The following account of a very strange adventure was given by a letter writer under whose observation it occurred:
During the month of August, in 1861, while our Iowa regiment was stationed at Rolla, in Missouri, our company was detached from the regiment, and sent to guard the railroad bridge at the Mozeille Mills, which, it was rumored, the guerrillas of that neighborhood were preparing to destroy.
We had been upon the ground but a few days, when there appeared in camp, early one morning, a very old, decrepit mule, which made direct for the door of a stable that adjoined the Captain’s quarters, from which it appeared he had recently been stolen by a guerrilla and carried away, as a pack animal. Upon approaching the mule, a letter was discovered, secured to the throat-latch of the bridle, which, being addressed to the Captain, was immediately handed into his quarters. Upon opening the letter, its contents (written in the delicate handwriting of a female) consisted of the following singular announcement: “The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed on the first Friday before the full moon.” The Captain professed to understand it, and said: “the guerrillas will attack the bridge to-night,” and immediately ordered the company to be mustered, and informed them of the imminence of an attack, which might be looked for at any moment. Ammunition was ordered to be distributed, the guards were doubled, pickets thrown out, and every precaution taken to guard against surprise. At the close of the day a drizzling rain set in, which continued until the next morning, causing the night to be intensely dark.
Three picket stations had been thrown out into the country about half a mile from the opposite end of the bridge, where the main guard was posted behind a pile of railroad ties. It was out lot to be one of the six that composed the midnight guard at this station. We had been upon our post about an hour, when one of the men observed, “I hear footsteps.” We listened, and presently heard the footsteps of several persons approaching us, apparently with great caution, through a dense undergrowth that skirted the opposite side of the road. The darkness of the night was so great that we could not see them even when they were within forty feet of us; but we could distinctly hear one of them observe, in a petulant, but suppressed tone, “Jim, hold up that gun of yours; that’s twice you’ve stuck that bayonet in me.” At this moment we opened upon them with all our guns. There was no gun fired in return, but we could distinctly hear them for some time rushing with receding steps through the thicket, in the direction of a cornfield, in which stood a log cabin, occupied by a woman and two children, the husband and father of whom was a Union soldier in one of the Missouri regiments. The firing of our guns, which overshot the enemy, had aroused the entire command, and brought in the picket guard, when the log cabin alluded to was discovered to be on fire. Believing it to be the incendiary work of these guerrillas, the Captain immediately ordered a command of twenty men to double-quick through to the house, and endeavor to rescue the family if in danger. Upon reaching the vicinity of the opening that surrounded the cabin, we discovered that a quantity of hay had been placed against the door and fired; and near the building a party of eight or nine guerrillas, armed with guns, were grouped together, apparently listening to some speaker. Our party, which had divided at the edge of the cornfield, with the view of surrounding the cabin, now rushed in upon them, and succeeded in capturing three of their number.
We had arrived too late to render any assistance to the inmates of the cabin, which had already sunk down into a smouldering heap, beneath which the mother and her children had perished. After securing our prisoners with a portion of a clothes line, hanging from a branch of a tree, they were conducted to camp, where the Captain immediately summoned a drum-head court-martial to try them upon the charge of murder, assuring them that if they were found guilty they would be shot at sunrise, as a warning to their guerrilla comrades. One of the party, a short, thick fellow, with a bushy head of red hair, and bloated expression of countenance, when asked by the court-martial “if he had any thing to say,” sneeringly turned away, refusing to make any answer. the second prisoner, a tall, slender person of dark complexion, with one eye concealed beneath a handkerchief that was tied diagonally around his head, while his face was scratched and scarred with fresh wounds, apparently the result of some bacchanalian brawl with his comrades, observed, “This shooting a feller, arter he’s a prisoner, for fighting for the freedom of Missouri, and ag’in the abolitioners, ain’t accorden to law.” Here a member of the court-martial asked him “if the murdering of a helpless woman and her children at the midnight hour, by burning them to death while sleeping was fighting for the freedom of Missouri.” the fellow turned away from this question with a dejected look, muttering that “her husband was a damned abolitioner.” The third person was a young man, or boy, apparently about sixteen years old. From his dialect, and the nationality of expression on his countenance, it was easy to discern that he was of Irish descent. He was well dressed, and appeared to be greatly destressed at his situation as a prisoner. He observed, with much alarm expressed on his countenance, that he was an Irish boy, and that he had been in the United States but ten weeks, and had taken no part in the war; that the man who had burned the house had called upon him that evening, and asked him to join them in a coon hunt, and it was not until they were fired upon at the bridge, that he was aware of the character and object of the party. he would have left them then, but the night was dark, and he did not know the way home.
Here one of the court arose, and informed him that his story partook of the character of all guerrilla pleas of innocence, and that it availed him nothing. He had been caught with others in the very act of committing this cruel and unfeeling murder, and it only remained for him to say that the court found all of them guilty of murder, and sentenced them to be shot at nine o’clock the next morning.
