybe I didnt dine with General
R. when it was over and the victory gained. Lets go to bed."