From the National Tribune, 9/28/1899, p. 8

A Union Man in Richmond
Personal recollections of the Great Rebellion by a Man on the Inside.
BY A NATIVE VIRGINIAN.
Copyright, 1899, by the Publishers of THE NATIONAL TRIBUNE.

[author begins by describing a strange event that happened at Staunton - a man who said they were acquainted asked the author to keep his trunk until he returned, but never did so. The author never found out who he was. This was not transcribed.]

EXECUTION OF UNION SPIES.

A short time, comparatively, subsequent to the battles below Richmond between Gen. McClellan and Gen. Lee, a Northern man named Webster, and his companion, name not remembered, were arrested on suspicion of being spies from Washington. They were examined by the Confederate authorities in Richmond and found guilty of the charge and were sentenced to death.

The affair caused much talk, and agitated the whole community for a season. I remember that there was much correspondence on the subject between the Federal authorities and Confederate, but nothing came of it, and the two suspected spies were executed finally. There was much talk of retaliation on the part of the Federal authorities, but the suggested retaliation was abandoned eventually.

It seems that Capt. Webster - that was his rank - was recognized in Richmond by a Confederate officer, or possibly a civilian, thus depriving the suspected parties of all reasonable hope of acquittal.

ESCAPE OF PRISONERS.

About this period some 40 Federal prisoners confined in the Libby Prison succeeded in making their escape in a rather novel manner, which caused a vast amount of talk and speculation at that period in Richmond. The Federal soldiers cut a tunnel from one of the lower rooms through to the bank of the canal, or basin, a distance of some 40 yards or more. The bank of earth concealed them from the observation of the Confederate sentries, besides the friendly night shielded their movement, as they sped away through the rather deep cut of the York River Railroad track, making their escape through the route of the James River Road and Williamsburg.

Had they been familiar wit the country over which they had to travel it is quite possible that all of them would have safely reached the Federal lines at Old Point Comfort, but on account of this lack of knowledge only one half of the escaped prisoners reached the Stars and Stripes, he other half being captured by the Confederates at different points in the vicinity of the Chickahominy River.

Those who escaped described the particulars in the Northern papers, and it was a marvelous feat indeed. It was said upon good authority that a few of the escaped prisoners were concealed in the house of a well-known Union lady living near 24th and Main streets, and were sent off, finally, after the excitement had subsided, guided by a negro slave. The lady’s name was Miss Eliza Van Lew, and Gen. Grant had her appointed Postmistress of the City of Richmond immediately after the conclusion of the war. She was a lady of strong convictions, intelligent, and quite wealthy. She had never married, and she and her brother John resided at the fine old Van Lew mansion on Church Hill.

All Union citizens admired her very much, and she remained quietly in Richmond during the war, and only being occasionally annoyed by secession neighbors, or bad boys. I believe she now holds a Government position in Washington City.

It was assumed by many persons in Richmond at that period that the escaped prisoners were aided by a certain man connected with the management of the prison, and that it cost a good round sum of money, but be that as it may I shall let the matter go; but I shall now refer to an incident of that period which will be new to the older citizens of Richmond.

THE FLAG INCIDENT.

It will be remembered by many that a gentleman and his family by the name of Webber resided a few doors from Sadler’s Hotel, near the Old Market, and kept a variety store, and manufactured very pretty baskets, cradles, etc. There was Mr. Webber, his wife, and his pretty little girl, some 11 or 12 years of age, who comprised the family, and were English, it was understood.

Soon after they came there might be seen a small flag waving from a staff on the end of a house directly opposite the western end of Libby Prison, which was about 100 yards distant. The knowing ones knew its import, and several months after its first appearance it was noticed by the Confederate detectives, although it could only be seen from the opposite side of the street from the building.

The flag was particularly noted because it occupied different positions on the flag-staff at different times; sometimes being at about half-mast, then below, then again directly at the top of the staff, and then it would disappear for days entirely.

While the flag business was going on it was noticed that a certain Federal prisoner in Libby Prison would stand at and about the west end of the prison. Being repeatedly warned against putting his head out of the window, he was finally shot and instantly killed by a Confederate sentinel from the outside of the building, the sentinel claiming that he had orders from a superior officer to commit the act. From information I had of the flag I have no doubt that the poor fellow lost his life through his eager desire to watch Webber’s flag for news, which its different positions indicated plainly enough to him.

I could write more of interest about that affair if I thought proper. I could tell about the little boy who sold cakes and pies to the prisoners in Libby, and the clerk of the prison, who bought articles of food for the prisoners with their greenbacks, bringing them $5 worth at Confederate prices, he pocketed about three-fourths of the money, which he sold to Broker Foster, below the St. Charles Hotel. I knew Brother Foster better by far than his neighbors did.

AT CUMBERLAND.

