The Skeleton in
the Closet by J.
This paper was first published in the Galaxy, in 1866.
I see that an old chum of mine is publishing bits of confidential
Confederate History in Harper's Magazine. It would seem to be time,
then, for the pivots to be disclosed on which some of the wheelwork of
the last six years has been moving. The science of history, as I
understand it, depends on the timely disclosure of such pivots, which
are apt to be kept out of view while things are moving.
I was in the Civil Service at Richmond. Why I was there, or what I
did, is nobody's affair. And I do not in this paper propose to tell how
it happened that I was in New York in October, 1864, on confidential
business. Enough that I was there, and that it was honest business.
That business done, as far as it could be with the resources intrusted
to me, I prepared to return home. And thereby hangs this tale, and, as
it proved, the fate of the Confederacy.
For, of course, I wanted to take presents home to my family. Very
little question was there what these presents should be,for I had no
boys nor brothers. The women of the Confederacy had one want, which
overtopped all others. They could make coffee out of beans; pins they
had from Columbus; straw hats they braided quite well with their own
fair hands; snuff we could get better than you could in the old
concern. But we had no hoop-skirts,skeletons, we used to call them.
No ingenuity had made them. No bounties had forced them. The Bat, the
Greyhound, the Deer, the Flora, the J. C. Cobb, the Varuna, and the
Fore-and-Aft all took in cargoes of them for us in England. But the Bat
and the Deer and the Flora were seized by the blockaders, the J. C.
Cobb sunk at sea, the Fore-and-Aft and the Greyhound were set fire to
by their own crews, and the Varuna (our Varuna) was never heard of.
Then the State of Arkansas offered sixteen townships of swamp land to
the first manufacturer who would exhibit five gross of a
home-manufactured article. But no one ever competed. The first
attempts, indeed, were put to an end, when Schofield crossed the Blue
Lick, and destroyed the dams on Yellow Branch. The consequence was,
that people's crinoline collapsed faster than the Confederacy did, of
which that brute of a Grierson said there was never anything of it but
Of course, then, I put in the bottom of my new large trunk in New
York, not a duplex elliptic, for none were then made, but a
Belmonte, of thirty springs, for my wife. I bought, for her more
common wear, a good Belle-Fontaine. For Sarah and Susy each, I got
two Dumb-Belles. For Aunt Eunice and Aunt Clara, maiden sisters of my
wife, who lived with us after Winchester fell the fourth time, I got
the Scotch Harebell, two of each. For my own mother I got one Belle
of the Prairies and one Invisible Combination Gossamer. I did not
forget good old Mamma Chloe and Mamma Jane. For them I got substantial
cages, without names. With these, tied in the shapes of figure eights
in the bottom of my trunk, as I said, I put in an assorted cargo of
dry-goods above, and, favored by a pass, and Major Mulford's courtesy
on the flag-of-truce boat, I arrived safely at Richmond before the
I was received at home with rapture. But when, the next morning, I
opened my stores, this became rapture doubly enraptured. Words cannot
tell the silent delight with which old and young, black and white,
surveyed these fairy-like structures, yet unbroken and unmended.
Perennial summer reigned that autumn day in that reunited family. It
reigned the next day, and the next. It would have reigned till now if
the Belmontes and the other things would last as long as the
advertisements declare; and, what is more, the Confederacy would have
reigned till now, President Davis and General Lee! but for that great
misery, which all families understand, which culminated in our great
I was up in the cedar closet one day, looking for an old parade cap
of mine, which I thought, though it was my third best, might look
better than my second best, which I had worn ever since my best was
lost at the Seven Pines. I say I was standing on the lower shelf of the
cedar closet, when, as I stepped along in the darkness, my right foot
caught in a bit of wire, my left did not give way in time, and I fell,
with a small wooden hat-box in my hand, full on the floor. The corner
of the hat-box struck me just below the second frontal sinus, and I
When I came to myself I was in the blue chamber; I had vinegar on a
brown paper on my forehead; the room was dark, and I found mother
sitting by me, glad enough indeed to hear my voice, and to know that I
knew her. It was some time before I fully understood what had happened.
