Chapter XLIX - Spying for Jackson

History of Hampshire County West Virginia From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present
By Hu Maxwell and H. L. Swisher
Morgantown, West Virginia; A. Brown Boughner Printer; 1897

PART 2 County History
Pages 571-582

When it became known, in the fall of 1861, that General Kelley had fortified Romney, and was preparing to occupy it permanently, Stonewall Jackson, who was at Winchester, began to lay plans to recapture the town. In order to carry out these plans it was necessary to obtain exact information regarding the forces at Romney, the position of the fortifications, and the best avenues of approach. General Jackson requested the commanding officer at Blue's gap to obtain this information, if possible. Pie thereupon selected Lieutenant John Blue, Major Isaac Parsons and William Inskeep, and instructed them to secure all the desired information possible by such method as they might think best. They were acquainted with every acre of the country around Romney. They procured a good spyglass, and early one November morning, 1861, took their post on Mill creek mountain, on the opposite side of the river from Romney, about one and a half miles distant. From that position they had full view of the town, all the surrounding country, the fortifications, the barracks, and everything of a military nature. Isaac Parsons was skillful at drawing, and he and William Inskeep climbed into a tree, made themselves as comfortable as possible, and with the aid of the spyglass, proceeded to make a map of the military camp, with all the converging roads, and the neighboring hills. Lieutenant Blue stood guard at the foot of the tree, on the lookout for objects nearer at hand. It was a warm day, although in November, and it was nearly sunset when the map was finished, and the men were ready to come down from the tree. About that time the soldiers in Romney were called out on dress parade, and the spies had excellent opportunity of estimating their number, and they remained in the tree a short tune longer for that purpose.

In the meantime Mr. Blue's ear had detected sounds of approaching footsteps, on the mountain side, below them. He called the attention of his companions to the noise, and they descended from the tree, put on their coats, took up their guns, and were about to follow Mr. Blue, who had gone up the mountain and was about forty yards above them, when two federal soldiers made a sharp turn round a clump of trees, and called to the spies to surrender. The soldiers did not see Mr. Blue, nor did they know of his presence. "You are our prisoners," exclaimed the soldiers as they jumped behind trees to protect themselves from the muskets of the spies. "I am not so sure of it; I guess you are our prisoners" replied Mr. Parsons. "Not a bit of it," returned one of the yankees; "throw up your guns and surrender." "You throw down your guns and surrender," said Parsons. It was an even match. All four of the men were behind trees, about forty yards apart. After standing awhile, each side trying to persuade the other to surrender, one of the yankees called out: "Hello, Reb!" "Hello, Yank," was the reply. "Suppose we shake hands and call it square. We don't want to hurt you fellows, and I guess you are not thirsting for blood." Mr. Parsons answered that he was not very blood-thirsty and was willing to let bygones be bygones, and was ready to have peace. "Who are you, anyhow?" inquired one of the yankees. "Citizens out hunting," "Well, there is no use to fight over it," answered the federal, "but that musket you have looks like a rebel's. How about it?" "The musket is all right, and if you want to shake hands with us, be about it." "Leave your gun and step out, and I will leave mine and step out," suggested the yankee. Both did so; Parsons stepping out first, then one of the federals. Then Inskeep stepped out unarmed, and called on the remaining yankee to do likewise. But the treacherous child of the frozen north sprang out with his musket leveled, and called out: "Now surrender. I "have the drop on you!" "Drop that gun," came a command from the hill above. Lieutenant Blue had stepped from behind a tree with his gun leveled at the yankees. The table was turned. The yankee dropped his gun and began to beg. He said he was only joking and had no intention of shooting anybody. "I am not joking," replied Mr. Blue, "and if you waft! to save your hide, leave your gun where it is and strike a trot for Romney and don't dare look back until you get out of sight," The yankee did not stand on the order of going", but took to his heels. The other yankee was told to leave his gun and follow his comrade. He did so.

The spies went to the house of David Fox and stayed all night, leaving at daybreak next morning. They hid in a clump of pines on a point some distance above Hanging* Rocks. By the aid of their glass they could watch the movements of the federals in Romney and vicinity. Numerous parties were sent across the river to search Mill creek mountain, supposing that the spies were still lurking there. But, of course, nothing was found of them on that mountain. The next night the spies made their way to Little Capon, where they had left their horses, and thence proceeded to Blue's gap. The map was sent to General Jackson.

