Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 28/A Secret Service Episode

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[From the Richmond, Va., Dispatch, October 21, 1900.]


A SECRET-SERVICE EPISODE




AFFECTING THE SUCCESS OF THE FIRST BATTLE OF MANASSAS.




(Captain Louis Zimmer was an early member of the famous "F" company, of Richmond, which supplied so many officers to the Confederate army from the rank of general, downward. He resided here for many years prior to the war, and was very popular. He has a letter also from Colonel Walter H. Taylor, formerly adjutant-general of the Army of Northern Virginia, confirming his important services to the Southern Confederacy. He was first appointed lieutenant by Governor Letcher, and afterward promoted to captain in the ordnance department.)


Virginia Military Institute, August 22, 1878.


My Dear Sir,—I was very much gratified at the receipt of your letter of the igth. I well remember you, and how your valuable services to the State in the time of her great peril led the Governor and Council to promote you. But for your services at that time we could not have fought the battle of Manassas.

The old Governor is still with us as president of our board.

With kindest regards, I am truly your friend, 

Francis H. Smith, Superintendent.

To Mr. Louis Zimmer, Tryon City, N. C.

This remarkable historical document requires some explanation to any one except a Virginian of the past generation. When "The Mother of States" decided to secede from the Union and join her fortunes with the Southern Confederacy, Governor Letcher called to his assistance, as a special council of war. Commodore Matthew F. Maury, Lieutenant-Governor Robert L. Montague, Hon. Thomas S. Haymond and General Francis H. Smith. (Captain R. B. Pegram was afterward added to the board, or council.) These patriotic citizens performed all functions incidental to placing the Virginia volunteers in the field. These troops were subsequently mustered into the Confederate army, forming the nucleus of the Army of Northern Virginia. A condensed retrospect of existing conditions in the United States is necessary to show what led to the state of affairs alluded to by General Smith in the letter that heads this article.

It is the testimony of every one of the historians of the Civil war that both armies which met on the field of Manassas were little better than armed mobs, lacking in organization, discipline, experience; in fact, in all that goes to the making of that most complex of living machines. In the North the cry "On to Richmond" was raised by the enthusiastic people, and despite the advice of such experienced soldiers as Generals Winfield Scott and McDowell, ardent congressmen, learned editors and patriotic contractors urged the Army of the Potomac to action.

Congress had issued a call for half a million three-year men, and the volunteers massed at the camps near Washington with amazing alacrity. The soldiers who had volunteered for three months being near the end of their enlistment, were preparing to return to their homes. Thus that experienced general, McDowell, took the field with an army without a staff, commissariat, or organization in any department. With all these drawbacks to contend against, McDowell fixed on July 9, 1861, for an excellently devised move against the Confederates under Beauregard, but on account of lack of transportation, the advance commenced on the 16th. The commander of the Army of the Potomac expected the co-operation of General Patterson, who, with 18,000 men, was ordered to observe and attack the Confederates under Joseph E. Johnston, then holding Harper's Ferry.

General Beauregard had been terribly busy for weeks in licking into shape the motley Confederate organizations as they arrived from Richmond on Manassas plains. Many of these soldiers brought from home their trusty rifles and shotguns, but the vast majority of the Army of Northern Virginia were armed with old Springfield muskets, such as had been captured with the government arsenals at several points in the Confederacy. Camp equipage was quite lacking in the Southern army, but the officers in the various regiments commanded the respect of their men. Such were the conditions existing on both sides of the Potomac when the first campaign of the armies near Richmond resulted in the battle of Manassas, which was fought on July 21. 1861. The result of this, the first great battle of the war, was that after desperate fighting on both sides, the Federal troops became panic-stricken, and fell back, badly demoralized, to Centreville.

