Walt Bowie: A Story of the Secret Service

Ray Stannard Baker

McClure’s Magazine/December, 1898

At the head of the Government Secret Service during the Civil War was Brigadier General Lafayette C. Baker, and serving with him intimately was his cousin, my father, Major J. Stannard Baker. My father has told me many stories of the adventures of himself and the other men of the Secret Service, and the following is one of them, given here in substantially the words and form in which he related it.

Running the picket lines during the early years of the Civil War was not confined wholly to avaricious speculators and poor whites. There were Snowdens, Camerons, Milburns, and Bowies among the number, and they rode and scouted, carried mail, and captured horses, with all the dash and spirit of the Southern blood. They were familiar with the country roads of Maryland and Virginia, and they knew the best crossings and fords of the Potomac. If they were trapped within the Federal lines, they appealed for protection at the nearest plantation, the owner of which was more than likely to be a cousin or an uncle, and when the searchers appeared, they were stowed safely away in an attic or hay-loft, and there they remained until danger was past. They were all dashing, reckless young fellows, the prodigal sons of respectable families, to whom the war came as a license for lawlessness.

One of the best known of these young marauders was Captain Walter W.W. Bowie. He was born in Maryland, near Lower Marlborough, his mother being one of the historic Snowden family. On his father’s side he was related to the famous Colonel James Bowie, duelist and companion of Crockett, who gave his name to the Bowie knife. Before the war opened Captain Bowie had made a reputation as a hard rider and a hard drinker, and there were few of the people of Maryland who did not know him. He is described as being above medium height, with dark, curly hair, dark eyes, a handsome face, and the manners of an accomplished gallant. At the outbreak of hostilities he was commissioned captain by General J. E. B. Stuart. He served for some time with the guerrilla bands of eastern Virginia, and then began his clandestine excursions through the Federal lines. The guerrillas could be driven off or captured, but Bowie was as nimble as a flea, and his stings were quite as frequent and irritating. For the whole of one season he demoralized several counties in central Maryland. The authorities at Washington sent out a number of expeditions to capture him, but he invariably eluded them, two or three times under the most desperate circumstances. Mrs. Surratt, who kept a tavern at Surrattville, and who was afterward famous for her connection with the Booth conspiracy, knew him well.

“You’ll never get Walt Bowie,” she told the detectives of the Secret Service; “he has a charmed life; you can neither capture nor kill him,” and she expressed the belief of many of the people of lower Maryland.

One dark night in the spring of 1863, Bowie was surrounded by a cavalry detachment on the banks of the Potomac, some miles above Port Tobacco. The lieutenant in command dismounted his men, and advanced cautiously through a strip of pine woods. They closed in and captured Bowie’s horse and a quantity of contraband goods, but Bowie himself had mysteriously disappeared. They spread out, and began to beat for him through the bushes. Half an hour later they found their lieutenant lying face upward in the weeds, with Captain Walt Bowie’s knife in his breast.

After this incident the case was referred by the War Department to General L. C. Baker of the Secret Service Bureau, and Traill was assigned the task of capturing Bowie. It seems that Traill and Bowie had been friends before the war, and in some way, best known to themselves, a mortal enmity had sprung up between them. Traill never told me the exact particulars, but I know that Bowie had threatened to shoot him on sight.

After several weeks of watching, Traill learned that Bowie was accustomed to visit the home of Colonel James H. Waring, one of the best known planters of southern Maryland. Bowie’s mother was distantly related to the Warings, as, indeed, she was related to many of the older families of the South. Colonel Waring’s house stood on a picturesque knoll, around which crooked the Patuxent River, leaving only a small neck of land to connect it with other parts of the plantation. The especial attraction which drew Bowie into this dangerous trap was Colonel Waring’s daughter, whom he had known before the war. Traill learned that he had made arrangements to pay one of his regular visits on the night of July 14, 1863.

General Baker at once detailed Odell, Brant, and me to go with Traill and make an arrest. We prepared the expedition with unusual caution, choosing the best and freshest horses we could get, and arming ourselves with two revolvers each.