Then she brought me a cup of tea, and I, quite refreshed, said I must
go to the office.
Office, my child! said she. Your leg is broken above the ankle;
you will not move these six weeks. Where do you suppose you are?
Till then I had no notion that it was five minutes since I went into
the closet. When she told me the time, five in the afternoon, I groaned
in the lowest depths. For, in my breast pocket in that innocent coat,
which I could now see lying on the window-seat, were the duplicate
despatches to Mr. Mason, for which, late the night before, I had got
the Secretary's signature. They were to go at ten that morning to
Wilmington, by the Navy Department's special messenger. I had taken
them to insure care and certainty. I had worked on them till midnight,
and they had not been signed till near one o'clock. Heavens and earth,
and here it was five o'clock! The man must be half-way to Wilmington by
this time. I sent the doctor for Lafarge, my clerk. Lafarge did his
prettiest in rushing to the telegraph. But no! A freshet on the Chowan
River, or a raid by Foster, or something, or nothing, had smashed the
telegraph wire for that night. And before that despatch ever reached
Wilmington the navy agent was in the offing in the Sea Maid.
But perhaps the duplicate got through? No, breathless reader, the
duplicate did not get through. The duplicate was taken by Faucon, in
the Ino. I saw it last week in Dr. Lieber's hands, in Washington. Well,
all I know is, that if the duplicate had got through, the Confederate
government would have had in March a chance at eighty-three thousand
two hundred and eleven muskets, which, as it was, never left Belgium.
So much for my treading into that blessed piece of wire on the shelf of
the cedar closet, up stairs.
What was the bit of wire?
Well, it was not telegraph wire. If it had been, it would have
broken when it was not wanted to. Don't you know what it was? Go up in
your own cedar closet, and step about in the dark, and see what brings
up round your ankles. Julia, poor child, cried her eyes out about it.
When I got well enough to sit up, and as soon as I could talk and plan
with her, she brought down seven of these old things, antiquated
Belmontes and Simplex Elliptics, and horrors without a name, and she
made a pile of them in the bedroom, and asked me in the most penitent
way what she should do with them.
You can't burn them, said she; fire won't touch them. If you bury
them in the garden, they come up at the second raking. If you give them
to the servants, they say, 'Thank-e, missus,' and throw them in the
back passage. If you give them to the poor, they throw them into the
street in front, and do not say, 'Thank-e.' Sarah sent seventeen over
to the sword factory, and the foreman swore at the boy, and told him he
would flog him within an inch of his life if he brought any more of his
sauce there; and soand so, sobbed the poor child, I just rolled up
these wretched things, and laid them in the cedar closet, hoping, you
know, that some day the government would want something, and would
advertise for them. You know what a good thing I made out of the bottle
In fact, she had sold our bottle corks for four thousand two hundred
and sixteen dollars of the first issue. We afterward bought two
umbrellas and a corkscrew with the money.
Well, I did not scold Julia. It was certainly no fault of hers that
I was walking on the lower shelf of her cedar closet. I told her to
make a parcel of the things, and the first time we went to drive I hove
the whole shapeless heap into the river, without saying mass for them.
But let no man think, or no woman, that this was the end of
troubles. As I look back on that winter, and on the spring of 1865 (I
do not mean the steel spring), it seems to me only the beginning. I got
out on crutches at last; I had the office transferred to my house, so
that Lafarge and Hepburn could work there nights, and communicate with
me when I could not go out; but mornings I hobbled up to the
Department, and sat with the Chief, and took his orders. Ah me! shall I
soon forget that damp winter morning, when we all had such hope at the
office. One or two of the army fellows looked in at the window as they
ran by, and we knew that they felt well; and though I would not ask Old
Wick, as we had nicknamed the Chief, what was in the wind, I knew the
time had come, and that the lion meant to break the net this time. I
made an excuse to go home earlier than usual; rode down to the house in
the Major's ambulance, I remember; and hopped in, to surprise Julia
with the good news, only to find that the whole house was in that quiet
uproar which shows that something bad has happened of a sudden.