The prisoners were then ordered to the guard-house–a log dwelling–and placed in the cellar beneath the building. The remainder of the night was devoted to the making of the coffins and the digging of a grave of sufficient dimensions to hold them side by side. When the morning returned, the rain had ceased–the clouds had passed away, and soon the sun arose with a warm and genial glow. All nature seemed refreshed with the murky shower of the night–while all around, the blades of grass, the lilac bushes, and forest leaves, drooped under the sparkling rain-drops that glittered on their folds; and the birds caroled wild and loud their morning matins. All felt that it was a day to live, and not to die in. the drum was beat at early dawn, mustering the company under arms, to witness the punishment; and a detail of twelve men was made, as executioners, under the command of a corporal. As the time drew near for the execution, it was discovered that two of the prisoners had made their escape by forcing a passage through the partition wall of the cellar, into the cellar of an adjoining house.
The boy, however, was still a prisoner, and all were determined that he should be made an example of. Accordingly, about eight o’clock, he was brought out, to be conducted to the place of execution. Upon seeing the soldiers drawn up to receive him, he commenced wringing his hands, crying and calling to the Captain, saying, “O, Captain, I am not guildy. Do not let them kill me. Don’t, Captain; you can save me. I will give you my watch–my sister will give you money. O God! O Holy Mother! O Captain, speak to them quick; they are taking me away!” With a soldier upon each side of him, he was now led by the arms towards the place of execution, still calling upon the Captain to save him. when he discovered the coffin and grave that had been prepared for him, he gave a wild, frantic scream, and then for the first time seemed to relalize that in a few minutes he would be no more among the living; for in a moment after he became calm, when, turning to the officer of the guard, he requested him to ask the Captain if he would give him time to write to his mother in Ireland. The Captain, who was standing upon one side of the hollow square of soldiers that surrounded the prisoner, hearing his request, immediately answered, “Yes; let him have writing materials,” –which were immediately brought, when he kneeled down, placing the paper upon the coffin lid, and as his pen dashed off the words, “Dear Mother,” tears fell upon the paper, which, in brushing away with his coat sleeve, erased the words he had written; when, springing to his feet, he commenced wringing his hands, saying: “I cannot write, I cannot write; O soldier, will you write for me?” addressing the Corporal of the guard.
At that moment, there arose upon the stillness of the scene the wild, piercing scream of a female, as she burst through the ranks of the soldiers, and swept out upon the hollow square, in the direction of the prisoner. It was an Irish girl, apparently about eighteen years old, without bonnet or shoes, her dress bespotted with mud, and her long, dark hair streaming in the wind, as she rushed forward with a wild, heart-rending scream, saying, “He is my brother; he is my brother.” In a moment she had crossed the square, and clasping her brother in her arms, she continued, with an agonizing scream, “O soldiers! O Holy Mother! gentlemen! for the love of Jesus, do not kill him. He is innocent–he is my brother!” I never wish to look upon a scene like that again; and many a hardy hunter, from Iowa’s border, while gazing on it, felt the involuntary tear course down his manly cheek. But we were surrounded by murderers and assassins. The hand that had received pay from the soldier for a draught of water had been known to strike him in the back with a dagger as he turned away, and our officers had determined to make an example of the first murderer that fell into our hands. The girl at length was ordered to be removed. When we soldiers advanced and unloosed her grasp upon her brother, her screams, her appeals to all for mercy, were terrible. They had dragged her but a short distance from him, when, looking back, and seeing a black handkerchief already tied over his eyes, with one wild, frantic scream, she flung the soldiers from her, and, bounding back to her brother, tore the handkerchief from his eyes, and again enfolded him in her arms. As the soldiers were again removing her, the coat sleeve of one of them was torn during the struggles, and her eye fell upon a breast-pin that he had fastened upon his shirt sleeve, perhaps for concealment and safety. In an instant all her physical powers were relaxed, and in a calm, subdued, and confident tone of voice, she observed, as she pointed to the pin, “Soldiers, let me make one more effort for my brother.” The soldiers, startled at the strangness of her manner, unloosed their grasp upon her, and in a moment she bounded away to her brother, shielding his body again with her person at the very moment that the guns were descending to receive the word “fire.” Turning her back to her brother, and facing the file of soldiers, she stood forth a stately woman. There was no scream, no tear, no agonizing expression, but, calm and erect, she swept the field with her eye, and then advancing three steps, she gave the guard hailing signal of the Master Mason. None but Masons among those soldiers observed it, and there were many of them in that command, who now stood mute with astonishment at the strange and mysterious spectacle before them. There was a grouping of the officers for a few minutes, when the Captain came forward, and in a loud voice said, that “owing to the distress and interference of the young woman, the execution would be postponed until nine o’clock next day.” The guard was then ordered to be doubled, and a strict watch kept over the prisoner during the night.
Notwithstanding this precaution, it was discovered in the morning, that both the boy and his sister had made their escape; in what way they accomplished it has been a mystery with the company from that time to this. During the early part of the evening, there was a meeting of the Masonic members of the company at the Captain’s quarters, where the girl was examined, and found to have passed all the degrees in Masonry, to that of a Master Mason. Where or how she had acquired these degrees she declined to say.
Originally posted 2008-09-27 21:52:10.