Lieutenant John Blue's Desperate Escape. - It was afterwards ascertained that the two federal soldiers who were driven to camp by the spies were Lieutenant Cole and Lieutenant Freman. It so happened that they were soon afterwards taken prisoner by Captain Sheetz's company and were carried to Capon Bridge. They there saw and recognized Lieutenant Blue, and learned his name. Either by exchange or other means they returned to the federal camp at Romney, and were there in the spring of 1862, after the confederates under General Loring had left the county. They had informed the officers that Lieutenant Blue was one of the spies who had been seen on the mountain, and it thereafter became an object of special importance to effect his capture. It was not deemed difficult to do this, as his father, Garrett I. Blue, lived a few miles below Romney, and it was reported that Lieutenant Blue occasionally visited his father. The house was watched. The lieutenant had no idea that any special effort would be made to discover and capture him; so, about ten o'clock at night, late in March or early in April, 1862, he stealthily entered his father's house. Three hours afterwards he was captured and was taken to Romney under guard, and was confined in a room up-stairs, nearly opposite the court house. As he entered the room he saw a two-pound iron weight on the mantle, and put it in his pocket, not with any particular object in view, but with a vague idea that it might be useful in breaking a door-lock if he had an opportunity. He remained in the room about a week, under guard, but suffered no hardships. His friends were permitted to carry him food, and to visit him, and he was tolerably well satisfied. But one day Colonel Downey came in and began questioning him about his business in that part of the country while his comrades in arms were in a distant place. Mr. Blue declined to answer, and the colonel became enraged, threatening to run him through with his sword. He accused Blue of being a spy, and said he had proof of it, and would send him to Wheeling for trial, and that would be the last of him.

The shutters of the windows from that time were closed. No friends were permitted to visit him or send him anything. His guard was doubled. He was fed on bread and water, and very little of that. He remained there till Easter Sunday. He had been told to prepare for the trip to Wheeling next day. His father had visited him, and had warned him against attempting to escape, as he would scarcely be able to do so, and the attempt might cost him his life. But he had made up his mind to escape if he could, for he did want to go Wheeling to be tried as a spy.

When the guard came in for the night, ten of them, all armed, the prospect of escape was not bright. They prepared to spend the night in the room, as the air was cold outside. About midnight all lay down to sleep but two, one corporal and the other a soldier who sat with his back against the door. Blue lay down during the early part of the night, but toward morning, complaining of being cold, he walked across the floor. The corporal was sitting by the stand, resting his head on his arm, apparently asleep. All the others were snoring lustily, except the soldier with his back against the door. He was wide awake. Lieutenant Blue waited for his time to come; but day was breaking and his last hope of escape seemed to be passing. There was only one chance left, and that was a desperate one. As he passed the soldier at the door he struck him on the head with the iron weight which he had carried in his pocket. His purpose was to stun the soldier, seize his musket, bayonet any others who might awake, spring out at the door and trust luck to escape by flight. The soldier sank to the floor without a groan. No one awoke. Blue drew him aside, picked up a musket, a blue overcoat and a cap; put the cap on, threw the coat over his shoulders, opened the door and stepped out. The key was in the lock, outside. He turned the key, passed down stairs and found broad daylight outside. His first impulse was to run, but the street was full of soldiers, and to run would attract notice and lead to his capture. He walked carelessly along, turned into an alley, and reached the foot of the hill east of the old cemetery. Then, being out of sight of the soldiers, he took to his heels. He gained the top of the hill, when a dozen guns were fired, giving the alarm. Pausing a moment among some bushes where he was out of sight, he watched the movements of the soldiers. He saw one squad of cavalry start down toward the river, another up the pike toward Frenchburg, while a squad of infantry took his track up the hill. There was snow on the ground. The pursuit was vigorous. Once he was so near a company of cavalry that he heard the men laying plans for his capture. He reached the brook which empties into the river near the residence of William Stump, and by wading in that he threw his pursuers off the track. A dense fog settled down and the snow melted, both favorable for his escape. He endeavored to follow the rage of hills leading south, facing the river. In the afternoon the fog lifted, and, to his surprise, he found himself within half a mile of Romney. He had traveled in a circuit. He started again, and keeping certain well-known objects in sight, he reached the house of D. J. Parsons, seven or eight miles above Romney, and learned that his pursuers had been there a few minutes before. He procured a horse and rode to Joseph Archey's, where he spent the night. The next morning he was so stiffened by travel and exposure that he could scarcely move. That day he made his way to a shanty on Big mountain, a rendezvous for confederates who found it necessary to keep in hiding. He there found Isaac Pancake, George Stump and others, and he remained there a week.

He never ascertained to a certainty whether he had killed the guard whom he had struck. A prisoner named John Smith, who was in the room at the time, said that the man died soon after, but the statement was denied by others. The corporal who had permitted, the escape was punished by being compelled to wear a barrel shirt, that is, a flour barrel with holes cut for his head and arms.