What is it, Chloe? said I, as the old wench rushed by me with a
bucket of water.
Poor Mr. George, I 'fraid he's dead, sah!
And there he really was,dear handsome, bright George Schaff,the
delight of all the nicest girls of Richmond; he lay there on Aunt
Eunice's bed on the ground floor, where they had brought him in. He was
not dead,and he did not die. He is making cotton in Texas now. But he
looked mighty near it then. The deep cut in his head was the worst I
then had ever seen, and the blow confused everything. When McGregor got
round, he said it was not hopeless; but we were all turned out of the
room, and with one thing and another he got the boy out of the swoon,
and somehow it proved his head was not broken.
No, but poor George swears to this day it were better it had been,
if it could only have been broken the right way and on the right field.
For that evening we heard that everything had gone wrong in the
surprise. There we had been waiting for one of those early fogs, and at
last the fog had come. And Jubal Early had, that morning, pushed out
every man he had, that could stand; and they lay hid for three mortal
hours, within I don't know how near the picket line at Fort Powhatan,
only waiting for the shot which John Streight's party were to fire at
Wilson's Wharf, as soon as somebody on our left centre advanced in
force on the enemy's line above Turkey Island stretching across to
Nansemond. I am not in the War Department, and I forget whether he was
to advance en barbette or by échelon of infantry. But he
was to advance somehow, and he knew how; and when he advanced, you see,
that other man lower down was to rush in, and as soon as Early heard
him he was to surprise Powhatan, you see; and then, if you have
understood me, Grant and Butler and the whole rig of them would have
been cut off from their supplies, would have had to fight a battle for
which they were not prepared, with their right made into a new left,
and their old left unexpectedly advanced at an oblique angle from their
centre, and would not that have been the end of them?
Well, that never happened. And the reason it never happened was,
that poor George Schaff, with the last fatal order for this man whose
name I forget (the same who was afterward killed the day before High
Bridge), undertook to save time by cutting across behind my house, from
Franklin to Green Streets. You know how much time he saved,they
waited all day for that order. George told me afterwards that the last
thing he remembered was kissing his hand to Julia, who sat at her
bedroom window. He said he thought she might be the last woman he ever
saw this side of heaven. Just after that, it must have been,his
horsethat white Messenger colt old Williams bredwent over like a
log, and poor George was pitched fifteen feet head-foremost against a
stake there was in that lot. Julia saw the whole. She rushed out with
all the women, and had just brought him in when I got home. And that
was the reason that the great promised combination of December, 1864,
never came off at all.
I walked out in the lot, after McGregor turned me out of the
chamber, to see what they had done with the horse. There he lay, as
dead as old Messenger himself. His neck was broken. And do you think, I
looked to see what had tripped him. I supposed it was one of the boys'
bandy holes. It was no such thing. The poor wretch had tangled his hind
legs in one of those infernal hoop-wires that Chloe had thrown out in
the piece when I gave her her new ones. Though I did not know it then,
those fatal scraps of rusty steel had broken the neck that day of
Robert Lee's army.
That time I made a row about it. I felt too badly to go into a
passion. But before the women went to bed,they were all in the
sitting-room together,I talked to them like a father. I did not
swear. I had got over that for a while, in that six weeks on my back.
But I did say the old wires were infernal things, and that the house
and premises must be made rid of them. The aunts laughed,though I was
so serious,and tipped a wink to the girls. The girls wanted to laugh,
but were afraid to. And then it came out that the aunts had sold their
old hoops, tied as tight as they could tie them, in a great mass of
rags. They had made a fortune by the sale,I am sorry to say it was in
other rags, but the rags they got were new instead of old,it was a
real Aladdin bargain. The new rags had blue backs, and were numbered,
some as high as fifty dollars. The rag-man had been in a hurry, and had
not known what made the things so heavy. I frowned at the swindle, but
they said all was fair with a pedler,and I own I was glad the things
were well out of Richmond. But when I said I thought it was a mean
trick, Lizzie and Sarah looked demure, and asked what in the world I
would have them do with the old things. Did I expect them to walk down
to the bridge themselves with great parcels to throw into the river, as
I had done by Julia's? Of course it ended, as such things always do, by
my taking the work on my own shoulders. I told them to tie up all they
had in as small a parcel as they could, and bring them to me.
