General Philip Sheridan’s “Special Forces”: The Jessie Scouts

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LTC Henry H. Young, Sheridan’s Scout Commander

I’ve been a student of the American Civil War since I read John Fox, Jr.’s excellent book, “Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” for the first time while in study hall in West Virginia’s Gauley Bridge High School around 1960. Not long afterwards, I learned that the other kids in the area who had cigar boxes filled with musket and minie balls collected them from locations in the small West Virginia town where combat occurred in 1861 and 1862 as the area changed from Confederate to Union and back to Confederate before settling permanently under Union control in late 1862. Even the old bridge piers in the middle of Gauley River that survived two separate burnings were large reminders of Civil War violence.

Fox’s wonderful book also had a continuing impact on me because of its accurate portrayal of Scotch-Irish mountain communities such as the Greenbrier County mountaintop where my paternal grandparents lived and I tried to spend every free summer moment. He wrote with great precision on the social history of the mountain people who were among my ancestors before he covered Civil War combat and its impact on individuals caught up in the conflict as Fox related both military and social history in a way that has enthralled readers in communities far removed from the ridges and plateaus of Appalachia.

After being attracted to military history studies, I studied warfare as a practitioner in Special Forces and within the Intelligence Community for over forty years and combined practical experience with academic studies at the University of Southern California and the U.S. Army War College at Carlise, Pennsylvania. But two major interests continued to focus my reading and writing over the years as my fascination with both the Civil War and the Scotch-Irish people intensified… and somewhere along the way I discovered Smitley.

Smitley was a recurring character appearing in several general Civil War titles with his three “initials” rather than the pair generally seen in the United States. In addition to the extra initial, C.W.D. Smitley was reported to have served as a Union scout, or actually a spy, while wearing a Confederate uniform. In some books lacking both footnotes and bibliography, Smitley was also credited with exposing Belle Boyd, a famous Confederate spy in the Shenandoah Valley, apparently after “romancing” the young lady from Martinsburg, West Virginia. Having served with many “old soldiers” prone to war stories and embellishment, I quickly placed Mr. Smitley into that category. Later, I located additional references to Union volunteers operating as “scouts” while wearing Confederate uniforms that would condemn them to death as spies if they were captured.

Years later and while assigned into a new nation experiencing its own civil war, a friend sent me a very interesting Harpers Monthly Magazine article about a scout who operated while wearing a Confederate uniform. The title of the article was the name of the scout: “Rowand.” During an interview with the Harpers reporter, Rowand named several scouts who were selected to become the nucleus of Sheridan’s experienced scouts. Interestingly, Smitley’s name was not among them, even though Smitley served in the same region, Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Early in the article, Rowand mentioned his friend, Ike Harris, who had the nickname “Spike,” but neither Smitley nor Harris were mentioned as a potential candidates selected for Sheridan’s new scouting unit. After several decades of collecting tidbits of information related to these young men, I expected to see them mentioned as potential candidates for Sheridan’s excellent scouting unit and continued to doubt that the stories about them were accurate.

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Jessie Scout Arch Rowand in his Confederate Uniform

Years later, I found a letter written by Smitley as he attempted to gain a soldier’s pension and this letter to General Franz Sigel, his commander during May, 1864, cleared up this mystery. Smitley described how he was captured while scouting near Wardensville, West Virginia, as he worked for Sigel during his New Market campaign. He wrote that his fellow scout, Ike Harris, bravely attempted to rescue him. Unfortunately, Harris was wounded, but pressed his attack until he was killed by a shotgun blast. Neither Smitley nor brave Ike Harris were available for consideration for selection into Sheridan’s new scout unit as it was being formed.

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Ike “Spike” Harris, Rowand’s Scouting Buddy

And later yet, I discovered a photograph of Ike Harris in his Union Army uniform complete with sergeant’s stripes that were out of place on the young soldier with an even more youthful face. Young Ike Harris reminded me so much of a teenage grandson that I saddened as I viewed the old photo that demonstrated that young daredevils volunteered for the “extra hazardous duty” described by Rowand in the Harpers article just as young soldiers volunteered for similar duty in Special Forces during the Vietnam War.