Taking Chances. — Constant association with danger makes men reckless. There is an element in the makeup of men which loves romance; it takes pleasure in doing unusual things; it runs unnecessary risks for the sake of the excitement. Of course, Lieutenant John Blue was marked for destruction after his spying expedition became known, and especially after he had assaulted the guard in Romney and had made his escape. Word was sent among the union soldiers that they must be constantly on the outlook for him, and, if possible, take him at all hazards. Yet, in the face of this danger, which he well knew, he ventured again within the union lines in Hampshire county. It was after the second battle of Bull Run, in 1862. General Imboden was ordered into Hampshire county, and Lieutenant Blue accompanied him for the purpose of visiting his home. He approached his father's house in the night, and saw a soldier on the porch doing picket duty. The barn was a short distance from the house, and Blue went there, and climbing to the haymow, waited for his father to come out in the morning to feed the horses. At daybreak the old gentleman came, and was surprised to see his son; but urged him to make his escape, telling him that pickets were posted at the house day and night, during the night on the porch, and during the day on a hill some rods in front of the house. The lieutenant said he wanted to go to the house, and would take his chances. He asked his father for the red blouse he wore, which Mr. Blue gave him, and returned in his shirt sleeves to the house. Lieutenant Blue waited till the relief guard came on and took his post on the eminence in front of the door, and then, with the blouse on, he walked leisurely to the house, the guard not doubting but that it was the old gentleman. He went up stairs and remained a week. Frequently the soldiers were in the room below him, and he heard them talking about him and asking when he had been heard from. His sister told them the last letter she had from him he was in the vicinity of Richmond.

At length, one Sunday morning he was lying on the floor upstairs, listening to the guards who were in the room below. A soldier came down the road at a gallop, calling to the pickets, "Run, Imboden is coming." The soldiers took to their heels up the hill, and when about one hundred yards off, Lieutenant Blue showed himself on the porch and told them not to be in a hurry, there was no need of running from rebels, as they had been in the same house with one for a week. They stopped, and seemed about to come back; but after considering the matter a moment, they again took to their heels. Lieutenant Blue left the county with Imboden.

A Prisoner in Cumberland. — Having made so lucky an escape, Lieutenant Blue concluded to tempt fate once more in Hampshire county, and accordingly came into the neighborhood below Romney and spent a few days visiting among friends. While there, Captain Stump's company of confederates came into the vicinity, and Lieutenant Blue felt safe. One evening he visited the house where Garrett Parsons now lives, to attend a social gathering. Isaac Parsons was then at home, and he and Blue rode down to Old House run, where they saw a small squad of soldiers, and mistook them for rebels, supposing then to be a portion of Captain Stump's company. But they were yankees. Parsons and Blue wheeled their horses and galloped back, the yankees after them. They were heard coming by the ladies of Mr. Parsons' house, one of whom ran out and opened a gate leading up a ravine to the left of the road. Blue and Parsons galloped in, and before the pursuers could enter, the gate was shut and locked by the young lady. The soldiers lost some time in breaking it open, and this enabled Isaac Parsons to make his escape; but Lieutenant Blue attempted to ride up a steep hill, could not do it, and was thus overtaken by half a dozen soldiers who had fired all the loads from their guns, and who came at Blue with their sabres, threatening to hack him to pieces. He had only a revolver, and that, too, was empty, he having fired all the loads during his retreat up the road. He sprang from his horse, laid the pistol across the saddle, and by threatening death, destruction, and all general and particular terrors to any man who approached him, he kept the soldiers at bay. They seemed drunk, and swore dreadfully, but were afraid to approach him. Lieutenant Summers, who was in command of the party, came up and told Blue he would better surrender, as he was overpowered, and it was foolish to throw his life away. "I have been waiting," said he, "for a chance to surrender. These men seem to be drunk, and threaten to kill me." I will see that you are not hurt," replied Lieutenant Summers, and Lieutenant Blue threw down his pistol and surrendered. He was taken to Cumberland, expecting to be tried on the old charge of spying; but the federals had either forgotten it or had decided to let it drop. He was treated with marked kindness by Colonel Porter and General Kelley, and instead of being sent to the guardhouse he was allowed to go where he pleased, upon his word that he would not leave Cumberland. Colonel Porter gave him ten dollars for expenses. As strange fortune had it, he met Lieutenant Cole on the street, the same who had discovered him when he was spying for Stonewall Jackson in 1861. He was invited to board with the yankee lieutenant, and did so, free of charge. In a short time he was called before General Kelley, who permitted him to return home upon his promise to stay there until further orders.

