The Jessie Scouts
By David L. Phillips
For more information, visit The Jessie Scouts web site.
One of the most important functions of the cavalry during the Civil War involved the collection of intelligence. Skilled volunteers were selected from many cavalry regiments and these brave men moved in the advance or on the flanks of their regiments in order to prevent any surprise attacks. Frequently, they moved independently to collect information on the presence, condition, and intentions of the enemy forces in their vicinity.
In order to do this effectively, many of these men began to wear the enemy’s uniform as they conducted their operations. While in the enemy’s clothing, the volunteer scout was placing his life in his hands. The commonly applied rules of war defined his presence within the opposition’s lines. Wearing the wrong uniform was defined as an act of espionage, punishable by death. Their secret service to their country involved hazardous activities and could lead to summary execution, if apprehended. Dangers other than summary execution awaited the volunteers, but both armies continued to locate volunteers to perform the dangerous duty.
One of the volunteers for scout duty, Arch Rowand, explained how he made his decision to become a scout during an interview with a Harper’s reporter that happened long after the end of the war.
“Why did you ever begin?”
It was as I told you – Company K [1st West Virginia Cavalry] had been on detached service – scout duty – for some time. When the company was drawn up in line, and the captain called for volunteers for ‘extra dangerous duty,’ I looked at Ike Harris and Ike looked at me and then we both stepped forward. They took us to headquarters and gave us two rebel uniforms – and we wished we had not come.”
“But why did you volunteer?”
He looked at me over his glasses. “I don’t know! We were boys – wanted to know what was the ‘extra dangerous duty,’ and” – chuckling to himself at a hidden recollection, “when we found out, we hadn’t the face to back down.” And that’s how it all began.
By the end of the war, Arch Rowand had led a life of adventure, winning a Medal of Honor in the process. He would be one of the few scouts selected to accompany Sheridan to Texas at the end of the Civil War for the purpose of entering Mexico to collect information. He and others would wear their old Confederate uniforms across the Rio Grande as they collected vital information on the activities of the French, Austrian, Belgian, and Mexican Imperial troops previously engaged in support for the Confederacy.
Ike Harris would continue to scout until May, 1864, when he would be killed in an attempt to rescue a fellow scout, a volunteer from the 5th West Virginia Cavalry, C.W.D. Smitley. Harris was shot through the heart on May 11, 1864, while he and Smitley were operating near Wardensville, West Virginia.
The concept involving the use of enlisted Union soldiers as scouts, in enemy uniform, collecting information while operating in small groups and raids when grouped in larger formations, developed early in the war at St. Louis. These “Jessie Scouts” were named in honor of General John C. Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, and they accompanied Fremont to Wheeling, West Virginia, early in 1862. Soon after Fremont resigned his command, the scouts came under the control of General Robert H. Milroy until General William W. Averell was assigned command of what was to become the Fourth Separate Brigade, composed of many of the West Virginia regiments formerly under the command of Milroy.
When Philip H. Sheridan was assigned to command in the Shenandoah Valley, he ordered Averell to send him his oldest scouts. Averell sent Rowand, Joseph McCabe, and four other men from his brigade. A seventh man, Jim Campbell, from the Army of the Potomac’s 2nd New York Cavalry was also assigned to become one of Sheridan’s headquarters scouts, the nucleus of what was to become a much larger scout unit.
A reporter for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper encountered two of these scouts as they prepared to move into Confederate territory during the night of December 8, 1864. He wrote:
“…Denny’s guests were congregated in his parlor …when the flow of conversation was interrupted by the entrance of two men in Confederate uniforms and overcoats who without even passing the compliments of the evening took seats by the fire and removed their hats to better enjoy the warmth, a proceeding that somewhat surprised the press while exciting their curiosity.
“We were not long however in becoming acquainted with the status of the mysterious visitors equipped for the warpath as revealed by the pistol butts from their holsters convenient for instant use.
“Their identity was revealed to us covertly by our host, as members of the secret organization known as the “Jessie Scouts” upon whom General Sheridan relied to be kept informed as to the enemy’s plans and movements and that these two men, who were as dumb as oysters, would abide with him till the midnight hour and steal away on their perilous mission.
