The adventures of Judson Knight, Chief of Scouts of the Army of the Potomac, along the Pamunkey River in the summer of 1864 continued . . .
WITH THE SCOUTS
Serg't Knight's Adventures In the Swamps of the Pamunkey.
(Continued from last week)
BEING in fear of some kind of an ambush, it struck me forcibly that the best thing to do was to keep quiet until dark. I had lain still all day, so as not to move the tops of the bushes, and came to the conclusion to still continue the same tactics, although it would have been a great relief to me to change My position, for it seemed to me as though every bone and muscle in my person was aching, so that it appeared as if I never would ct over it. Added to this was hunger and thirst, I tried to dip up some water with my hand?, but could not quite resell it, and would not move for fear they were watching and would see the tops of the bushes shake and give me a volley.
It was a terribly long afternoon, but at last the sun went down, and very soon afterward I emerged from my hiding place and very carefully made my way out to the solid land, coming to it with my head held as low as possible, and sweeping the circumference of half-circle, to see if I could discover anything that looked like my Confederate friends or hordes between myself and the sky. After looking and listening for sometime, I could neither see nor hear anything suspicious, and so emerged from the swamp. As soon as I reached the solid ground I took off my boots and emptied them of the water that had been in them all day. Thinking what I should do myself if the position was reversed, and I the hunter instead of the hunted, I concluded not go to Pamunkeytown by the road, hut make my way to the river, and, in case no boat could be confiscated, swim to the other side and make my way down to the White House as best I could.
I soon found the river, and it was much nearer the road than where I had crossed the night before, owing to a bend in the stream at the place where I came to it. On reaching the river I discovered three men doing something on the shore, and leaving my dispatches hidden in a safe place I "fetched a traverse and snaked my way" up to where I could hear what they were saving and see what they were doing. A short observation showed me they were negroes, tangling up a seine on stakes along the shore. I soon satisfied myself there were no white men among them, and walked right up to them, saying: "Good evening, boys; what luck?"
They showed me two sturgeon they had caught, one of which was the largest I ever saw. After speaking of the size as being something uncommon, I said: "Boys, have you seen any of our soldiers around to-day?"
A tall mulatto, who appeared to have charge of things, said: "Yes; Lieut. Rodgers¹ and three men swam their horses across here three times this evening; they went over first, then came back again, and just before dark went over again."
"Can you tell me where they are now?"
"Just at dark they were over there," pointing with his hand, "by the old mill."
"I wish I had been here before they crossed the last time; I should have been glad to have met them. Do you know of any more of our men on this side of the river?"
"Look yere, maussa; you aint one of our men, you aint."
"I aint? Well, tell me what I am, if I aint."
"You's a Yankee, you is."
"What makes yon think so?"
"Oh, you don't talk like our folks does."
Up to this time had imagined I was playing the part of a Confederate rather successfully, and to be detected by this fellow so easily made me ashamed. I had played the part of a Confederate Surgeon only the previous Winter, and knew that there was no suspicion on the part of several families of white people of my being any thine than what I represented my self to he. It lowered me several pegs in my own estimation. The thought instantly came to me. You had better own up; these people will tell you more if they see you trust them.
So I said:
"Suppose I were a Yankee, would you betray me?"
"Well. boys, you are right; I am a Yankee, and a very hungry one, too. Can you get me something to eat? I have got plenty of money and will pay you well for anything you do for me."
"Don't want no pay, maussa. I will go right away and get you something," said the mulatto. When he left I walked into the bushes, from which I had listened to their conversation, and the two who were left began asking all kinds of questions, one of which I remember well. They wanted to know if, when we got hold of any negroes, we cut off one of their arms. I told them no, of course, and asked why they asked such a question as that. They said the white folks told them so.
Much sooner than I expected, the mulatto came back, bringing with him two pones of hot corn bread, a large pitcher of buttermilk, and some of the fattest, rankest bacon I ever saw. Buttermilk I always detested; bacon, even the best of it, never was a favorite; but I got away with everything buttermilk and all. After eating, I began inquiring in my turn, and found that I was about eight miles above the White House; that no launches had come there that day. they felt certain, as they would have heard the steamers' whistles; for they had been on the river all day. In looking at their boats, I found one about 10 feet long, made of five pieces of boards. The bow was about four inches wide; stem, 14 inches; sides and bottom made of half-inch stuff; bow and stern pieces of inch boards. In the center, the boat was about 20 inches wide. When I found the mulatto knew the channel of the river, I offered him $10 to take me down and land me at Pamunkeytown. Before getting through I offered $50, but soon discovered that money was no inducement to him. While friendly to me personally, and Yankees in general, and he hoped they would be successful, he thought more of himself than anything else. He also knew that Lieut. Rodgers and his three men were on the south side of the river; how many more might be there he could not tell. lie also knew that in rowing he would make considerable unavoidable noise, and that a pistol-shot, even, fired from the shore, would kill, provided it hit, and his belief was that be would be killed if he went. He would sell the small boat and throw in a paddle for $3. He also had something that he had found on the south side of the river in 1862, after McClellan had gone from there. "There was glass in both ends, and there was two of them fastened together, side by side," he said, and that if I would wait he would "go to the house and get it." He went, and brought back a field glass, that, as near as I could judge after dark, was a tolerably good one, and I gave him $5 for that. I then made him the offer of $50 again to go down the river with me, and told him that I had lost all of that day, and that was the reason why I would give him that amount.
