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Secrets of a Union spy

Sunday, May 03, 1998

By Mark Roth, Post-Gazette assistant managing editor, issues

It wasn't so much that they had traveled for two days through Confederate territory as spies, wearing the enemy's uniforms.

Or that they had been discovered just before they reached the Chickahominy River and had to plunge into the water with their horses, as Confederate troops closed in.

Archibald Hamilton Rowand Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor, issued by Congress in 1873, for his work as a Union spy.

Or that the bank on the opposite side had been too steep for their horses and they had to let them go; or that they were shot at while they crossed the river, or that they never would have made it if they hadn't found an empty boat floating downstream at just the right time.

No, that wasn't what was bothering Union scouts Archibald Rowand and James Campbell the most.

What was embarrassing them acutely on this March day in 1865 was that they had tied all their clothes on the pommels of their saddles save their knee length undershirts and now they were trudging through the woods of Vitginia, trying to reach Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, with nothing more to show for identification than an unusual amount of bare Union skin.

Arch Rowand, the son of a bookbinder from Allegheny City -- now Pittsburgh's North Side -- would later become one of Pittsburgh's Medal of Honor winners in the Civil War.

A private in the 1st West Virginia Cavalry, Rowand had turned 20 the week before. James Campbell, a private in the 2nd New York Cavalry, was 19.

Like so many who served in the Civil War, they were young in years and old in the ways of battle. Both were members of Gen. Philip Sheridan's "scouts" - a term that encompassed their dual roles as cavalry soldiers and skilled undercover spies.

With nothing on but their dripping undershirts, Rowand and Campbell hiked several miles that day, until they encountered a detachment of Union troops near Harrison's Landing on the James River. The Union pickets graciously decided not to shoot them and supplied them with some ill-fitting uniforms as well.

Tucked inside Campbell's cheek, wrapped inside a ball of foil, was a strip of tissue paper with important tactical information from Sheridan, who was Grant's chief cavalry leader and was helping to close the noose on Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The Rowand brothers, circa June 1912: from left, Asaph Terry, Archibald Hamilton, Frank Parkhill and Thomas Arthur.

Gen. Horace Porter, one of Grant's aides, recounted in his memoirs what happened next.

As Grant and his party sat down for a late supper at City Point, Va., on that Sunday evening, a waiter came into the mess room and told Grant that a man was outside who wanted to see him and him only.

What kind of a man is he? asked Grant. Why, said the servant, he's the most dreadful looking being I ever laid eyes on.

Porter went to check on the visitor. "I found a man outside who was about to sink to the ground from exhaustion, and who had scarcely strength enough to reply to my questions. He had on a pair of soldier's trousers three or four inches too short, and a blouse three sizes too large; he was without a hat, and his appearance was grotesque in the extreme."

It was James Campbell. Arch Rowand didn't look much better.

After Porter took Campbell's message to Grant, the general began to question him. But it so happened that on this evening, Grant was accompanied by his wife and some of her friends.

"The ladies, who had now become intensely interested in the scout, also began to ply him with questions, which were directed at him so thick and fast that he soon found himself in the situation of the outstretched human figure in the almanac, fired at with arrows from every sign of the zodiac. The general soon rose from his seat and said good-naturedly: 'Well, I will never get the information I want from this scout as long as you ladies have him under cross-examination, and I think I had better take him over to my quarters, and see if I cannot have him to myself for a little while.' "

Campbell and Rowand had been up for 48 hours. They had eaten little. They had ridden 145 miles and hiked 11 more.

Needless to say, as soon as their questioning was done, they gratefully accepted clean clothing and real beds. The next day, they were given fresh horses and uniforms, and set out to meet up with Sheridan at White House, Va.

When they got there, Sheridan hadn't arrived at his destination, and so the two, unable "to restrain their spirit of adventure, rode out through the enemy's country . . . until they met their commander," Porter recounted.

Their enthusiasm was part of the great momentum building among the Union forces as they sensed the nearness of the end. The war would be over less than a month later.