“This was my first contact with this mysterious band, who could well say they carried their lives in their hands, and as they sat there in the play of the firelight, with lips sealed, for instinctively none questioned them, they riveted my gaze and started my fancy and they rose in my mind as heroes of the highest magnitude for the spy must of necessity be a noble and courageous character. He must be patriotic, quick-witted, intelligent and terribly in earnest or he will never undertake the Secret Service of the Army.
“How unjust, I thought, that with all these qualifications and more, that if captured, that he cannot share even the lot of his fellow captives of the rank and file, the lot of the prisoner of war. His position is disgrace, insult and speedy death. On the altar of his country, he has laid his all, and yet his country is united with all other countries in maintaining an understood international law that dooms him to a dishonorable grave. Shame on such a law. The spy is a soldier that daily bears the heaviest burdens and risks. Let him, say I, have a soldier’s honor.
“Possibly others in the room were occupied with similar thoughts about the strangers and speculated as to whether this would be their last mission in their country’s cause; whether a rope or a volley from a file of men, would reward their venture. It is not pleasant to one with a prospective doom hanging over him to have it anticipated in the unconcealed glance of the solicitous friend, hence fearful that they with whom my mind was filled would read my thoughts intense, I sought another part of the room.
“The ‘Jessie Scouts,’ named in compliment for the accomplished Jessie Benton Fremont, were under the command of Major Young…”
The initial Jessie Scout unit formed in St. Louis early in the war as the plan to develop independent scouts was implemented. The first man to command the scouts was Charles Carpenter once he convinced Fremont that he possessed special qualifications. First, Carpenter claimed to have escaped capture and trial during John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry by crawling through a covered drainage ditch. He was able to build on his initial claims by actually going on secret operations into Confederate territory. There is a map drawn in red pencil on plain brown wrapping paper made by Charles Carpenter after he had scouted along the Mississippi River.
It appears that Carpenter actually penetrated into the defenses of Forts Henry and Donelson while wearing a Confederate uniform. After receiving a letter of commendation from General McClernand, he used the letter to establish himself with other Union commanders as he began to embark on a career as a swindler. One report mentioned his “fondness for anything that wasn’t tied down.” Carpenter was able, however, to remain in favor and he accompanied Fremont to Wheeling in early 1862.
Reports about these “Jessie Scouts” began to appear in newspapers soon after they arrived in the East. The Wheeling Intelligencer tells about scams pulled by these rascals in their black velvet uniforms. One article told of one of the scouts caught trying to evade a hotel bill, with his female companion, by loading their baggage with that of departing musicians. The scout was described as wearing a velvet uniform and was forced to pay his bill, but he soon departed for St. Louis.
Later, Charles Carpenter was ordered to be arrested by General Schofield and the arrest report describes a man wearing a “velvet uniform with an overabundance of brass buttons.” One of Carpenter’s business cards is in the National Archives. He had made himself into a “Special Military Detective” as he continued to swindle people out of both money and possessions. Schofield was less easy to impress that was McClernand and Carpenter was soon expelled from the state of Missouri.
Others of the original group that came east with Fremont were soon back in Missouri where at least one, a lieutenant, was arrested for the confiscation of other people’s property and jailed.
Once Fremont resigned, the scouts who remained in the east fell under the command of Robert Milroy and reports of Jessie Scout activity emerge wherever Milroy served. One account of a Jessie Scout was written by Confederate General Hood’s chief scout, Jack Cussons, who described the capture and interrogation of a scout during the battle of Second Manassas. The scout had attempted to deliver a false verbal message to Hood to keep him from marching to the assistance of Stonewall Jackson and the scout, once revealed, was hanged for his trouble.
The scout had been well prepared. He had a good cover story that was discarded as the hostile interrogation intensified. In an effort to divert his interrogators from his actual mission, he confessed to the minor crime of impersonating an officer to impress a girl. It is likely he would have survived the fatal interview through the use of both his skill and wits, but the discovery of a dying Confederate courier nearby, the man who he was impersonating, sealed his fate. What is interesting to note is the evidence that these scouts reached this level of sophistication in about one year.