Accordingly, the next day, I found a handsome brown paper parcel,
not so very large, considering, and strangely square, considering,
which the minxes had put together and left on my office table. They had
a great frolic over it. They had not spared red tape nor red wax. Very
official it looked, indeed, and on the left-hand corner, in Sarah's
boldest and most contorted hand, was written, Secret service. We had
a great laugh over their success. And, indeed, I should have taken it
with me the next time I went down to the Tredegar, but that I happened
to dine one evening with young Norton of our gallant little navy, and a
very curious thing he told us.
We were talking about the disappointment of the combined land
attack. I did not tell what upset poor Schaff's horse; indeed, I do not
think those navy men knew the details of the disappointment. O'Brien
had told me, in confidence, what I have written down probably for the
first time now. But we were speaking, in a general way, of the
disappointment. Norton finished his cigar rather thoughtfully, and then
said: Well, fellows, it is not worth while to put in the newspapers,
but what do you suppose upset our grand naval attack, the day the
Yankee gunboats skittled down the river so handsomely?
Why, said Allen, who is Norton's best-beloved friend, they say
that you ran away from them as fast as they did from you.
Do they? said Norton, grimly. If you say that, I'll break your
head for you. Seriously, men, continued he, that was a most
extraordinary thing. You know I was on the ram. But why she stopped
when she stopped I knew as little as this wineglass does; and Callender
himself knew no more than I. We had not been hit. We were all right as
a trivet for all we knew, when, skree! she began blowing off steam, and
we stopped dead, and began to drift down under those batteries.
Callender had to telegraph to the little Mosquito, or whatever Walter
called his boat, and the spunky little thing ran down and got us out of
the scrape. Walter did it right well; if he had had a monitor under him
he could not have done better. Of course we all rushed to the
engine-room. What in thunder were they at there? All they knew was they
could get no water into her boiler.
Now, fellows, this is the end of the story. As soon as the boilers
cooled off they worked all right on those supply pumps. May I be hanged
if they had not sucked in, somehow, a long string of yarn, and cloth,
and, if you will believe me, a wire of some woman's crinoline. And that
French folly of a sham Empress cut short that day the victory of the
Confederate navy, and old Davis himself can't tell when we shall have
such a chance again!
Some of the men thought Norton lied. But I never was with him when
he did not tell the truth. I did not mention, however, what I had
thrown into the water the last time I had gone over to Manchester. And
I changed my mind about Sarah's secret-service parcel. It remained on
That was the last dinner our old club had at the Spotswood, I
believe. The spring came on, and the plot thickened. We did our work in
the office as well as we could; I can speak for mine, and if other
peoplebut no matter for that! The 3d of April came, and the fire, and
the right wing of Grant's army. I remember I was glad then that I had
moved the office down to the house, for we were out of the way there.
Everybody had run away from the Department; and so, when the powers
that be took possession, my little sub-bureau was unmolested for some
days. I improved those days as well as I could,burning carefully what
was to be burned, and hiding carefully what was to be hidden. One thing
that happened then belongs to this story. As I was at work on the
private bureau,it was really a bureau, as it happened, one I had made
Aunt Eunice give up when I broke my leg,I came, to my horror, on a
neat parcel of coast-survey maps of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. They
were not the same Maury stole when he left the National Observatory,
but they were like them. Now I was perfectly sure that on that fatal
Sunday of the flight I had sent Lafarge for these, that the President
might use them, if necessary, in his escape. When I found them, I
hopped out and called for Julia, and asked her if she did not remember
his coming for them. Certainly, she said, it was the first I knew of
the danger. Lafarge came, asked for the key of the office, told me all
was up, walked in, and in a moment was gone.