Like so many things in my life, I discovered Archibald Hamilton Rowand Jr. on my way to somewhere else.

It began with an article I read in a history magazine on Horace Porter, who was the U.S. ambassador to France at the turn of the century.

Porter became obsessed with finding and recovering the body of Revolutionary War naval hero John Paul Jones, who had died a pauper in Paris and had been buried in a cemetery that no longer existed. The article described how Porter ended up spending his own money to locate the body and ship it back to America.

In passing, the magazine mentioned that Porter had served under Grant in the Civil War and had written a memoir about the experience, "Campaigning With Grant."

The Carnegie Library had a copy of Porter's memoirs, and I decided to give the book a try. It turned out to be literate, full of fascinating stories, and, near the end, it contained the vivid anecdote about Arch Rowand and James Campbell, traipsing half naked through the woods to deliver their vital message.

A photo from Harry Rowand's collection of his grandfather's Civil War memorabilia shows Archibald Rowand, second form left, joined in 1909 by other veterans: from left, John Riley of the Pennsylvania Cavalry, Harry K. Chrisman of the 8th New York Cavalry and Joseph E. McCabe of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

Porter's story concluded with the words, "Rowand is now a prominent lawyer in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania." In tiny letters next to that phrase, someone had penciled in, "and lived in Verona, Pa."

The Pittsburgh phone book contains three Rowands. Only one of them lives near Verona - Harry H. Rowand Jr. in Oakmont.

I called him. "I don't know if you can help me," I said, "but are you connected in any way with an Archibald Rowand who was in the Civil War?"

"Sure am," said Harry, a retired research engineer with Alcoa Corp. "I'm his grandson. In fact, I have both his Congressional Medals of Honor here at my house" - the original one, awarded in 1873, and a later version that he got to keep because he refused to trade in the first one.

But Harry Rowand had better news than that.

He also had copies of every letter his grandfather had written home to his parents from the war.

Unlike some other Civil War correspondents, Arch Rowand's letters were not very sentimental and spoke little of his feelings. But they were packed with detail, including accounts of several of his spy missions, something that would never be allowed by modern-day military intelligence rules.

Arch's letters sometimes contained a note of wry humor, too.

In one of his very first, he fooled his parents so well that they were convinced he was about to run off and get married to a young woman he had met.

So in the next letter, written from Wes-ton, W.Va., in September 1862, Arch made amends:

"I received your letter last night, and was surprised to find out that you took my joking about getting married in earnest. I am sorry that it caused any uneasiness. I take this early opportunity of correcting you, as I have no more notion of getting married than I have of jumping over the moon. I guess I will have to stop joking about such things in future."

Archibald Rowand was just 17 when he joined the Union Army. He was too young to enlist in Pennsylvania, so he signed up with a cavalry company in Wheeling, W.Va., that was being organized by his uncle, Thomas Weston Rowand, a Mexican War veteran.

Later, he wrote about what made him sign up: "I did not like seeing all my friends going off to war, and me staying home, so I thought I would go."

For most of the rest of the war, Arch Rowand would stay in the rich farmland and wooded mountains of the Shenandoah Valley, fighting and spying in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, with one foray into Pennsylvania to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg (curiously, there is no record that he wrote a single letter to his parents about that monumental conflict).

He enlisted in July 1862. Before the year was out, he had volunteered to become a scout.

He was naturally suited to it for three reasons.

First, he had spent much of his boyhood in Greenville, S.C., and so he could converse easily in a Southern dialect and knew Southern expressions and Southern customs.

Second, he was naturally intelligent and thought well on his feet.

Donald E. Markle, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst and author of the 1994 book "Spies & Spymasters of the Civil War," said that was true of many of the men who joined cavalry units in the Civil War.

The cavalrymen, Markle says, "tended to be smarter and gutsier than many other soldiers, which is one reason they did spy duty."

Finally, Arch Rowand was known for his daring - his recklessness, some would say. After one of his first scouting partners, Ike Harris, was killed during a trip behind enemy lines, Rowand had trouble for awhile getting another partner to join him.

