A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Appendix B

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Mysterious Fate of a young Confederate Officer.

In the winter of 1863, while Grant's army was lying before Vicksburg, a young gentleman of Virginia, serving in the Confederate Army of Vicksburg, disappeared under circumstances of extraordinary mystery, and to this day his fate remains as inexplicable as it was on that when he was first missed by his comrades.

On the 27th day of January, 1863, the Confederate army occupying Vicksburg and its vicinity numbered near thirty thousand effectives. Major-General Carter L. Stevenson was in chief command, and Major-General Dabney H. Maury was next in rank, and commanded the right wing, holding the lines from Hayne's Bluff on the Yazoo River to the city of Vicksburg.

On the morning of January 27th, General Maury, accompanied by Colonel William E. Burnett, his Chief of Artillery, and by his young aide-do-camp, John Herndon Maury, son of Commander Matthew F. Maury, rode to General Stevenson's head-quarters in Vicksburg, and, after concluding his business there, sent those two gentlemen of his staff to make a reconnoissance of certain positions near the Big Black Road. This was about 10 a.m. He has never seen his young aide-de-camp and kinsman John Maury since that moment; nor has he ever been able to ascertain with certainty what has been the fate of the young man.

Burnett returned to dinner at head-quarters, and reported that about one o'clock p.m., having finished their business about the Big Black Road, young Maury left him in order to ride down to a point opposite the mouth of the canal, and observe what the enemy was about there. No uneasiness was felt on account of his non-return that night. But when ten o'clock had passed next morning, and "Johnny," as all called him, had not yet been seen or heard of, a vague anxiety began to make itself felt. This was soon increased by hearing that on the previous evening, at about three o'clock. Generals Stevenson, Barton, and other officers from Fredericksburg, Virginia, of which town John H. Maury was a native, had seen a riderless horse resembling his grey mare on the far side of a crevasse in the levee of the plantation of Mr. Smedes, about four miles below Vicksburg. On hearing this, General Maury, accompanied by several officers and couriers, rode to the point indicated by General Stevenson, and there found his young kinsman's horse with saddle on and bridle hanging loose. A strong levee had been built by Mr. Smedes from the Highlands, more than a mile distant, down to the Mississippi River, in order to shut out the waters of a bayou, which at some seasons would otherwise inundate his plantation. Recently this bayou had torn its way through this levee, making a breach of about twenty yards width, through which the water was now running deep. The trail of the mare led from the Highlands along the levee, entered the bayou at the crevasse, and passed out on the other side. From the point of exit the mare had been running back and forth so much that the party were unable to follow the trail further, but concluded that Maury had been drowned in the attempt to cross the water, and immediately procured boats and commenced an active search for his body. This was continued without ever discovering any trace of the missing man until the next evening, when Colonel Burnett, an experienced Texas hunter, reported that he had been carefully examining the trail of the mare, and that he observed she was evidently mounted when she emerged from the bayou beyond the crevasse; that she had then been ridden at a trot along the levee to a point not far from the river; that at this point her footprints on the levee ceased, she having turned off from it into the overflow, made a detour, and come up upon it again nearer to the crevasse; that from that point where she had thus come upon the levee she had galloped (riderless) back to the brink of the crevasse, near which she remained until she was found there; that, at the point where the mare had turned off, he found the paper cases of several cartridges, different from any used in our army; also a piece of india-rubber or gutta-percha, such as Confederates could not procure, which had been used to cover the cone of a rifle. There were also at this point evidences of a scuffle, and on the brink of the Mississippi River, a few hundred yards distant, he found the edge of the bank freshly broken off, and signs that several men had there embarked in a small boat.

Although the space in which the body must lie—had the young man been drowned, as at first supposed—was small and easily examined, no one of the searching party had discovered any trace of it. Therefore, on hearing Burnett's report, the conclusion was adopted that Maury had been captured by some scouting party from the army across the river, and had been borne, a prisoner, to the other shore.

Next morning Major Flowerer, Adjutant-General of Maury's division, was sent under a flag of truce to General Grant to make inquiry about Lieutenant Maury. To our grief and surprise, he returned in the evening with the report that nothing was known of him by the Federal Commander; but with the courteous assurance from General Grant and Admiral Porter, who knew young Maury well, that they would take all possible means to ascertain whether he had been made a prisoner by any of their party, and would communicate to General Maury the earliest intelligence they could procure.

General Grant had been personally acquainted with General Maury at West Point and in Mexico, where they had served together; and the unfortunate young officer whose fate was under investigation was known to Admiral Porter and to other officers of the United States Navy, who had met him while he was a boy at the Observatory of which his father was so long the Chief. The conviction was then positive, as it is now, that those officers were sincere in their desire and active in their efforts to find the poor boy.