Finally, Belle Boyd provided evidence that Smitley wasn’t just telling war stories about his relationship that exposed her espionage activities:

“If I am to recount my moments of glory, then too shall I recount my moments of sadness, fear and disappointment. Such was the case with my first affair of the heart. A young woman in love does not often heed the warnings of others — I being no different. Entrusting a note for General Jackson, to my beau whom I thought to be a paroled Confederate soldier, I was heartbroken to find he was actually C.W.D. Smitley, Chief of Scouts for the 5th West Virginia Cavalry.”

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Belle Boyd https://spartacus-educational.com/USACWboyd.htm

The article about Rowand led to a similar Harpers Monthly Magazine article about Henry H. Young, a young officer from the Second Rhode Island Infantry Regiment, who became the commander of Sheridan’s scouts and vanished under mysterious circumstances, allegedly during a river crossing into Mexico nearly two years after Appomattox. Sheridan described Young’s loss in his “Autobiography,” but he had different explanations in two letters he wrote to the recently discharged Rowand and the Adjutant General of Rhode Island. Being very familiar with “cover stories,” I quickly realized that something out of the ordinary was involved with Young’s disappearance, Sheridan’s multiple and differing explanations, and Young being mustered out of service retroactively back to July, 1865.

The discovery of a single page from an old audit report related to Sheridan’s use of his Secret Service Fund revealed much about Young, many of his scouts, and their final trip into hostile territory as Sheridan accounted for $2100 questioned by the auditors:

“Amount paid Lt. Col. Young, Chief of Scouts, about November 1st, 1866 for hire of schooner to the Rio Grande and payment of scouts in the service of the United States.”

The certification continued:

“I certify that the foregoing amount is correct and just, that the services were rendered as stated and were necessary for the public service and that the amount was paid to Lt. Col. Young on or about November 1st 1866 for said services and that all receipts and memoranda of the payment of the same were destroyed by the Chicago fire of 1871.”

Sheridan signed the audit report on December 8, 1877 in Chicago that revealed that Young hadn’t been mustered out of the army in July, 1865. Young had signed for official funds as an army officer around November, 1866. Additionally, Rowand’s inquiry letter from Pittsburgh to Sheridan requesting information on Young’s fate was dated early November, 1866. Obviously, whatever happened to Young occurred soon after Sheridan provided him with Secret Service funds.

Between the appearance of Smitley in my readings and the formal audits that paramilitary operators dread, there were reports about scout relationships with Thomas Laws, the slave who “cold pitched” Quaker schoolmistress Rebecca Wright to work as an agent for Sheridan inside the Confederate stronghold of Winchester, Virginia. Thomas Laws was located and handled by one of Sheridan’s scouts, much like a modern case officer manages an intelligence asset. Later, one of Arch’s letters showed that his scouting partner, Jim Campbell who was nicknamed “Scant”, was responsible for locating Thomas Laws.

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Rebecca Wright and Thomas Laws http://www.shenandoahatwar.org/history/third-battle-of-winchester-opequon/

Included in all of the reading and study was an 1899 book written by a former Confederate soldier that was also helpful. John Opie wrote some revealing information regarding Union scouts:

“The Jessie Scout was a Federal soldier, dressed and armed a la Rebel. He was named after Mrs. Jessie Fremont, wife of the General of that name, who first suggested that mode of obtaining information.

“When a Rebel was captured, his furlough or pass was taken from him, and also his outer garments. A soldier was then found, who resembled him in size, age, and general appearance. The Rebel’s uniform, from hat to boots, was put upon this man, who assumed the name of the prisoner, and the Federal left the camp, a soldier of the Confederacy…. These Jessie Scouts generally preceded the advance of the army, and they frequently picked up a great many prisoners, without creating any alarm. I made the acquaintance of many of them, and found them bold, dashing, reckless, good fellows. I met Major Young, Sheridan’s chief of scouts, and found him eminently fitted for outpost duty and border warfare.”