He returned home, and before leaving Cumberland bought gray cloth for a new uniform, paying for it with the ten dollars given him by Colonel Porter. He remained at home three months, assisting his father on the farm. One day a yankee soldier galloped up and gave him a letter from General Kelley, ordering him to come to Cumberland at once, or he would be arrested. Instead of reporting in Cumberland, Lieutenant Blue reported in Dixie. He and John Lynn, one of McNeill's men, made their way through the lines, and Blue had a new uniform made from his gray cloth, and wore it on the Gettysburg campaign, where he was wounded and sent to the hospital.

Prisoners Rescued by McNeill. — Lieutenant Blue had no sooner recovered from the wound received at Gettysburg than he again came into Hampshire county. He was not yet able to wear a boot on the crippled foot. There were no federal soldiers in Romney at that time, nor nearer than Cumberland, as far as he knew. But a troop of "Blincker's Dutch" came from Winchester and spread over the county. Having learned of the arrival of the union troops, Lieutenant Blue, accompanied by Ephriam Herriott and John Inskeep, started for Virginia by way of Hardy county, believing that to be the safest road. After dodging scouting parties some time, they succeeding in reaching Lost river, where they considered themselves safe. They stopped for dinner at Angus Wood's, a place where not a yankee soldier had been seen during the war, up to that time. They sat down to dinner, and were progressing well, when a yankee rode up to the house, and presently a dozen or more followed him. They came into the house and took them all prisoners, mistaking Blue for a colonel, because his new uniform was that of a colonel. They seemed very proud of their capture, and guarded Blue carefully. He had some letters in his pocket which if they should fall into the hands of the federals, might cause trouble for some of the people of Hampshire. At his first opportunity he passed them to Mrs. Wood, together with his pocketbook; but a soldier detected the movement and demanded that Mrs. Wood give the letters up. She said it was a pocketbook which had been passed to her. The soldier then demanded the pocketbook, saying that it was just what he wanted. Mrs. Wood handed her own pocketbook to the soldier and he was satisfied.

The prisoners, including George Turley, who was also in the hands of federals, were put on horses and the cavalcade set forward. It was soon ascertained by the prisoners, from the conversation of their captors, that the federals were in that country hunting for Captain McNeill; and, as subsequently ascertained, McNeill was also in the country hunting for the federals. When two parties are in the same district, hunting for each other, and truly desirous of finding the object of their search, they are usually successful. During the day one of McNeill's men, Frank Maloney, was seen near the road, was tired upon and wounded in the thigh. But he continued to run, and having crossed a field in open view, and in a shower of bullets, reached a thicket and escaped. Joseph Williams, a prisoner, made his escape during the day by putting spurs to his horse and dashing into the woods. He was well acquainted with the county, and went straight to McNeill's men.

The union troops now began to grow uneasy. They were certain that McNeill knew more of their movements than they knew of his; and he had it in his power to fight where he pleased, while they must accept battle wherever offered. If the federals had entertained doubts that McNeill was in the vicinity, those doubts were soon expelled. While moving cautiously down the road, they met several small boys who were on their way home with buckets of huckleberries which they had picked in the woods. They stood m a row on the upper side of the road, watching the soldiers pass. At length one of them piped out: "Captain McNeill 's down the road a-waitin' for you." The federal officers were aware that children sometimes tell very important truths without being conscious of it. The children were questioned, coaxed and threatened, but not another word of information could be gotten from them. They had evidently believed at first that they were ad- dressing rebels, but discovering them to be yankees, the boys' lips were sealed. After vainly trying to ascertain from the children where McNeill was, the soldiers marched on, and orders were given to shoot the prisoners in case of an attack.

McNeill was waiting by the road. He posted his men on both sides, with orders not to fire until he fired first. He was afraid of killing the prisoners, and it was his intention not to fire at all unless he could ascertain whether the prisoners were in front or rear. He considered it better to permit the cavalcade to pass than to kill the prisoners. Night came on, a very dark one. Sometime after dark the federals were heard coming. McNeill had taken his position behind a tree near the road, and was peering out, trying to see where the prisoners were, when he was discovered by a yankee, who raised his revolver and fired. It was an unfortunate shot for the federals. It did not hurt McNeill, but his men took it for the expected signal to begin the fight. Instantly a volley was poured in from both sides of the road. The darkness of the night was lit by the flash of revolvers. The federals sprang from their horses and tried to fight, but the rain of lead came so thick and fast that what few were left fled for their lives. About a dozen got away, while between thirty and forty were left dead or wounded in the road. The prisoners' escaped injury, except Ephraim Herriott, who was wounded in the arm. A boy who was acting as pilot for the federals, was shot through the lungs, but he recovered, and was afterwards pensioned by the government. Captain McNeill sent a prisoner to Moorefield for a surgeon to attend the wounded, and then passed up the South fork. The fight occurred near Howards lick, in Hardy county.

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