I met at Cumberland, Md., a Federal spy who visited Richmond repeatedly, and was not captured either. After my arrival at Cumberland in the Summer of 1864, as mentioned elsewhere, with a letter of introduction to Maj. Gen. Kelly, I was duly introduced to Capt. Purdy, Chief Scout of the Department of West Virginia. He was an interesting man, surely, and we became exceedingly intimate, for many reasons, and was in my room at the hotel daily - Mahoney’s Hotel.

Capt. Purdy had been to Richmond three times when I saw him first at Cumberland. He always played the part of a secessionist from “Maryland, My Maryland,” and came over to sympathize with and aid the Confederates in fighting back the “Yankee” from the sacred soil of the “Grand Old Dominion,” the “Mother of Presidents,” and so forth and so on.

He related to me many incidents of his visits to Richmond, and I will give one. He reached Richmond by way of Gordonsville, and boarded at the house of a lady I knew near the Old Market, where many Marylanders had rooms. No one suspected him, as he was a good “secesh,” was from Maryland, and was liberal with his money.

He made the acquaintance of several Confederate officers, and while with them at a popular resort uptown known as the “Stonewall Saloon,” where he drank to the health f Jeff Davis, the Confederacy, and so on, he determined to get in a toast somehow to the Union while there, and he did it in this wise: Their glasses were filled - $1.50 a drink - when Capt. Purdy was called on for a toast. The Captain raised his glass and said: “Gentleman and friends, here is success to our Union,” when his new friends looked inquiringly at him, the captain commenced the toast again, and said: “Gentlemen and friends, here is success to our Union with the ladies of the South.” “Good, good, good,” shouted the Confederate officers; “best and greatest thing we ever heard, by Jove!” as they patted him on the shoulder.

It was a cute toast, surely, and the Captain told it to me with much glee, as he lay across the foot of my bed at Mahoney’s Hotel. Soon after I left for the North and none shook me more cordially by the hand than Capt. Purdy, Chief Scout of West Virginia. I carried a letter from him to a female spy of his department at the Maltby House, on Pratt Street, Baltimore, Md.

A short time, a few week perhaps, before the Ordinance of Secession was passed in the State Capitol at Richmond, and old schoolmate of mine visited Richmond and I met him at the St. Charles Hotel. He had a friend with him, who was a country schoolmaster, both coming from the immediate neighborhood of the lace where I was born.

MYSTERIOUS SHOTS.

I did not know the young schoolmaster, but I had known my old schoolmate, then Dr. Edward Phillips, since early boyhood, in the country. “Ned” and I were intimate friends, and, after supper at the St. Charles, we agreed to walk up Main Street in the direction of the Spotswood Hotel and the newspaper offices for the latest news, as there was much agitation in the city and State regarding the Secession movement.

Taking Ned on one arm and the young schoolmaster, name not remembered, on the other, we proceeded up main street. Just above the St. Charles there seemed to be some disorder of the street in front, and we somewhat slackened our pace, when two shots were fired in our front, one quickly after the other. With a cry of pain Dr. Phillips stumbled forward and said “Joe, I’m shot in the leg.”

A second or two later the young schoolmaster exclaimed, with a cry of pain, that he was shot in the abdomen, and believed he was killed. He was absolutely terror-stricken.

Dr. Ned said: “Let us get back to the hotel at once;” so both holding on to my arm, as we had started, we soon returned, about 40 or 50 yards, to the hotel. Dr. Ned hastily examined his leg, while the schoolmaster sat in a chair, pale as the proverbial ghost.

I had not been hit, though my two friends had been. Dr. Ned found that the bullet had passed through the calf of the leg, and so nearly passed through the fleshy part that with a pocket knife and his fingers he easily removed it, not, however, before he had examined his young friend, the schoolmaster. Upon examination it was discovered that a bullet had struck the schoolmaster squarely on the top button of his pantaloons, forcing the button into the flesh, leaving a red, inflamed ring near the center of the abdomen. A marvelous escape, indeed!

Dr. Ned remained at the St. Charles nearly two weeks before the wound was sufficiently healed to permit his returning home Later he was a Surgeon in the Confederate army, and came to Richmond, where I met him again. He had left his residence and farm in the village of Chuckatuck in the care of an old Union friend, as he called him, for protection when the “Yankees” came, which they did often, the village being near the Nansemond River.

Our difference in politics did not mar in the least our friendship, and when the war ended he came to see me at the Crawford House, Portsmouth, Va., where I was quite unwell, and cheered me up, and joked about his experiences in the war. He had just been paroled at Petersburg, or nearby, and was on his way home. I never saw him again.

It has been frequently a subject of thought with me as to who those shots were intended for. Dr. Ned and his young friend were strangers in Richmond. There was much feeling between the Secessionists and the Unionists at that period, ad I was free and outspoken in my sentiments, never avoiding any argument. Now, were the shots intended for me, or were they fired by some drunken rowdies without purpose?

We have Lombard Alley again, for those shots were fired from very near the man entrance to that infamous place, near Weiseger’s hat store, near the very spot where the Union man was murdered by a Confederate soldier, an account of which is given in a previous article.

(To be continued.)

 

 

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