The risk of being injured or killed in battle in the Civil War was high enough - nearly four times higher than in World War II. Rowand compounded that by going undercover in Confederate territory, which was an invitation to be shot or hanged if he was arrested, Markle said.

"If you were in your own military uniform and you were behind enemy lines, then you were a scout. You would be imprisoned and likely exchanged for another prisoner of war. If you were in civilian clothes or an enemy uniform, though, you could be hung."

Rowand either had great trust in the circumspection of his relatives or was too courageous to be concerned about leaks when he put details of his work in his letters home.

What makes his stories of skirmishes and scouting trips ring true is how plain-spoken his descriptions of them were.

An example:

In April 1863, 10 months into his service, Rowand was in the Battle of Fisher's Hill, near Strasburg, Va., about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Rowand and two fellow soldiers ran into a Confederate advance guard and, after skirmishing with them, drove them back to the main group of about 125 Confederate troops, at which point they had to retreat themselves "to our main body numbering 60 men of the third W.Va. Cav. under Maj. McGee."

McGee, Rowand wrote, ordered a charge, but none of his men would follow him, so "at first six of us followed him right into the enemy, they being stretched across the road and field; we charged into them headed by the gallant Maj.

"We broke their ranks [and] they had started to retreat when 20 men of the third W.Va. coming up, the retreat became a rout, the rebels flying in every direction. This statement of one officer and six men breaking the rank and causing 125 rebels to retreat seems rather absurd to you I know, but it is nevertheless true."

Then, almost casually, he adds:

"In the charge we lost two of our best men. Corp. Cashman was shot in the pit of the stomach, George Greene through the heart. Orderly Smith's horse was shot in three places, Maj. McGee's horse in the foreshoulder. I luckily escaped unharmed although in the thickest of the fight. Cashman was shot just in advance of me, Greene just behind me."

Accounts like these would become more frequent. If Arch Rowand's letters demonstrate nothing else, they show the sheer luck that was needed for men in Civil War combat to survive unscathed.

Later in the letter, Rowand wrote hopefully, "Corp. Cashman is still living and in good spirits; the Doctor has some hopes of him. The ball went just below his ribs on the left side and lodged in his back in the right side passing between the heart and liver."

Less than two weeks later, he wrote: "John Cashman died Sunday morning last at 4 o'clock, his wife being with him; both Cashman and Greene were young married men, both marrying since entering the service."

Much later in the war, in November 1864, Rowand wrote in similarly matter-of-fact tones about one of his missions:

"Yesterday I returned from inside the rebel lines. I was at Wordensville, twenty-five miles from Strasburg . . .

"I met a Rebel Lieut. and one man of the 18th, Va. Cav., [Confederate Gen. John] Imboden's command, talked to him fifteen minutes, got all the information I wanted, then told him who I was. He surrendered, on being requested to.

"After surrendering, he wheeled his horse, and drew his revolver and attempted to run. I soon stopped him with a bullet through the spine and stomach. He died immediately. I reported to the Genl. [Philip Sheridan] what I done. He said that was very well. The Lieut. rode a splendid horse, black, which fell into my possession. Tomorrow I am going to Martinsburg [W.Va.], and will transfer him to my pocket [by selling him], as I have been out of money for some time."

By the time of the later incident, Rowand had become one of the "Jessie Scouts," originally named for the wife of swashbuckling explorer and Union officer John C. Fremont.

Eventually, by winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, Arch Rowand became the best known of the Jessie Scouts, although historian Markle says there were many others of equal daring and resourcefulness.

Many of the Jessie Scouts spent more time wearing Confederate uniforms than their own. To help identify each other behind the lines, they also began wearing white scarves around their necks, knotted in a particular way, and, as an extra precaution, developed a conversation code, which went like this.

Scout 1: Good morning!

Scout 2: These are perilous times.

Scout 1: Yes, but we are looking for better.

Scout 2: To what shall we look?

Scout 1: To the red and white cord.

