THE TRUE STORY SERIES. So many people have declared so many times that truth is stranger than fiction that they no longer appreciate the full force of their own declaration. True stories are often not only stranger than fiction but infinitely more absorbing. The knowledge that the men and women whose deeds are described on the printed page are flesh and blood and not the pen and ink creations of a novelist invests them with a compelling human quality which no literary art could give. For this reason true stories of actual experiences of real men and women are to be regular monthly features of the RAILROAD MAN'S MAGAZINE.
Every telegrapher who served in the Civil War the government ranks as a hero, but Marion H. Kerner is more than a mere hero. He is the Captain John Smith of the key and sounder, and his Pocahontas was a young girl of the mountains who guided Confederate troops through the narrow footpaths of the wildest region of West Virginia. At the risk of being shot as a traitor and spy she saved the life which had been imperiled by too great zeal in speeding the sparks that spelled valued information to the Union army.
Mr. Kerner is, moreover, the poet laureate of the Military Telegraphers' Union. When the union holds its annual convention at Washington in ()ctober, where President Roosevelt will be its guest and will eulogize the uniformless boys who fought for the Union with wire as bravely as the other soldiers with musket and sword, all who remain of the telegraphers of that era will join voices in singing Mr. Kerner's song, written for the occasion, " The Boys That Swung the Keys." Still in active service at the headquarters of the Western Union in New York City, although he supplements his activities by serving as the superintendent of lectures at the Wadleigh High School and as lecturer and author, this Captain John Smith of the Civil War is a spare man of lithe figure, with features incisive and refined, grizzled hair, and blue eyes, mild, contemplative, and kindly.
So he seems in his home in Harlem, but at the sounder in the big, noisy building, like a hive of myriad bees peopled by the incessant click of ten thousand tireless keys, he is quite a different figure. 'Tis the man relaxed we see at his desk at home - the kindly, reminiscent host, discursive and deliberate. Bending to his task of message-sending during the intense hours when the wires above our heads buzz loudest, he is strained, intent, stern, a soldier of the wires at attention, concentration incarnate.
He was in such a mood of utter absorption in the moment's task when the Confederates captured him while he was sending a warning message to a Union regiment, and it was then that Nancy Hart saved his life at the peril of her own.
"It seemed to be a daredevil act that invited my capture," he said. but I was a boy. We were all boys at the key in the Civil War. The government wanted young blood and it got it. Those of us who were not drafted were volunteers, and if we hadn't been drafted we would have volunteered, for Uncle Sam had no more willing service than that of the boy operators. I was an operator at Martinsburg, West Virginia, in the employ of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, when the war began. A half-dozen confederate soldiers came in one blazing hot afternoon and invited me to pack up my traps and go with them.
"My 'traps' were the key and battery and my small wardrobe. I obeyed, and we marched up-town, myself and my guard of six, and reported to the officer in command at the city hall. The officer told me he wanted me to join the regiment and send despatches to headquarters... I told him my sympathies were with the Union, and that I could not serve its enemies, for which frankness I occupied a cell in the city hall jail for two weeks. The intervention of two girl friends, Confederates themselves, secured my release. They said to the commanding officer, whom they had met in their own homes and who was a friend of their fathers': "Marion don't want to serve in the Confederate army. He's a Union boy. Why don't you let him go back to Baltimore to his mother?"
Too Small to Shoot.
"I did not reach the protection of my mother nor my home city, for on the way I stopped at Washington and was drafted into the telegraphers' corps of the army. I was at once detailed to service at Gauley's Bridge, in West Virginia, and after a few weeks there I was ordered to Somerville, a village thirty miles away, on the other side of the Cumberland Mountains It was a dangerous ride, and because I was only sixteen, and small and slight for my age, I was chosen as offering the least target sur face for the bullets of the guerrillas who infested the mountairis. It proved to be a wise choice, for although several unwelcome overtures were made to me from the shelter of the tall fir-trees, I escaped with only the slight headache that follows the whizzing too near one's ears of such leaden messengers.
At Somerville I was assigned to duty in Lieutenant-Colonel Starr's headquar- ters. He had chosen a cottage whose owners had fled before the arrival of the dreaded Yankees, and we made ourselves comfortable in the midst of their confiscated Lares and Penates. My instrument was set up between two front windows of rhe cottage, and I slept on a cot that was about six inches higher than the window-sill, in the same room with Lieutenant-Colonel Starr that I might be ready to send despatches.
The Heroine Appears.