My greatest writing dilemma involved the selection of a very important character: the scout managing the Rebecca Wright operation. Brave James A. Campbell of the Second New York Cavalry would have fit this role well, but his Military Service Record indicated that he was detailed from his regiment as a scout at “Army Headquarters” from September, 1864 through May, 1865. These were accurate records that belonged to the correct soldier, with that commonly occurring name, as this file also contained the notation of the Medal of Honor Campbell was awarded for heroism in rescuing Henry Young during a vicious fight at Woodstock, Virginia. Since Campbell was from the Army of the Potomac and new to the Shenandoah Valley as the Rebecca Wright operation commenced in early September, 1864, I suspected Sheridan and Young would have chosen Arch Rowand as the scout through whose eyes we would see much of the story. Arch was a Quaker like Rebecca Wright, had been present in Winchester on multiple occasions, would have known the terrain well, and while he was from Pennsylvania, he lived in South Carolina as a child and retained a southern accent that served him well during his scouting trips into Confederate territory. Jim Campbell was from New York City and worked as a seaman before entering the Union army as a cavalryman. While Campbell was clearly as brave as his courageous friend, Arch, he was an unlikely choice to manage the scout operation involving Thomas Laws and Rebecca Wright — even though Arch credited Campbell in locating Thomas Laws in the Medal of Honor recommendation he prepared for his New York partner.

Thomas Laws was definitely involved in the events described in the novel. He lived in the “contested area” between the two armies, belonged to a prominent Winchester attorney, Richard E. Byrd, and was married to “Matilda.” His ability to locate Rebecca Wright through Matilda’s friend, Marie, a childhood friend who was raised in the same “yard” is based on actual historical documentation.

The characters in the study are real and they were involved in the activities described. Noyes Rand served under Charleston’s Colonel George Patton, the western Virginia officer who lost his life following the final battle for Winchester, Virginia. Rand also opened a freight forwarding company in El Paso, Texas, as described. One of his accounts of his Civil War experiences was hand written on his company’s letterhead stationary.

A great deal of mystery regarding the “Jessie Scouts” still remains, however. A recently discovered letter written by Michael Sheridan, General Sheridan’s aide and the man responsible for handling the Secret Service Fund that was carefully audited following the Chicago fire, provided additional details about Henry Young’s final mission for Sheridan. In a letter written on December 11, 1908, Michael Sheridan explained:

“Major H. H. Young, who commanded these scouts, went to Mexico in 1866 to aid Juarez in driving the Imperialist forces from that country. Some twelve or fifteen of the scouts accompanied him and all were killed there by a detachment Juarez’ army through a mistake, they having been taken for Imperialists. Campbell, one of the best, was buried at Arlington about three years ago. I do not know where his family are if any of them could give any information as to his Civil War career. I am sorry that I cannot help you more. I remember little about their deeds for the very nature of their service compelled Gen’l Sheridan to keep everything between him and Major Young most secret and yet these scouts were not sleuths but enlisted men who performed their dangerous duties through patriotic motives and not for gain.”

Michael Sheridan knew far more than he admitted to the Harper’s reporter. He handled his brother’s secret service fund and chose to take what he knew to the grave rather than reveal the secret mission into Mexico undertaken by the brave Young and his Jessie Scouts.

Sheridan’s auditors mentioned the expenditure of $2100 to hire a schooner to the “Rio Grande” and pay the scouts that Michael Sheridan believed were killed accidentally by the Liberal Mexican army Sheridan was aiding covertly — probably in defiance of Congress — and the surviving scouts adhered to their cover story and brave Henry Young has been denied the recognition he deserved when he lost his life during a secret mission inside Mexico in early November, 1866.

Written by

Special Forces veteran from Vietnam (1967–8) and adviser on Irregular Warfare to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East (Policy) and at RAND.

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