During the initial study of the materials related to the Jessie Scouts, it became apparent that these reports may have also been bogus, developed by soldiers involved in telling impressive “war stories,” such as those told by Charles Carpenter as he attempted to bilk citizens out of their personal possessions. A second doubt involved C.W.D. Smitley. If he was so good as a scout, why didn’t he serve with the scouts selected to operate directly under Sheridan? There were essentially only two other scouts identified in the available literature to examine, Arch Rowand and Ike Harris. Material on Rowand consisted of a few short letters and an article written by a Harper’s reporter, William Gilmore Beymer. It was possible Rowand had expanded on his exploits.
The story of the Jessie Scouts became a great deal clearer with the discovery of Smitley’s post-war letter to Franz Sigel. He had not been ordered to Sheridan’s headquarters in late Summer, 1864, and was missing from the patrol with Ike Harris. Harris was dead and could not have served with Sheridan’s scouts. Jessie Scouts, who were called “Walking Arsenals” by one observer who totally distrusted them, had become a generic name for any Union scouts operating while wearing a Confederate uniform. But there was actually one group of men who operated more or less as a single unit until they were assembled in one command by Philip Sheridan.
During the period prior to serving under Sheridan, there are reports of excellent scout activity associated with Averell and his raids inside West Virginia. During his winter Salem Raid in December, 1863, there is a report of scouts kidnapping a country doctor, forcing him to lead Averell’s column along little known country roads to safety. Later, two Jessie Scouts were reported to have captured Bradley Johnson’s pickets near Moorefield, an act that led directly to the largest surprise cavalry attack in North American history. Bradley Johnson’s Maryland men were decimated while John McCausland’s brigade was also severely damaged.
It was, however, under the command of Philip Sheridan that these scouts were able to demonstrate their actual capability. Their initial, and most significant, operation involved the recruitment of a young Quaker schoolmistress, twenty-two year old Rebecca Wright, who lived inside Confederate controlled Winchester, Virginia. Unable to approach her directly, even in their Confederate uniforms, one of Sheridan’s scouts located a slave, Thomas Laws, who had been issued a pass to pass through Confederate lines three times weekly to sell his produce. Laws delivered an initial message, rolled compactly inside a pellet of tin foil and carried inside his mouth, to Rebecca Wright.
Once Rebecca agreed to spy for Sheridan, her messages revealed the departure of a significant number of Early’s men, a full division of infantry and an artillery battalion sent to reinforce Lee at Petersburg. Based on her information, Sheridan ordered a general attack in September, 1864, that drove Early from Winchester and the much-exchanged town remained in Union hands for the rest of the Civil War.
Soon after the battle of Third Winchester, Sheridan decided to enlarge his headquarters scouts into a “full scout battalion” and he assigned its command to Major Henry Harrison Young, an officer from the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment. Sheridan made Young his “Assistant Aide de Camp,” a cover title to permit his chief scout to operate more freely. Assuming that his Winchester camp was fully penetrated by Confederate agents, Sheridan set the size of his “scout battalion” at 500 men, an act that was designed to magnify the actual number of scouts, which was less than sixty men.
Young designed one of the first operations of his scouts. There are two sources available that describe his daring act. Young took his men south into the Shenandoah Valley from Winchester toward Harrisonburg where they waited for a Confederate cavalry column to ride along. Dressed in Confederate uniforms, Young and his men actually joined with the larger cavalry unit and rode along with the column. Once the Confederates were comfortable with their presence and settled into a dozing ride, Young’s men struck. Firing shotguns and pistols into the surprised Confederates, Young and his men rode the entire length of the cavalry column, firing as they did so. Confederate casualties are unknown, but Young lost one scout in this daring operation. There is apparently a Confederate account of this operation. Once this is located, Young’s raid will be more completely understood.
Later in the winter, Young and his men rode to nearby Edinburg, Virginia, under the disguised mission of returning the body of a local Confederate for proper burial, but their actual goal involved intelligence collection. Once the true numbers of local defenders had been determined, Young ordered a general attack and captured over a dozen of the local soldiers.