It was past midnight when we rode through the gateway of the Waring plantation. We tethered our horses in a grove of trees at some distance from the drive, leaving them ready saddled and bridled in case of need. Then we crept up cautiously toward the house. We understood without specific orders that we were to shoot anyone who failed to halt on command.

Traill and I went to the front of the house, and Brant and Odell to the rear. I waited below in the walk and watched the windows while Traill thundered on the iron knocker. In a moment the whole plantation sprung into life. Dogs began to bark, negroes ran shouting from their quarters, and lights began to flash out one by one in the upper windows. Traill knocked again more violently, and presently an aged negro woman with white, kinky hair unbarred the door and started back, gasping, when we crowded in.

“Is Walt Bowie here?” demanded Traill.

“Dunno, massa; yain’t seed nothin’ ob him, massa.”

Traill remained at the front door questioning the negro, and I went down the long hallway and opened the back door, so as to establish communication with Odell and Brant. It was dark, and as I stepped out on the porch I stumbled over the prostrate body of a little house negro curled on the doorstep fast asleep. I seized him just as he was squirming away, and brought him sharply around, so that the light shone in his face.

“Where’s Walt Bowie?” I asked.

“He done come las’ night” and then he must have caught sight of a warning finger from some of the negroes who were gathering on the porch, for his tongue froze with fright and we could get nothing further out of him.

Brant and Odell were stationed outside of the house, and Traill and I began the search inside. We worked from the cellar to the attic, opening every closet and looking up the chimneys. At every step we were hindered in our search by the Waring house-negroes. They seemed half-frightened out of their senses; they stumbled aimlessly up and down the stairways, huddled in corners, and blocked the passageways. At that time we laid their peculiar actions wholly to abject terror, and Traill finally ordered them all into the big plantation dining-room, to remain until morning, although he came in later in the night. The white women of the family assembled in the parlor, and watched the search with apparent calmness, although their faces were pale.

In the room occupied by Colonel Waring’s daughter we discovered some important rebel mail, secreted between the mattresses of the bed, and in an adjoining room we found a handsome uniform belonging to a Confederate captain of cavalry, together with a saber and sash, two bowie-knives, and a handsome double-barreled gun with the name “Walter W.W. Bowie” engraved on the shoulder-plate. This gun played a most important part in Bowie’s subsequent history.

The presence of these personal belongings of Captain Bowie convinced us that he was secreted somewhere in the house; but search as we would, we could not find him. At last Traill called us together outside, and after a consultation we determined to keep watch until daylight, hoping that we might get Bowie when he left the house. Odell placed himself in the center of the isthmus formed by the crook in the Patuxent River, thus cutting off all egress from the house by land. Brant concealed himself immediately in front of the wide piazza, and Traill and I took our positions just behind the house, near a pathway that led down to the spring. Through a clump of leafy bushes we could command a clear view of every window and door at the back of the house without exposing ourselves. We dared give Bowie no opportunity for pistol play.

Just as morning was breaking, the back door was opened cautiously, and the red-turbaned head of an old negro auntie was thrust out. She looked this way and that, and, seeing nothing to alarm her, she stepped out on the porch and swung a small tub to her head. Following her came two other negro women carrying water-buckets. Straight down the pathway to the spring they came, swinging close together and glancing fearfully from side to side. Traill and I stepped out suddenly before them with our revolvers in our hands. At sight of us, two of the women started and cried out, but the third, with a low warning, dragged them along.

“Don’ shoot, massa!” begged one of the women; “don’ shoot! We’s only poo’ niggahs.”

It happened that both of us were exceedingly thirsty. We had worked all the sultry July night with nothing to drink, and we had not dared to desert our posts long enough to go to the spring. So we parted and let the three women go by, urging them to hurry back with the water. Just as they were disappearing in the half-light of the early morning, I saw one of the women drop her bucket and run. Instantly the ruse flashed upon me, and I went hot all over—one of the women was Walt Bowie.

We turned instantly and tore through the bushes toward the river shore. At the spring we found two of the negro women, but the third was missing. Thirty yards farther down, concealed in a clump of pines, we captured Bowie’s horse, saddled and bridled, left there for just such an emergency. More hopefully we spread out through the bushes, confident now that we should corner our prey somewhere on the river bank. We were both thoroughly alert, for we knew well enough what a fighter Walt Bowie at bay would be. Odell and Brant soon joined us, and we trusted no clump of bushes nor fallen log until we were sure that Bowie was not behind it.