" The sixty men who were stationed at Somerville were comfortable as to quarters, but they had little to eat. A foraging party became necessary and ten men were sent forth to confiscate all the chickens and ham and vegetables to be found. I happened to be sent on this expedition, and it was to that raid I owed the privilege of meeting Miss Nancy Hart. On our way over the mountain we came upon a typical logcabin in a small clearing in the forest. Two of the men went to the door and rapped upon it with the butts of their revolvers. A shrill voice answered them with defiant words in a pronounced Southern accent. Three heads were thrust from the windows, and three angry tongues bade 'us begone. The two men removed their bats, and told our needs. They said we were willing to pay for the meat and vegetables we needed, but if payment was refused we must have them anyway. A tirade of abuse from the three at the window was the reply. Then we held counsel. Strategy, it was concluded, was necessary, and it was agreed that I, being the youngest, and for that reason probably the most ingratiating among suspicious women folk, should make the next sortie.
"'Tell them,' said the man in command of the expedition, that we only want the use of the iron kettle hanging in front of the door to make stone soup." Do as I tell you. If they ask you what stone soup is, say you don't know.'
Making "Stone Soup."
Removing my hat, I approached the formidable three. When I made known my wants there were cries of derision from them, 'Stone soup!' Who ever heard of such a thing? But the oldest woman consented grudgingly to the use of the big kettle. We built a fire, put a half-dozen good-sized stones into the kettle, and half filled it with water. Curiosity mastered the hidden foe. The door opened and the enemy came forth to see what them fool Yankees were doing.'
"Arrest that Girl."
We then asked their permission to put a few potatoes into the soup to flavor it. The woman consented. She and the girls came close to the kettle to look at the devil's broth. I asked for a few onions, and got them. Little by little we got what we needed to make a rich, nourishing soup. When we were pouring it into tin cups and offering portions to our reluctant hostesses, Lieutenant-Colonel Starr rode up. He dismounted and looked keenly at the taller of the two girls, who looked back at him without flinching. His order rang out sharply: 'Arrest that girl; she is Nancy Hart, the rebel guide.'
"She was a tall, muscular girl, lean and wiry like most of the mountaineers. Her hair hung in a tangled brown mass about her shoulders, her features were keen as a hawk's, and her eyes were clear, gray, and piercing. This was Nancy Hart, who had been the dread and torment of the Union soldiers; for, sure-footed as a panther, and as noiseless, she prowled about the mountains to seek Union camps, then hastened to the ucarest Confederate troops and led them through tbe mountain fastnesses to fall upon the enemy. The Union soldiers feared Nancy Hart more than any regiment of soldiers in the Confederacy.
"She was swift as a lightning bolt and pitiless as a saber edge. Lieutenant-Colonel Starr openly rejoiced in the capture. The girl sullenly yielded. She asked but one favor - that her friend go with her - and this the officer readily granted. The girls were led away while the lamentations of the young spy's mother rang down the mountain-side.
"Nancy and her friend, the other mountain girl, were imprisoned in a large room above that occupied by Lieutenant-Colonel Starr and myself. A soldier was always on duty, patrolling the hall outside. It was while she was a prisoner there that seventeen-year-old Nancy and myself became friends. She wanted needles to make dresses for herself and her friend, and I got them from the sutler for her. When she needed any small article for her comfort I provided it.
"A traveling photographer stopped on his way over the mountain, and I took Nancy to the wagon and had her daguerreotype taken. That camera was the only thing Nancy Hart feared in all her life. It was the first one she had seen, and she could not be convinced that it was not some new-fangled instrument for her execution until I sat for my daguerreotype and she saw the picture in my hand. Then, wearing my hat with a wild turkey feather thrust through the band, and in the frock that she had made in her prison, she sat for the picture. I have it still, with two locks of Nancy's hair in the case. I asked for two because her brown, sunburned hair was at least four shades lighter in front than in the back. The hair has preserved its color unfaded for forty-four years. One of the soldiers on guard in the hall was a susceptible lad, who was smitten with Nancy. All the boys suspected it, and Nancy knew it better than any of us. One morning at four o'clock she appeared at the door of her room, while her companion lay sleeping.
"'Hello, Sam! ' she said. ' The blamed roosters are crowing so that I can't sleep.'
"Sam moved nearer, delighted to have a chance to chat with Nancy. She ridi- culed his manner of holding a gun. 'I can hold that gun better than you can. Let me show you how to hold it,' she said.
Died for Love.
"'I won't,' said Sam, and he meant it; but Sam was smitten, and all foolish things are possible to the man in love. Nancy wheedled him into allowing her to hold the gun. As soon as she grasped it, she stepped back into the room, leveled it at him, and pulled the trigger. Nancy's aim was sure, and Sam fell a victim to woman's duplicity. He was shot through the heart. Nancy stepped over his dead body and ran down-stairs and into the barnyard. She threw a saddle upon the commanding officer's horse and was off before the sentries could overtake her with their bullets.