Supported by nearly fifty regular Union cavalrymen from a New York regiment, Young was certain that his force could handle any group the Confederates could assemble to oppose his return to Winchester. Stopping for breakfast, Young refused to budge from his chair, in spite of warnings of the imminent arrival of a large force of Confederate cavalrymen. After completing his breakfast, Young left, but his horse was shot down and it was only through the intervention of Rowand and Jim Campbell that his life was saved. The faulty aspect of his plan was that the cavalrymen assigned to support his scouts were new, untried men, instead of the veterans that he requested and they ran when they came under fire. Young lost several men, including scout Tom Cassidy in Confederate uniform and whose body was never found.
It appears Sheridan developed a secret plan to go after partisan chief Hanse McNeil during the same period. The elder McNeil had become a significant thorn in Sheridan’s side as major destructive raids were led against the nearby Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. McNeil had been allowed to remain active with his partisan rangers, along with John Mosby, when the Confederate Congress ordered the other partisan ranger units to disband.
In October, 1864, McNeil was shot in the back by one of his own men while leading an attack on a bridge at Mount Jackson, Virginia. The man who shot McNeil, George Valentine, had been recently chastised by his commander for stealing chickens, but more information on the shooting has been located. Valentine was later identified as a “Jessie Scout” after the shooting of McNeil. The question remains: was Valentine a scout at the time of the shooting, infiltrated to kill McNeil or did he become a Jessie Scout after killing his commander? The answer has not been determined at this point, but there are indications that Sheridan and Young planned such operations. There is initial information that Young sent two of his men to enter Mosby’s camp as deserters to collect information on Mosby and a similar operation against McNeil’s Rangers is entirely plausible.
Once McNeil had been killed, Early sent Harry Gilmor, a man with considerable experience raiding against trains, to replace McNeil. Gilmor had once captured, but lost by escape, General Franklin on a train in the vicinity of Baltimore and he had been court-martialed after his men robbed a train. Once Gilmor’s arrival became known to Sheridan’s staff, Young developed a plan to capture him.
Two teams of Jessie Scouts, one led by Arch Rowand, rode into Moorefield to locate Gilmor and the home where he stayed. Once they fixed his position at the Randolph House near the river, the scouts returned to Winchester with their information. Once aware of Gilmor’s position, a large party of disguised scouts made up of twenty of Young’s men, including Rowand who was making his second trip to Moorefield in three days, moved on Moorefield with an escort of 200 experienced cavalrymen. Young had learned a lesson in the Edinburg disaster.
In the middle on the night, Gilmor and his cousin, Hoffman, were rudely awakened by armed scouts and escorted back to Winchester. Gilmor was taken to Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, where he was confined for the remainder of the war. The Jessie Scouts had completed another successful operation.
They eliminated another threat on the outbound leg of the trip to capture Gilmor. Having located the home of Captain George Stump’s father, the scouts stopped and were able to capture Stump. He apparently resisted capture or attempted to escape. There are three separate accounts of this episode in the war, but regardless of the account, the results were the same. George Stump was shot dead. This must have occurred on the ride to capture Gilmor, as Gilmor makes no mention of the killing of Stump. Another captive of the Jessie Scouts, George Opie, described Stump’s body, blackened and frozen beside the road, as he was taken into captivity.
Stump was a serious secessionist who had sworn that he would never be taken alive. While the actual story of his death remains unknown, it is likely that he challenged the Jessie Scouts to a duel and lost. He was normally so heavily armed that his own men referred to him as “Stump’s Battery,” but his weapons didn’t save him. There is a report that the Jessie Scouts told Major Young that Stump was sick, too sick to ride and Young replied, “Make him sicker!” Another report exists that Stump tried to take a pistol from a guard while they were riding along and Young warned him that he would be shot if he made another similar attempt. Stump made another try to snatch a pistol, this time the one belonging to Young, who ordered his men, simply, “Plug him!” It is equally likely that the pugnacious Stump challenged the scouts to a duel and died in it.
The scouts under Henry Young continued to operate under Sheridan for the rest of the winter of 1865. Sheridan was later to note that there was little that he did not know about the enemy within fifty miles of his base because of the actions of his scouts. They were to play a part in a major deception plan in early 1865 as Sheridan prepared to move against Early who was located in the vicinity of Staunton, Virginia.