Presently a shout came from Odell. I was near him on his right, and I ran through the bushes to his assistance. Odell was holding up a long, loose wrapper, such as negro women wore. He had found it entangled in one of the bushes where Bowie, hampered by its clinging folds, had thrown it off. We paused only a moment, and then plunged down the bank, calling for the other men to follow. The sun had not yet risen, and a soft mist hung over the river and filled the valley.

In the slushy sand close to the water’s edge we found two fresh footprints, and the shallows of the river itself were still stringy with mud where they had been disturbed. But we peered in vain out upon the misty water for signs of a swimmer’s head. Bowie was gone.

We stood there for a moment and looked at one another foolishly. We had been duped by the man whom we had come out to capture, and we were tired and hungry and thirsty.

Traill recovered first. Although he was a man of few words, he swore roundly, and declared that he was going after Bowie.

“I’ll catch him yet,” he said.

We argued with him that it would be useless to try to trace him now that he was alarmed, but Traill was obdurate.

“You fellows go back if you care to,” he said; “I’m going after Bowie.”

After I knew of the feud, I understood the almost frantic haste with which he ran up the hill, mounted his horse, and galloped away up the road.

Odell, Brant, and I returned to Washington, thoroughly dejected. Two days later Traill came in. He was gaunt and dirty and silent; we forbore asking him if he had captured Walt Bowie. Since our return the gun which we captured at the Waring place had stood in one corner of General Baker’s office. Traill’s eye fell on it almost as soon as he entered the room. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand. “I’ d like to have this gun,” he said.

“You can’t use it in the service,” objected the General.

“If you’ll give me this gun I’ll use it,” he said, significantly.

Traill might not have believed that Bowie’s life was charmed, but he was a Virginian, brought up among conjuring negroes, and doubtless he knew the old superstition that only the weapon of a “charmed” person is effective against the charm. And he took Bowie’s gun.

About this time I became an officer in the First District of Columbia Cavalry, then being organized by General Baker, and for several months I lost sight of Traill. On my return to Washington early in 1864, I met him at the Secret Service headquarters, and he told me the story of his subsequent search for Bowie, which was further amplified by the General.

After our failure in July, Traill kept to the scent with all the pertinacity of a bloodhound. I saw a note which Bowie had left for Traill. It was scrawled on yellow wrapping-paper, and it read something like this:

“Tell Traill that if he comes into lower Maryland again he will get shot. B.”

Traill carried this slip in an inside pocket all of that summer and fall. And Bowie kept growing bolder and bolder. He would appear suddenly in central Maryland with four or five men, loot a store, gather in a string of horses, and escape across the Potomac before the Union forces knew what had happened. And that was at a time when the Federal War Department flattered itself on the perfect impregnability of its lines. Indeed, it was said that Bowie himself had begun to believe in his own immunity from bullets and arrest, and he hunted Traill with almost as much enthusiasm as Traill hunted him. They tracked each other all over Maryland, each trying to get the other at a disadvantage. The General told me that Traill grew thin and haggard under the strain and that he would hardly answer when spoken to.

One day about the middle of December, Traill came in after an unusually long absence, and held a conference with his chief. Early the following morning he rode out across the navy-yard bridge with two revolvers in his holsters and Bowie’s gun thrown across the pommel of his saddle. He chose little-known roads and cow-paths, and kept well in toward the Potomac River. Upon nearing a little cross-roads known as Booneville, he led his horse across the fields and tied it in an old tobacco-house. Here he remained concealed until nightfall. He had made arrangements with a friend named Carton, who lived in the neighborhood, to keep a sharp watch for Bowie. Carton’s enmity had been fired by the loss of numerous horses and mules, and he had lain flat on his face in the hog-pines for two days watching Bowie’s movements.

When it was quite dark, Traill went down into the woods, crossed an old swale, and whistled sharply. The signal was answered, and Carton appeared a moment later. He was shivering with cold and fright. He told Traill that Bowie had passed him on his way to the Potomac not two hours before. He had two men and eight or ten horses with him.