The Confederate editors, learned especially in all matters pertaining to war, aroused a storm of indignation through the land by their comments on the fact that Beauregard's army had not pursued the routed foe into Washington; and fierce was their denunciation of the administration and the commanding generals because the advantage gained after fierce fighting during all that hot summer day had not been followed up. It was in vain that Beauregard, Johnston and President Davis explained, in orders and reports, that fatigue and the lack of adequate equipment prevented the Confederate troops from pursuing the foe. Only at this late date, thirty-nine years after the battle of Manassas was fought, is it made known that, but for the brave and patriotic action of a modest captain in the ordnance department of the Confederacy, the battle could not have been fought, and the southern army would have been forced after a few hours resistance to retreat on Richmond. This gentleman, now living in Harlem, an honored member of the Confederate camp of New York, is Captain Louis Zimmer. The venerable soldier tells the story in plain, unvarnished style, and displays the most authentic corroborative evidence of the deed from the highest military authority of the Confederacy, commissioned by Governor Letcher, of Virginia, for secret service duty, and with letters of highest commendation from Governor Letcher and General Francis H. Smith (the latter superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute), he reported to General Robert E. Lee, who in turn, assigned him to duty with Commodore M. F. Maury. The latter immediately ordered him to go into the enemy's country and bring out percussion caps, because at that time the supply was limited to but four rounds for each man then mustered into service. This is the old soldier's narrative:

On March 4, 1861, I received orders from Commodore Maury to proceed to New York to purchase 1,000,000 percussion caps for the use of the army of Virginia, and for that purpose obtained a credit from Colonel George Wythe Munford, then Secretary of State for Virginia, for $10,000 gold by draft on a Baltimore banking firm, with instructions to be guided by circumstances in the matters of purchase and conveyance. I started for the Potomac via Port Royal, stopped at Rice's farm, and at night crossed the river in a lugger to Piney Point Light-house, Maryland; went to a point on St. Mary's river, whence I took steamer to Baltimore. Was recognized when I registered at the Maltby House by a northern spy, and forced to get out of the rear entrance of the hotel in short order; drew the gold from the bankers and belted it securely about my body; went by train that day to Philadelphia, where I stopped at the St. Lawrence Hotel; next day to New York, where I registered at Taylor's Hotel; wore conspicuously a Lincoln badge; saw several crack city regiments march down Broadway on their way to the front; purchased 1,000,000 army percussion caps at a store on Liberty street, and ordered them shipped to the address of a friend in Philadelphia. An hour later I was informed that the caps had been seized. I always suspected that the merchant from whom I bought the goods furnished information to the police.

My Philadelphia friend, the consignee, had to prove his loyalty before the authorities would permit the caps to be sent forward, and even then the suspicious merchandise was shipped under police escort, consigned to care of Mayor Henry. This official was satisfied to let the stuff go, so I stored the caps in an old house in an unfrequented part of the city, where at night I transferred them to several Saratoga trunks; shipped the trunks to Baltimore; thence continued my journey as a refugee to St. Mary's river, Maryland. Kind friends here assisted me with my "baggage" to the cottage of trusty Captain Bell, who was custodian of my boat. I crossed the Potomac river that night in safety; got government transportation for my precious charge via Fredericksburg to Richmond, and delivered 250,000 percussion caps to General Dimmock, chief ordnance officer of the State of Virginia. Promptly I went back by the same route for more of my "baggage," but the patrol boat chased us, captured my boat, and I escaped with my life by swimming and running my best. However, I managed to run the blockade again on a favorable dark night, and was able to deliver 300,000 more caps to my superior officers. "Running the blockade" across the Potomac became daily more difficult; spies were everywhere, and the Federal blockade became terribly rigid, so I was forced to try another route. This time I took my Saratoga trunk from Baltimore to Washington, and started for Alexandria, via the Long Bridge. The bridge was guarded by regulars, who would have searched my trunk but for the presentation of two bottles of whiskey. Once arrived at Alexandria, the way to Richmond was open, and my third venture was delivered where it would "do the most good." My fourth and last trip through the lines was by way of Mathias Point, on the Potomac, and I was successful in conveying the remaining trunk to the Potomac, on the Maryland side, where I hired a row-boat to get to Virginia. This time the fates were against me, for the vigilant Federal tug fired a shot at the boat, causing the crew to throw my precious baggage overboard, and to row swiftly to shore to save our yet more precious lives.

Thus were 800,000 of the percussion caps delivered after a month of hair-breadth escapes and adventures, much to the gratification of the Governor of Virginia. The distribution of these essential munitions of war to the Confederate army took place during the early days of July, 1861, and the army was thus prepared for the desperate battle on the plains of Manassas, the result of which so dismayed the people of the North.