Sheridan’s camp was penetrated by Confederate spies who would get word of any preparations to attack Early, therefore the Union commander had to conceal his preparations or Early would be able to concentrate his forces before any Union attack. Many of Sheridan’s officers had been amusing themselves during the winter months by organizing fox hunts and Sheridan decided to use this as a ruse to surprise Early. Orders were given to organize a giant fox hunt and preparations were made, dogs collected by the scouts, and shoes put on many horses. A few enterprising scouts were even able to obtain a few foxes that were prominently displayed in the Federal camp. Soon after all was made ready for the hunt, Sheridan ordered his army to strike Early and within days, the Confederate army defending the Shenandoah Valley was defeated and nearly destroyed at Waynesboro. Sheridan had been ordered to strike south, capture Lynchburg, and continue forward until he was able to link up with Sherman’s army in North Carolina.
Sheridan was, however, given discretionary authority to join Grant at Petersburg, if he believed this to be the best course of action. Once Sheridan was near Lynchburg, he decided to ride to join with Grant. In order to inform Grant, as well as to request fodder his animals and food for the men, Sheridan had to send messengers through Confederate territory. He selected Young’s scouts to do the job.
Arch Rowand and Jim Campbell were given notes, wrapped in tin foil to be swallowed if they were captured, and sent on horseback toward Grant. Shortly afterward, Dominick Fannin and Frederick Moore were placed in a row boat and ordered to float downstream to Richmond, to walk on to Petersburg where they were to enter the Confederate trenches to fight against Grant’s army. They were ordered to desert at the first opportunity and deliver their message to Grant. Rowand and Campbell arrived first, after losing their horses and Rowand losing his pants. They delivered the message after walking the last five miles. Fannin and Moore arrived the following day with the duplicate message for Grant.
Sheridan soon arrived with his huge cavalry force and was able to find Lee’s right flank at Five Forks, the beginning of the end for Lee. During the final stages of this battle, Young and his men rode up to a Confederate officer, General Felix Barringer, and reported that they had located a camp for him and his staff for the night. Once the Confederate general and his staff was separated from their brigade, Young’s men pulled pistols and captured all of them.
It was Jim White, one of Young’s scouts who had originally been assigned to the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, who managed to ensure Lee’s defeat at Appomattox, instead of allowing Lee to escape to continue the war. White had captured one of Lee’s couriers with a telegram ordering trains to move from Lynchburg with rations to meet the army near Appomattox. White kept the telegram and intercepted the first train, impersonating Lee’s courier, and told the train engineers to follow him down the tracks where all four trains were captured by cavalry under Custer. Lacking food and supplies and with his route to safety blocked, Lee chose to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant ordered a large element of his army to continue toward Sherman and the anticipated battle with Joseph Johnston. The scouts were able to assist in a very unusual manner. Blocked by a wide river, the cavalry was being out-marched by the infantry on the opposite side of the bridgeless stream. Scouts were sent up and downstream with orders to confiscate all ferry boats in the area and have them poled to a central location. Once there, the ferry boats were chained end to end, forming a long, curved bridge over which the cavalry crossed. The cavalrymen were able to catch up with the infantry through the fine, innovative efforts of the Jessie Scouts. Their actions in constructing this temporary bridge would have become a legend if it had occurred as part of a war time campaign. As it was, they did this just after the end of the Civil War when everyone was distracted by both peace and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Young and at least two scouts, Arch Rowand and Jim White, and probably a few more, were ordered to accompany Sheridan to Texas immediately after the cessation of hostilities. Sheridan was sent west to force the final remaining Confederate, Kirby Smith, to surrender, but he was also ordered to place a strong force on the border with Mexico.
During the Civil War, France had occupied Mexico, ostensibly to force repayment of a large debt, and soon, Napoleon III had placed an Austrian nobleman on an imperial throne in Mexico City. Maximilian and his Belgian wife, Carlota, ruled Mexico with the support of the French army, which was augmented by Austrian troops, the Belgian Legion, and Imperial Mexicans. Together, they had managed to force the liberal army under the leadership of Benito Juarez to retreat far from the capital city. By the conclusion of the Civil War, Juarez was able to control only a small section of territory along the international border near the present-day city of El Paso.