"Precisely twenty-four hours later we were awakened by the rattle of musketry. The moonlight streaming through the unshaded windows showed that we were surrounded by a company of men that outnumbered us ten to one. A second fusillade followed the first.
"'Roll off that couch,' Lieutenant-Colonel Starr ordered, with profanity. Lie on the floor.' Since the cot was six inches higher than the window-sill, I tumbled off with alacrity, and lay on the floor until the officer had gone to the door and waved his handkerchief as a flag of truce.
"As we marched forth to surrender. a wildly capering figure in skirts, with eyes alight with triumph and limbs agile with mirth, greeted us with shrieks of de- rision. It was Nancy Hart, who bent nearly double as she recognized each prisoner. She had delivered us into the hands of our foes.
Nancy Pays Her Debt.
" As we passed in revlew before Major Bailey, commander of the six hundred men who had captured our sixty, Nancy indicated me with an earnest forefinger. Say, Major, that little fellow ain't no Yank. He's a prisoner like me.'
" Major Bailey, with infinite confidence in Nancy, said, 'Let the boy go.'
"I looked my thanks at Nancy, but her eyes never once met mine. She was looking serenely across the tops of the highest trees. When I would have stopped to thank her, she began again her strange gyrations of triumph, her grotesque dance of joy at the capture of the 'devil Yankees,' and ignored me.
"Free to do as I pleased, I went inside the cottage and disconnected my relay. Throwing a blanket over it, I swung it over my arm and sauntered off toward the mountains. No one paid any attention to me. I was merely a mountain-boy friend of Nancy Hart's on my way home, and of no importance to the six hundred Confederates.
"I made my way toward Gauley's Bridge, and before I had walked a mile from Somerville I saw that the Confederates had cut the wires connecting Somerville with Gauley's Bridge. The ends of the wires lay loose upon the ground. An inspiration came to me to try to save my friends by communicating with the regiment at the bridge. Kneeling upon the ground. I threw off the concealing blanket and connected my relay with the end of the wires toward Gauley's Bridge. Thus the ground and the foot of the relay formed a key, and with the other end of the cut wires for a sounder, I began to sound the signal. Hello,' the answer came back. The signal was that of Gauley's Bridge. With the bit of wire at the disconnected end I tapped off the message: 'We - are - captured.'
Back in the Toils.
"I got no further. The liore of a shining six-shooter dazzled me by its proximity. It was three quarters of an inch from the bridge of my nose, most correctly and mathematically aimed exactly half-way between my eyes.
"'Stop that! What 'r ye doin'?' demanded a peremptory voice, and I looked up at a raw-boned, black-eyed man in a gray uniform. At his shoulder stood a man a little bigger than himself. Unable to frame a satisfactory answer, I made none at all. My captors, who belonged to the main body of the troops who were still at Somerville, and who had cut the wires, took me back with them, carrying the relay and the blanket.
"The troops were ready to march. At sight of our trio approaching, Major Bailey, the Confederate officer, halted them and waited. My captors saluted.
"We found this young un' tinkerin' with the wires.'
"Major Bailey comprehended in a moment, and turned upon me with a blaze of eyes and a volley of profanity. Take him to -' he began: but Nancv Hart spurred her horse - Lieutenant-Colonel Starr's stolen horse - to the major's side before he could finish.
"Now you Major, don't you do nothin' to that young un',' she said. ' He's a good friend of mine, and if it hadn't been for his helpin' me I would never have got away and brought ye here; If you do anything to him I'H leave ve and bring the whole Yankee army to cut ye to pieces.'
"Major Bailey, still cursing, changed thc contemplated order. Take him to the rear he ordered.
"We marched all day, I barefoot because a soldier on the other side had taken a fancy to my boots. At a turn of the path Nancy Hart and her girl friend stood and waved their hands at us. In another instant they had disappeared in the forest, and that was the last glimpse I ever had of my benefactress; nor have I ever heard of her since. She may be dead. Certainly if she lives her hair is not the same color as the locks in the daguerreotype. Lest I be accused of a lack of gallantry, I must say that a sweetheart had all the time claimed my loyal thoughts, else I might have been as susceptible as poor Sam.
"The troops sent out from Gauley's Bridge, on receipt of my message, must have followed close upon our trail, for we were suddenly whisked off from the main path into the forest and traveled without footprints to guide us all night. I was taken to Belle Isle and afterward to Libby Prison. These incidents occurred in July.
"Late in Septemter I was exchanged, with four other telegraphers in the serv- ice. The Confederates demanded commissioned officers in return for us, although we were all youths in our teens. One of those boys has risen to distinction in the Western Union service in San Francisco and another in Omaha. Two of them are dead. By the grace of Nancy Hart, I complete the trio that survive."