Tuesday, May 15, 2012
|Basil Duke in 1875|
I at once realized that I was in the hands of a vigilance committee and, in the phrase of that day, "suspected of being a suspicious character." It was by no means a pleasant situation; my hair bristled and I was fairly chilled. It was fortunate, perhaps, that I had left my revolver in the state-room, for in the excitement and consternation I felt, I might have attempted to use it, in which event I would certainly have been killed. The committee, six or seven in number, were seated just in front of the bar. I was not invited to take a seat and remained standing.
There was perfect silence for perhaps a minute, by which time I had recovered my composure.
"I understand, gentlemen," I said, "that you sent for me to pass a social evening with you, but you evidently had some other reason. I shall be glad to know what you wish and your purpose."
The chairman was an elderly man, rather deaf. I heartily wished before he stopped talking that he had been born dumb.
"Mr. Duke," he said, "you came here from Cairo, which is occupied by Yankee soldiers. You have told three or four different stories to account for your presence here, and they can't all be true. We think that you are a Yankee spy, and if we become satisfied that you are one we are going to hand you."
I frankly admitted that none of the explanations of my visit to New Madrid, previously given, were correct; and then gave them the real reason, telling them of the instructions I had received from Governor Jackson and how far they had already been carried into effect. I further told them that I was hourly expecting the arrival of the Swan.
"Now, gentlemen," I said, "you can readily understand why in previous conversations I was unwilling to make this statement. If my real business had transpired the object of my mission might have been defeated. I would not be thus frank with you now if my life were not threatened, and also if I did not believe you to be Southern men. But if you are really Southern men, as you claim to be, you will help instead of hanging me."
The chairman remarked that this was very pretty talk, but that he did not credit a word of it. "A fellow will say almost anything to save his life, and you acknowledge that you have already lied to us." He repeated his belief that I was a spy.
I answered, rather indignantly, that there was nothing at New Madrid to inivite the visit of a spy. "I have already told you," I said, "that the Swan will soon be here. You know her captain. If he doesn't verify what I have told you, why hand me. You can easily guard me and prevent my escape. Even if I should get free I couldn't reach Cairo if you tried to prevent me. At least give me twenty-four hours to prove the truth of my story. If the Swan does not reach here by that time, act as you please."
The chairman was still obdurate. He insisted that they could not afford to take any risk and that I ought to be put out of the way. So far no other member of the committee had uttered a word, but all had remained, in appearance, as stolid as statues. Now, however, one of them spoke up very emphatically. His name, I think, was Louis Walters. He was about thirty years of age, a very handsome man, and six feet two or three inches in height. During my brief stay in town I had seen more of him than any one else. He suddenly sprang to his feet, with blazing eyes and his grip on a revolver, and delivered what I thought to be the finest speech I had ever heard. "I believe," he said, "everything this young fellow now tells us. I can perfectly comprehend why he at first attempted to deceive us. He would have been a fool and false to his trust if he had dropped an intimation why he came here or said anything which might induce suspicion of his real purpose. At any rate, it would be plain murder to hang a man who offers to furnish, in a few hours, proof of his innocence - evidence which we will be compelled to believe. He must have the twenty-four hours he asks, and more, if necessary. No one is more determined than myself to execute the proper work of this committee, but before you shall hang a man without giving him a chance you must first kill me."
It was perhaps imprudent and not in the best taste, but I could not refrain from expressing my hearty approval of these remarks. There was an immediate and general endorsement - with the exception of the chairman - of the position taken by Walters; and it was determined that I should be kept under, guard, but treated kindly, pending the arrival of the Swan. The committee remained on the wharf-boat about an hour longer, but that time was devoted to convivial enjoyment, and even the chairman tried to be agreeable. I returned to my quarters, but the two men who had acted as guards while my examination was being conducted, were detailed to watch each door of the state-room. They remained outside, however, in order not to disturb my sleep.-The Civil War Reminiscences of General Basil W. Duke, C.S.A.