Soon after the fall of Vicksburg (July, 1864), General Maury, then in Mobile, received an ill-written letter (from an unknown and evidently uneducated writer) informing him that his young cousin had been made prisoner, and had died of pneumonia, on the third day after his capture, on board a Federal gunboat lying off Vicksburg. At the time very little importance was attached to this letter. But not long after. Colonel Underhill, a gallant young Scotchman who had resigned his commission in the British army to serve in that of the Confederacy, wrote to General Maury a very clear and consistent narrative, which he had received from a Captain Smith of the 13th Iowa Regiment. United States Army.

Captain Smith and Colonel Underhill were natives of the same county in Scotland, and met during a truce before the lines of Vicksburg, Underhill then being aide-de-camp to General Stephen D. Lee. During a sociable conversation on one occasion, Smith told Underhill that on the 27th of January he had crossed from the month of the canal with a party of four or five men to the levee on Smedes' plantation, in order to ascertain if we were constructing any batteries there. That soon after reaching the levee he observed a Confederate officer riding down it towards the point where he and his scouting party were. Lying close, they waited until the officer had come up to them and dismounted. While he was looking through his field-glasses at the Federal works on the opposite bank, Smith and his men sprang upon him and secured him. The mare broke away, ran out into the "overflow," and, surmounting the levee, galloped back to the point whence she had come. As soon as it became dark. Smith recrossed the Mississippi with his prisoner, and sent him to Grant's head-quarters, where he believed he was when General Maury's flag of truce came to inquire for him two days after. Captain Smith showed Underhill the opera-glass which he had taken from his prisoner, and retained as a trophy of his exploit. The glass was that which General Maury had on that morning lent to his cousin (with his name and rank upon it).

There are several points in this narrative which give it every appearance of truth. It agreed, in the main, with Burnett's observations, and the theory deduced from them, of which neither Underhill nor Smith had ever heard. The opera-glass seemed to fix the fact of capture, while the respectable standing of the two gentlemen, and the absence of any motive or object for such a fiction, leave us no right to question any part of their story.

As to Smith's belief that young Maury was at Grant's headquarters while that General was denying all knowledge of him, we must remember that Smith could only know that Maury had been sent up to head-quarters, while Grant, having just arrived at the army with large reinforcements, and being occupied in organizing his forces, could not be expected to be interested in, or even informed, of the capture of a lieutenant. Therefore we are justified in believing young Maury was captured and borne across to the Federal Army. What was his subsequent fate is the mystery which has never yet been revealed.

For more than fifty years the father, the uncles, and many others of the kindred of this young gentleman have been well-known officers of the naval and military service of the United States. Having passed almost his whole life at the National Observatory at Washington, he was himself well-known to scores of navy officers. These circumstances, considered together with his position as Staff-officer of the General second in command of the army then at Vicksburg; the immediate, active, and persistent search made for him; the cordial interest evinced by General Grant, Admiral Porter, Captain Breeze, and other officers of the Federal Service, in the investigation thus made about his fate, combine to make the mystery which enshrouds it as extraordinary as it has been inexplicable; while the beautiful traits, the fine intellect, the excellent attainments, and the gallant yet gentle and polite bearing of the young man, invest it, to all who know him, with a peculiar and most painful sadness.

"His parents are now in the decline of life. Exiles from their homes, they are borne down by this mysterious sorrow. If there be any one living who knows facts relative to the time and manner of young John Maury's death, we beg such an one to make them known. Let not this cruel silence be longer kept."

This appeal was made by General Maury through the columns of the ' in 1867. It was immediately copied into many Southern papers, among others by the Mobile Advertiser and Register, which says:—

"We published a week ago an article from the Richmond Whig upon the subject of the mysterious disappearance, at Vicksburg, in January, 1863, of Lieutenant John Herndon Maury, of the Confederate Army, a son of Commodore M. F. Maury, at that time serving upon the staff of his relative, Major-General Dabney H. Maury.

"On the day when that article appeared—that is, on Sunday last—a stranger called at the office of this paper and stated that he had some information upon the subject of the mysterious disappearance of the young officer.

"This gentleman gave his name as W. H. Harris, of Louisiana, formerly in the Confederate service as a scout, under the orders of General Stephen D. Lee.

"None of the editorial corps of the Advertiser and Register were in when Mr. Harris called. A memorandum of the information given by him was hastily taken by one of the clerks of the office. It is very imperfect and unsatisfactory. and we have refrained from publishing it in the hope of learning something more upon the subject, but have not been able to do so.

"Mr. Harris states, according to this memorandum, that Lieutenant Maury was captured by a party of the enemy and taken across the Mississippi River, and that he was then shot, or, in other words, murdered, by order of one Griffin, a deserter from the Confederate Service.

"He says that six balls were shot through his body, and that he was buried on the spot, about eight miles below Vicksburg, on the opposite bank of the river."

Many attempts have been made by Maury's family to communicate with this Mr. Harris; but he has never been heard from since.

If any one who reads this book can throw any light upon the awful fate of this young officer, in God's name let them communicate without further delay with his sister, Mrs. S. W. Corbin, of Farley vale, near Fredericksburg, Virginia!