The Imperial Mexicans and the French had actively supported the Confederacy and at the height of the Union blockade, the Mexican port of Matamoras was providing a great amount of the Confederacy’s imports. With their history of support for the Confederacy and the movement of large numbers of former Confederate soldiers into Mexico, Grant began to be alarmed about the possibility of renewed hostilities from a Franco-Mexican-Rebel League that appeared to be forming. Once this possibility was recognized, Grant convinced Secretary of War Stanton and President Johnson of the potential danger they faced of a renewed war.
Sheridan was ordered to place his strongest formations on the border as a demonstration of their intention to prevent any moves by the French, one of the world’s superpowers at the time, toward the United States. At this time, Sheridan began to send his “trusty scouts,” as he referred to them in telegraphed reports to Grant, into northern Mexico to collect information on the French army and their allies. Young, Rowand, and White were soon back into their old Confederate uniforms as they rode across the Rio Grande, posing as Confederate soldiers seeking to escape from the Union army’s occupation of their home state.
Most of the reports of their scouting operations were lost or safely filed away as they were all classified. The little that has emerged from the research shows that multiple trips were made into Mexico and, at one time, they were actively planning to kidnap the Imperial commander in Matamoras, General Meijia, as they had done with Harry Gilmor. Sheridan wrote to Grant that the loss of Meijia would have a major disrupting impact on the imperial defenders in that border city.
It is very likely that the Jessie Scouts assisted in the delivery of funds from Sheridan’s headquarters to Juarez in what Sheridan described as a “covert program” of supporting the Mexican liberals against Maxmilian’s army. What is known is that large amounts of weapons were transferred from captured Confederate depots, as Sheridan said, “30,000 stand of muskets from the Baton Rouge Arsenal alone,” to Juarez’ army as they began to win victories. The magnitude of this “covert” operation was enormous and Grant made arrangements for General Schofield to take a leave of absence to command all of the liberal forces in their war against the French and their allies. Interestingly, Secretary of State Stanton opposed their plans and worked behind the scenes to bring about a diplomatic solution, going as far as securing the services of Schofield as an emissary to Paris.
Late in 1866, possibly in December, Lt. Col. Henry Young escorted a large group of veteran soldiers into Mexico where they had volunteered to serve as a body guard for one of Juarez’ commanders, General Escobedo. Sheridan later wrote that Young had done this on his own, as a private citizen, and he, Sheridan, had loaned money to him for the expedition. Sheridan also told two slightly differing versions of this story.
Young had signed for the funds advanced by Sheridan, official funds from the Secret Service Fund managed by Sheridan. A hand receipt exists in the National Archives that records the transfer of $3,000 from the Secret Service Fund to Young “for any purpose” and Young signed this as “Lt. Col. Henry H. Young, US Army.” Young’s mission was official, not a private expedition.
Regardless of the source of inspiration or funding, Young was killed as his small element crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. A large group, described by Sheridan as “renegade rebels and Mexicans,” attacked Young’s party in an attempt to take the money in Young’s possession. Young’s body was lost in the river and never recovered.
Rowand had been ill and was discharged from the army. He returned to his home in Pittsburgh, but he wrote immediately to Sheridan when he received news of Young’s death. It is a measure of the high regard Sheridan had for these Union privates when his response to Rowand was located.
The Jessie Scouts were down to possibly a single man, Sergeant Jim White, a man who would soon embark on an adventure closely approximating that taken by a fellow West Virginian, Andrew Rowan, as he carried the famous “Message to Garcia” just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Secretary of State Seward had been asked by the European powers to intercede on the behalf of Maxmilian, who was losing the war with Juarez and in danger of execution.
Lacking a minister, a diplomatic presence inside Mexico, Seward requested the assistance of Sheridan in getting a message to Juarez’ generals deep in the interior of Mexico. Sheridan sent for Jim White, formerly of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. White was placed on a chartered ship, the Black Bird, that sailed to either Vera Cruz or Tampico and he rode to Queretaro, located 100 miles north of Mexico City and delivered his message. He was also able to ride to safety back in the United States, completing the last operation of the Jessie Scouts.
Copyright, 1997. David L. Phillips. All rights reserved.
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