On the supposition that Bowie intended to escape at once into Virginia, Traill, followed by Carton, ran down the road, hoping to intercept him before he crossed the river. The track was blind with pine shoots and fallen logs, and the darkness of a cloudy night was rendered even denser by the thickets which crowded up to the road on both sides. They tripped and fell a dozen times in the first mile, and then they went more cautiously for fear of alarming Bowie and his men, should they be concealed somewhere in the woods. After nearly an hour of exhausting pursuit, Traill dropped on his knees, scratched a match, and carefully examined the track. There was not a sign of horses’ hoofs. Carton could not explain the mystery, but he insisted that the road did not branch anywhere in its course from the old plantation to the river. Traill crept back silently for some distance, and finally found the tracks again. They turned from the road into the woods, where the hog-pines grew so thick that it seemed impossible for a man, much less a horse, to penetrate. Here Carton hung back.

“Bowie’s in there waiting for you,” he said; “and you can’t kill him.”

“Stay where you are, then,” answered Traill, “and see that he don’t shoot you.”

Traill turned from the road, and pushed his way cautiously through the pines. For a space he walked, stooping almost double, with Bowie’s gun thrust out before him; then he dropped on his hands and knees and crawled. If Bowie was watching for him, he knew that he would be lying on the ground in some thicket or behind some log, and he wanted to be ready for him. Bowie might have taken this very means for hunting his hunter. The dense darkness of the night was in Traill’s favor, although in the stillness of the woods every twig that snapped under his knees sounded like the report of a pistol.

In this way he crawled for twenty rods or more, and then of a sudden he looked up and saw through a rift in the pine thicket a glimmer of light against the black foliage of a group of larger pines beyond. Then he knew that Bowie had built a fire and camped. Still more cautiously he wriggled along the moist ground, always keeping the gun, ready cocked, before him.

Thirty paces farther on he emerged from the thicket into an open space, in the center of which he could see the faint glimmer of a camp-fire. A moment later he was startled by the restless stirring of horses. He had not counted on this interference, although he knew that Bowie depended on his horses to give notice of the approach of enemies. He lay still for a long quarter hour, until the horses were quiet again, and then he wriggled forward, feeling his way, and throwing aside every twig that might snap under his weight. And thus he came presently to a stump about twenty feet from the fire. Here he raised up just a little. He saw the dark forms of the horses picketed in a bunch some little distance to his right. Between them and the fire lay three figures closely wrapped in blankets with their heads on their saddles. Three pairs of cavalry boots were suspended bottom down over the fire to dry. There was no means of telling which of the men was Bowie; as they lay there they looked exactly alike. So Traill decided to capture them. He would rather have taken Bowie than any man in the Confederacy. He thought he could pounce on him while he was asleep and get his revolver, although he knew that Bowie never would submit without a fight, and, knowing Bowie, he knew what such a fight would be. He cared nothing for the other men; they were mere hostlers for the captured horses, and he knew they would submit readily enough if their chief was taken.

Traill left the protection of the stump, and wriggled forward again toward the fire. His eyes never left the three blanketed figures. When he was a man’s length away from their feet he raised to his hands and knees, and made ready to spring upon them. But he had not counted on the horses. At sight of him they lunged back, snorting with fright. Instantly the three men were on their feet. They stood facing the horses, and Traill was behind them. In the darkness he could not tell which was Bowie, and he would take no chances. He rose swiftly to his feet and brought the gun to his shoulder. It was already cocked.

“Walt Bowie!” he shouted.

Bowie whirled. “

Traill!” he said, and fired both revolvers.

At the same instant Traill’s fingers closed on the triggers of Bowie’s gun. Both barrels went off at once. Bowie’s head dropped back, and he fell face downward by the fire. When Traill reached him he was dead. The next day Traill rode into Washington’ with two prisoners and the personal effects of Walt Bowie. He was begrimed with dust, and his eyes were dark and hollow. He set Bowie’s gun in a corner behind the General’s desk.

“I’m through with that,” he said, in his drawling voice.

“Where’s Walt Bowie?” asked the General.

“Shot him,” said Traill.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s