An Unwritten History.
The history of the world is full of wonderful accidents. The most common-place occurrences have not unfrequently(sic) decided the fates of Empires and influenced the whole world. We are told that the cackle of a goose once saved Rome; a summer shower of two hours' duration decided the fate of the first Napoleon and changed the map of Europe; an error of fifteen minutes in his watch once saved the life of Washington, and the merest accident spared the great Luther's life and gave to the world the Reformation.
Said an old English writer, by way of illustrating the subject, quoting from an old ballad:
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For the want of the shoe the horse was lost;
For the want of the horse the rider was lost;
For the want of the rider the battle was lost;
By the loss of the battle the kingdom was lost —
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The war for the Union was replete with these little momentous incidents, now deciding a battle, now destroying a reputation, and then defeating the profoundest strategy. A single mishap was sufficient to neutralize the best matured plans of military genius, and by their intervention the grandest combinations became useless folly.
Did the reader ever hear how narrowly Richmond escaped capture in the early part of 1864, and how trifling its fate? It ranks among the most "curious chapters" of our whole history, and can hardly fail to prove very interesting.
The story opens with a murder.
On the 13th of October, 1863, the Provost Marshal of Williamsburg, Lieutenant W. W. Disosway, a handsome young officer of much promise, was shot dead by a soldier named James Boyle, whom he had ordered under arrest for disorderly conduct. The murderer was immediately seized, ironed, and, pending his trial, confined in Fort Magruder, an extensive earthwork about a mile below the town of Williamsburg.
Major Wheelan, an able and energetic officer, succeeded the murdered man as Provost Marshal, and the matter was soon forgotten.
At this time refugees, rebel deserters, and escaped Union prisoners were daily arriving from Richmond, sixty miles distant. Such persons were, immediately on their arrival, taken to the Provost Marshals headquarters, carefully examined, and their statements forwarded to Major-General Wistar, whose headquarters were at Yorktown. The substance of these reports was that the rebel capital was practically defenseless. The regular troops, it was said, had all been sent to the front, and only a few home guards kept watch over the city.
In January, 1864, an officer, who was introduced as Major Howard, arrived at headquarters, and for a day or two was in close conference with General Wistar.
On a dark, blustering night, near the close of the month. Major Howard and an old and daring scout named William Plunkett, belonging to the 1st New York Mounted Rifles, were passed outside of the Union lines and proceeded toward Richmond by the Jamestown road, with a view of confirming these statements, and report if a sudden descent upon the city was advisable.
Two weeks nearly passed, and one day a "refugee" was brought, who refused to communicate with the Provost Marshal, but demanded to be taken at once to the Commanding General, for whom he had important information. It proved to be a report from Major Howard and his companion, confirming all that had been said of the defenseless condition of the rebel city.
An attack was immediately determined on, and the scattered troops were drawn together for that purpose. A brigade of infantry, three batteries of artillery and four regiments of cavalry comprised the expedition. They were moved cautiously, and rendezvoused in the woods on the road leading from Yorktown to Williamsburg.
It soon became known that an important movement of some kind was on the tapis, but few believed at first that it was anything more than a grand scouting or foraging expedition. The suspense was not of long duration. On the 5th of February all was excitement and bustle. The infantry moved out and the cavalry received orders to follow the next morning. The field officers received their instructions. A stirring general order was read to the troops, giving the first information that their march was to be "on to Richmond." The order evoked the wildest, enthusiasm, and cheer after cheer ascended along the line. The bugles sounded " forward," and the far extending lines of cavalry and artillery moved gayly on their way.
There were the strongest reasons for believing that by being cautious, bold and expeditious the cavalry could enter Richmond, liberate the Union prisoners confined in Libby and Castle Thunder, capture the rebel President and the officers of his government, seize the treasury, destroy the vast depots of rebel supplies, bum the bridges across the James, and otherwise weaken the defenses of the city. Certain officers and squadrons were assigned to perform certain portions of the work of destruction, the Capital square designated as the general rendezvous, when the work should have been thoroughly accomplished.
On the 2d or 3d of February, the murderer Boyle, whose trial had been for some reason delayed, escaped in the night from his prison at Fort Magruder, through the connivance of one of his guards. Search was immediately made in all directions, and every possible effort made for his recapture. But all exertions were fruitless. He had been seen near our camps in the wood, but soon all trace was lost, and it was supposed he had crossed the James and fled in the direction of Suffolk.
In the meantime the expedition was pushing on to the point of its destination. The route lay though a dreary pine forest, along the sandy roads,and by deserted plantations. To divert the enemy's attention General Sedgwick's corps had been thrown across the Rapidan, and had engaged a large portion of General Lee's army, and the "raiders" were unmolested.
At daylight on the morning of the 7th of .February the infantry reached Baltimore Cross Roads, where they made a brief halt for rest. At the same time, however, the extreme cavalry advance had reached Bottom Bridge, within thirteen miles of the rebel capital. It was intensely dark when they reached there, and a careful reconnissance(sic) showing that the bridge had been stripped of its planking, it was resolved to wait until daylight. The strictest orders were issued against lighting fires or making unnecessary noise, and pickets were thrown out in all directions.