The exchange sounds stilted - and was meant to. While a real Confederate might accidentally say the right words in the early part of the code, the exchange about the red and white cord was bizarre enough that it would only come from an initiate.

These bits of spycraft were just two examples of the many that were developed during the Civil War by military and civilian spies - almost all of whom had to come up with their own techniques, since there was no military intelligence training during most of the conflict.

America had once had a very accomplished military spy network, set up in the Revolutionary War by a young general named George Washington. But as the decades wore on, Washington's spy apparatus disappeared, and when the Civil War began, neither side had any real experts in undercover work, cryptography, safe houses, courier techniques or any of the other classic elements of covert work.

When it came to the scout/spies, Markle said, "these guys never saw a James Bond movie. They had never read any spy novels. But some of them were damned clever in what they did."

This was true of civilian spies in the Civil War as well.

One of the most famous Union spies was Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of the Southern aristocracy who operated a comprehensive spy network from her home in the heart of Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital.

Without any training or advice, Van Lew set up safe houses where couriers could pass messages on the way North. She developed such techniques as carefully cutting a message into several parts and sending the pieces with different couriers, so that if one were caught, there would be only a partial note with gibberish on it.

The scouts developed similar techniques, but much of their ingenuity had to be used in tight spots to save their own hides.

In July 1863, Rowand told of just such an experience in a letter that was reprinted in the Pittsburg Daily Post.

"During my month of scouting duty I was captured on the night of the 1st of June, on South River, 16 miles from Lexington [Va.]., by Captain Lee Hoffman, of General [John] Breckenridge's staff . . . Two of us were taken at the same time.

"By some good hard talking and some hard lying, in one hour and a half we convinced the Captain that we were of the 17th Virginia Cavalry, Co. F., Captain Crawford. The Captain restored us our arms and handed us a dispatch for General B--, which we promised faithfully to deliver, of course; but instead of Gen. B--, we delivered it to Gens. [David] Hunter and [William] Averell. Gen. Hunter promised us good pay for our endeavors, but I haven't seen nary [a] red [cent] yet."

Rowand's self-preserving gift of gab was a common tool for the better scouts.

Besides making sure their men wore the right uniforms and used the right accents, Civil War historian John Bakeless wrote, "both sides trained scouts to be familiar with the names, ranks and commands of officers on the other side. Thus, when challenged or suspected, a disguised Union soldier could toss off casual but exact references to lieutenants and captains, giving their correct names and their companies and regiments. Any one might know the name and command of a general, but a spy who knew all about an obscure subaltern inevitably seemed to belong to the same army."

Rowand also knew what jeopardy he and his companion were in when Hoffman caught them.

"We were both dressed in full rebel uniform," he wrote. "Had we been found out, Dawson would have written you this letter," meaning that his commanding officer would have been describing their capture, and possibly their deaths.

Despite such near misses, despite close encounters with shot and shell, despite being fallen on, dragged, kicked and run over by horses, despite it all, Archibald Rowand managed to get to the end of the war and beyond without a major injury.

His grandson Harry was born after Archibald died. He has become a student of his grandfather's war exploits, but knows little about his life afterward, beyond the bare facts.

After the war, Archibald returned to what he had done before enlisting - working as a railroad bookkeeper. At the age of 22, he became chief accountant of the Allegheny Valley Railroad Co. That year, he married Sarah Martha Chandler Howard, the daughter of an iron and steel executive.

At the age of 33, Rowand was elected Allegheny County Clerk of Courts, and was then re-elected for another term.

In those days, when one could become a lawyer without going to law school, Rowand studied under George Shiras Jr., a Pittsburgh attorney and politician who would go on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice at the turn of the century.

Arch Rowand joined the bar in 1885 and practiced law until his death in 1913, at the age of 68.

His son, Harry Rowand Sr., served in the Spanish-American War, worked as a lawyer with his father and then became an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge, serving on the bench for 28 years. Harry Jr. served as an Army engineer in the European and Pacific theaters in World War II, and is now retired from Alcoa.