And here, on the file of April 3d, was Lafarge's line to me:
I got the secret-service parcel myself, and have put it in the
President's own hands. I marked it, 'Gulf coast,' as you bade me.
What could Lafarge have given to the President? Not the soundings of
Hatteras Bar. Not the working-drawings of the first monitor. I had all
these under my hand. Could it be,Julia, what did we do with that
stuff of Sarah's that she marked secret service?
As I live, we had sent the girls' old hoops to the President in his
And when the next day we read how he used them, and how Pritchard
arrested him, we thought if he had only had the right parcel he would
have found the way to Florida.
That is really the end of this memoir. But I should not have written
it, but for something that happened just now on the piazza. You must
know, some of us wrecks are up here at the Berkeley baths. My uncle has
a place near here. Here came to-day John Sisson, whom I have not seen
since Memminger ran and took the clerks with him. Here we had before,
both the Richards brothers, the great paper men, you know, who started
the Edgerly Works in Prince George's County, just after the war began.
After dinner, Sisson and they met on the piazza. Queerly enough, they
had never seen each other before, though they had used reams of
Richards's paper in correspondence with each other, and the treasury
had used tons of it in the printing of bonds and bank-bills. Of course
we all fell to talking of old times,old they seem now, though it is
not a year ago. Richards, said Sisson at last, what became of that
last order of ours for water-lined, pure linen government-callendered
paper of sureté? We never got it, and I never knew why.
Did you think Kilpatrick got it? said Richards, rather gruffly.
None of your chaff, Richards. Just tell where the paper went, for
in the loss of that lot of paper, as it proved, the bottom dropped out
of the Treasury tub. On that paper was to have been printed our new
issue of ten per cent, convertible, you know, and secured on that
up-country cotton, which Kirby Smith had above the Big Raft. I had the
printers ready for near a month waiting for that paper. The plates were
really very handsome. I'll show you a proof when we go up stairs.
Wholly new they were, made by some Frenchmen we got, who had worked for
the Bank of France. I was so anxious to have the thing well done, that
I waited three weeks for that paper, and, by Jove, I waited just too
long. We never got one of the bonds off, and that was why we had no
money in March.
Richards threw his cigar away. I will not say he swore between his
teeth, but he twirled his chair round, brought it down on all fours,
both his elbows on his knees and his chin in both hands.
Mr. Sisson, said he, if the Confederacy had lived, I would have
died before I ever told what became of that order of yours. But now I
have no secrets, I believe, and I care for nothing. I do not know now
how it happened. We knew it was an extra nice job. And we had it on an
elegant little new French Fourdrinier, which cost us more than we shall
ever pay. The pretty thing ran like oil the day before. That day, I
thought all the devils were in it. The more power we put on the more
the rollers screamed; and the less we put on, the more sulkily the jade
stopped. I tried it myself every way; back current, I tried; forward
current; high feed; low freed, I tried it on old stock, I tried it on
new; and, Mr. Sisson, I would have made better paper in a coffee-mill!
We drained off every drop of water. We washed the tubs free from size.
Then my brother, there, worked all night with the machinists, taking
down the frame and the rollers. You would not believe it, sir, but that
little bit of wire,and he took out of his pocket a piece of this
hateful steel, which poor I knew so well by this time,that little
bit of wire had passed in from some hoop-skirt, passed the pickers,
passed the screens, through all the troughs, up and down through what
we call the lacerators, and had got itself wrought in, where, if you
know a Fourdrinier machine, you may have noticed a brass ring riveted
to the cross-bar, and there this cursed little knifefor you see it
was a knife, by that timehad been cutting to pieces the endless wire
web every time the machine was started. You lost your bonds, Mr.
Sisson, because some Yankee woman cheated one of my rag-men.
On that story I came up stairs. Poor Aunt Eunice! She was the reason
I got no salary on the 1st of April. I thought I would warn other women
by writing down the story.
That fatal present of mine, in those harmless hourglass parcels, was
the ruin of the Confederate navy, army, ordnance, and treasury; and it
led to the capture of the poor President too.
But, Heaven be praised, no one shall say that my office did not do