The condition of the bridge caused the more sagacious officers no little uneasiness. They saw in it an evidence that the expedition had been discovered, in which event surprise was impossible and success doubtful. The bulk of the command had no such forebodings. Once across the little stream they believed the way to Richmond was open and without obstacle, and the capture of the proud capital, which had already cost us so much blood and treasure, was looked upon as inevitable.
At about the same hour that Wistar's men were waiting patiently the break of day at Bottom Bridge, two Union "refugees" presented themselves before our lines at Williamsburg, and were speedily examined by the officer of the guard. They proved to be Union citizens from Richmond, who had left that city three days before, in company with Major Howard and Sergeant Plunkett¹, the two Federal officers who had been sent to investigate matters inside of the Confederate capital.
Their statement was that the party had proceeded with the utmost caution after leaving Richmond, until within twelve miles of Williamsburg, when, emboldened by the close proximity of our outposts, they took the open road, and were speedily captured by a small party of rebel scouts and hurried back toward Richmond. At Tunstall's Station the citizens escaped, leaving Howard and Plunkett prisoners. By following the course of the York River they had reached the Federal camp, but had not encountered the cavalry column under Wistar.
When informed of the expedition they were enthusiastic and predicted its easy success. They asserted positively (and the truth of their assertions was subsequently confirmed), that there were no military organizations in the city, and that the Union forces would be assisted by a secret league of loyal men who were prepared to bum the bridge across the North Anna, thus preventing the approach of reinforcements from Lee's army; else to spike the guns commanding the principal roads leading into the city, and a corps to act as guides for the Federalists as soon as they effected an entrance into the town.
But to return to the little army at Bottom Bridge. They rested on their arms as patiently as possible, waiting and watching for the first shimmering of dawn, full of confidence and hope. But, alas I by the dim light of the coming day the outer pickets discerned a long line of shadowy figures filing down the road on the opposite bank of the stream, and taking position to oppose the passage of the bridge. An old earthwork, which had been thrown up by McClellan during his Richmond campaign of the year previous, soon shielded them from view, and as no enemy could be seen through the mists which hung over the little valley, when the balance of the army came up the reported discovery of the pickets was not believed.
The brigade was speedily mounted and put in motion. But scarcely had the advance guard crossed the brow of the little hill and commenced the descent toward the ruined bridge, when a puff of white smoke was observed beyond the stream, instantly followed by the deafening boom of a gun and the wild shriek of a shell. The cannon shot destroyed in an instant all hope of surprising Richmond; and being too weak in numbers to hope for a successful assault, the expedition was reluctantly abandoned and the troops, weary, disheartened and disappointed, returned leisurely to Williamsburg.
For a long time it was a matter of profound wonder how the secret of the expedition was carried to the rebel capital Men of high rank were suspected, and more than one staff officer was dropped from the rolls because of a suspicion that he might have imparted information so valuable to the enemy and so disheartening to us.
At last, however, the facts came out; and herein is the really curious part of this chapter on the history of our late war. Boyle, the escaped murderer, had obtained his liberty just as the expedition was collecting. From the guard, who connived at his escape, he had learned the prevalent rumors of a contemplated dash on Richmond. In his flight, which was toward the threatened city, he gained more information, and reached Richmond soon enough to give timely alarm, and strong detachments from Lee's army were hurried forward to defeat the movement By such a singular circumstance was the rebel capital saved.
Boyle enlisted in the Southern service, but of his subsequent life nothing is known. It is possible that he yet lives, and may learn from this book the injury he inflicted upon the country he had betrayed.
Of the fate of Major Howard, who, with Sergeant Plunkett, had entered the rebel capital for information, nothing is known, though he probably died in prison; for, had he been executed as a spy, the fact could hardly have been concealed. Plunkett, believing death inevitable if he was brought to trial, determined to offer his services to the enemy, and was accepted as a recruit in Stuart's cavalry. A few months after he made his escape, and entered the Union lines. Here he was at once seized as a rebel spy, and confined in the Old Capitol Prison at Washington. He communicated the circumstances of his situation to General Butler, by whom he had been previously employed, and that officer soon obtained his release, discharge from the service and a handsome pecuniary recompense.
The faithless soldier who aided in Boyle's escape was subsequently tried, convicted and executed².
Rifle shots and bugle notes: or, the national military album of sketches of the principal battles ... connected with the late war
Joseph A. Joel, Lewis R. Stegman, Grand Army Gazette, 1883
-Rifle Shots and Bugle Notes; or, The National Military Album Sketches of The Principal Battles, Marches, Picket Duty, Camp Fires, Love Adventures, and Poems Connected with the Late War.
by Joseph A. Joel, Late of the Twenty-Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry,
and Lewis R. Stegman, late of the One Hundred and Second New York Volunteers, and the First United States Veteran Volunteers.
Grand Army Gazette Publishing Co., 82 and 84 Nassau Street, 1884
¹ Plunkett, Laurence J . —Age, 30 years. Enlisted, August 28, 1862, at Southfield; mustered in as private, Co. M, August 29, 1862, to serve three years; transferred to Co. A , October 11, 1862; discharged, June 12, 1864; also borne as Lorence J.
² Private Thomas Abrahams, Company G, One Hundred and Thirty-ninth New York Volunteers