Of his grandfather, a man he knew only from other people's memories, Harry said: "Well, one thing that I know is that he supposedly had a very loud voice, which my wife says I inherited, and that people either loved him or hated him."

A eulogy by a family friend at Archibald's funeral put it more grandiloquently:

"There was in him a frankness, close oft to brusqueness, which betokened a sincerity, a straightforward plainness of speech that would not flatter Neptune for his Trident nor Jove with his power to Thunder; and what his breast forged, that his tongue must speak."

Postscript No. 1.

The story that might capture Arch Rowand's personality best comes from one of his most daring adventures - the capture of Confederate scout commander Harry Gilmor, in February 1865, near Moorefield, W.Va., about 85 miles southeast of Uniontown.

Rowand was part of the advance guard wearing Confederate uniforms that captured Gilmor, who was known as a very accomplished undercover soldier himself.

But it wasn't the arrest that showed Rowand's character.

It was something that happened on the way back to Union lines. Still traveling in disguise, Rowand rode toward a house, and noticed that the man standing on the porch was a Confederate soldier he had captured several months before.

Rowand went up to him, addressed him by name, and told him "Major Gilmor wants to see you," historian Bakeless wrote in Civil War Times Illustrated.

The clueless soldier - who had just been released from a military prison - followed Rowand, only to discover moments later that he had been captured again. "You've got me," he said. "But how did you know my name?"

Rowand explained. "For two years," the Confederate replied, "I've been in prison where you sent me. Now, less'n a month after I'm freed, along you come again and send me back."

Rowand then quietly went to his commander and pleaded with him to let him set the soldier free. The commander consented, even though it was illegal, and Rowand took his new captive aside, out of sight of the others, and told him to get moving.

Postscript No. 2:When he was 52, Arch Rowand made a vigorous effort to redress an old wrong.

Joseph Campbell, his fellow scout on so many dangerous missions, the man who had accompanied him on the perilous trip to Grant's headquarters, had remained in the service after the war, without ever receiving recognition for his work.

So, in 1897, Rowand lobbied the War Department to grant a Congressional Medal of Honor to Campbell.

Bluntly, Rowand expressed irritation that Campbell couldn't get a medal for the Grant mission as he had done, because of a departmental ruling that "carrying the dispatches . . . was not in action, and therefore, did not come under the rule."

" . . . a man dressed in the enemy's uniform, with important dispatches, ordered to go through the rebel lines to deliver dispatches, and if captured to eat them, is he not in 'extreme jeopardy of life' and does he not perform 'extraordinarily hazardous duty?'" Rowand asked.

Still, if it was hazardous duty during action they wanted, Rowand would give it to them.

In January 1865, he wrote, in northern Virginia, he and Campbell wore their Confederate uniforms to capture about 65 prisoners. Their commander, Col. Harry Young, insisted that they stop in Woodstock, Va., to eat - something they were chary of doing so close to the enemy. While they were there, a one-armed butcher who was a Unionist tipped them that a Confederate cavalry force of about 300 was closing in on the town. They barely made it out as the cavalry troops charged toward them.

"Just south of Pugh Run Bridge, Col. Young's horse was shot under him. Campbell yelled to me Young is down, come back. By this time the Johnnies were around Young, who was fighting on foot, yelling for him to surrender, when Campbell and I charged into them. Campbell took Young on his horse and I protected the rear and all three of us got out in a hurry.

"In the fight to get Young, Campbell got two bullets through his clothes . . . I give Campbell all the credit for bringing our commanding officer out of the fight."

Rowand may have been blunt, yes, but he was also persuasive.

On Oct. 27, 1897, he received a copy of the following memorandum:

"The Secretary of War has directed the issue of a medal of honor to James A. Campbell, late private, Company A, 2nd New York Cavalry, the medal to be engraved as follows:

The Congress


Priv. James A. Campbell

Co. A, 2nd N.Y. Cav.,


gallantry near Woodstock, Va.,

January 22, 1865

Related story:Letters from the front

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