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The Skeleton in the Closet by J. Thomas Darragh

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 the outside.

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 autumn closed.

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 misfortune.

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 fainted away.

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 so—and 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 corks.”

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 horse—that white Messenger colt old Williams bred—went 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 my table.

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 people—but 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 flight.

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 knife—for you see it was a knife, by that time—had 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 its duty!

 
 
 

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