Said he: "You is the man that Lieut. Rodgers run in the swamp this morning soon after gun up. Well, sir. Lieut. Rodgers cussed like the dobil for bcin' a d__d fool for to holler at you. Shore you carry dispatches, and he bay be have you shore befoh you git two miles from dis place."
When I saw there was no further use in endeavoring to overcome the timidity of the mulatto, I stepped into the boat, and seating myself in the stern, I began using the paddle, and soon discovered the tide was against me, and that my progress was altogether too slow to reach Pamunkeytown or the White House in any reasonable time. The idea came to my mind to run in close to shore and use the paddle as a "setting pole." When I put it in practice it -worked to a charm. By using the blade so that I could draw it edgewise through the water, I soon found that I was going faster than I could walk, and making no noise that could be heard even at a short distance. Keeping along the north shore for a mile or more I found a bayou, and concluded, as I knew nothing of the channel, to follow the shore even if it did increase the distance considerably, believing that in this case "the longest way around is the shortest way home."
I had just got into the channel again, and was close in-shore, under an almost perpendicular bluff, when I heard voices on shore that sounded above me. Looking upward I discovered, silhouetted against the sky, a man and woman on the top of the bluff. Scarcely had I discovered them when a stone thrown, no doubt, by the man, as large as he could conveniently hold, struck the water not a foot from the boat, barely missing it. Had it struck in the boat it would have gone through the bottom like a shot, and stopped my trip by water. An instant's thought satisfied me that I had not been seen, which was confirmed immediately by the voice of the woman saying: "What a splash!" Giving several vigorous shoves with the paddle, I was soon out of reach of any more "dornicks,² " should the notion take the stranger to make another splash.
There were plenty of bayous, which I followed the configuration of until I felt certain that the distance to the White House could not be over four miles, when the sweetest music that ever struck mortal ears was plainly borne to mine. It was the shrill, and, at the same time, hoarse whistle of a steamer. I was making good progress when the sound first came to my ears, but when I heard it and knew, as I did, that Baldy Smith must have arrived at the White House, new vigor was imparted to my muscles, and the cockle-shell I was in fairly flew.
Before going over a mile from where I was when the first whistle sounded five or six more were heard, which did not cause me to lesson my exertions. At last the whistling became almost continuous. I knew that there was a large house on the south side of the river, one mile above the White House, called Eltham³. When I got there I concluded to land and sneak around to the negro quarters and wake one of them, and get him to guide me through the fields to the landing. Crossing the river and running my boat ashore, I stepped out and listened a moment, and could hear no noise of any kind, except the cries of insects. Following a path that was plainly to be seen by the white sand where the grass had been trodden out by constant use, I passed around to the rear of the mansion and knocked on the door of one of the quarters. Immediately came a coarse, low growl from a dog that was some where outside, whether fastened or loose I could not tell. I got no response to my first rap, and tried it again. This time a louder growl, and one that very plainly showed me the dog was a large one, came from the same direction as the first. After thinking the matter over a moment, it struck me that the most sensible thing to do would be to go back to the river and resume the boat, cross over to the north bank, and escape being fired at by our own pickets, which I imagined would be close to the shore immediately below Eltham. I had nearly reached the shore when a startled voice rang out, "Halt! Who goes there!"
"Who are you?" said I.
"Who are you?" said the challenger.
"Do you belong to the Union army?" said I.
What the answer was I don't remember, but I do know that it was such as convinced me I was parleying with a Northern man, and I said, "It is all right ; I can tell you are a Union soldier."
Without saying whether this was true or not, he insisted on knowing who I was, and I told my mission. While the sentry and myself had been trying to ascertain each other's status, men had been rising from the ground all around me; three or four rose within a yard of me, and when I declared that I was carrying dispatches from Gen. Grant, one man, who had risen from the ground within two feet of me, said, "I will take this," and put his hand on the paddle which I was holding, with the blade resting on the ground. It looked to him in the darkness like a gun. They huddled around me, and wanted to know how I got there. I answered that I had come down the river; which did not satisfy them at all.
"How did you come here, right where you are standing now?"
"As I told you before, I came down the river in a boat, and landed at the foot of this path; came up this path, and went to the rear of the house yonder to see if could find a negro to guide me through the fields to the landing. When I knocked on the door, I heard a dog in the yard growl; the more I knocked the worse he growled. I did not know how many Johnnies might be around, for they are always prowling around just on the outskirts of any of our forces. In 1862, when we landed here under McClellan, two or three pickets were found the next morning with their throats cut, within a mile of this place. Knowing their nocturnal habits, and having a lively desire to keep my hide whole, I concluded to go back to my boat and resume by journey by water.
It took some time to make them believe that I had passed through them and they had not heard me, hut it was more astonishing to think I had not heard anything of them. I took them down to the boat and got the dispatches, which were rolled up in my coat in the bow. When they saw the boat they began to believe me. The Lieutenant in charge said he would have to keep me until morning. There was not a match in the party, and there was no way of verifying my story until daylight.
Judson Knight, Washington, D. C.
(to be continued.)
-The National Tribune., January 19, 1893
¹ Most probably Andrew J. Rodgers of the 42d Virginia Cavalry Battalion.
² a rather obscure name for a rock, perhaps implying the couple were dull and unobservant.
³ He is quite off here; Eltham and the White House are 10 miles from each other in direct line and twice that by river.