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THE CHIMNEY CORNER., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 130, 24 July 1880
THE CHIMNEY CORNER.
HOW DAN PLAYED THE POOL.
One of the most singular men 1 ever inet with was the private soldier in the Twelfth New York infantry, which regiment was brigaded with a second and third Michigan and second Massachusetts during the tirst year or so of the war. Seen at one time you would say that Dan Harrison had blue eyes. Five minutes afterwards you would make oath that they were black, as indeed they were. Dan also had wonderful control over his voice. He could mimic the voice of any in the brigade. He could bark like a dog, bray like a mule, whistle like a bird and was the wonder of the camp. On one occasion our wagon master was asleep in his wagon, and his six mules roped near by. Dan crept behind a bale of hay and brayed loud and long. The wagon master awoke and jumped down and pounded the nearest mule, growling out as he re-entered the wagon ; “There, hang ye —I guess you’ll feel humble for a while ! ”
In about two minutes Dan repeated the words. The voice was so exactly the same that a dozen of us, who were standing near thought it was the wagon master again. The latter individual stuck his head out, looked around in surprise, and then said ;
“ Well, it took that echo a long time to get around this wagon ! ” There were yet other reasons why Dan was considered greater than a menagerie. He could drop one shoulder three inches lower than the other. He could walk as if one leg was shorter than the other, He could work his ear like a horse. He could cramp his hands until they seemed to have been drawn all out of shape by rheumatism. He could make it appear that he had a squint in either eye, and he could raise his eyebrows clear up to his hair. He was a farmer’s son, genial, brave, and good hearted, and he was never tired of doing something to amuse us.
Soon after Heitzleman made his reconnoisance in front of Alexandria down towards Centerville, he sent for Dan, and the result of the interview was that Dan was engaged as a spy. His curious physical structure and his natural coolness and bravery fitted him for such dangerous work, and I may say here that for three years he was accounted the most successful and daring spy in the service. Just one more curious trait about him, and I will relate an adventure of his which cost him a bad wound. A dozen of us would sit in a circle around him, and somebody ask ; “ Dan, what is the name of the Colonel of the third Maine 1”
He would close his eyes for perhaps three seconds, and then, eight times out of ten, would give the true name. How it came to him he could not explain ; but he seemed to divine things intuitively. I have seen him stand in front of the guards just being dismissed, and all strangers to him, and call off the first names of four out of every five. At Port Michigan, in the winter of 1862, he made a wager of $lO that he could give the Christian names of 20 out of 25 men in the line before him. A sergeant k of my company went over into another regiment and brought over the men, and a crowd of more than 500 gathered to see the wager lost or won. Dan won it. Passing slowly along the line he called 22 of the 25 men by their right names. The three whom he missed were named Hezekiah, Philetus, and Joshua, and Dan’s excuse for missing them was that he was not fully up in Scripture. One lonely, rainy night, in the beginning of ’62 Dan Harrison set out to work his way pnto the Confederate entrenchments around Centerville, charged to see everything that might be turned to value in the Federal cause. Dan had no particular make-up except the dress of a Virginia farmer, and no story to tell except thst he was (when he got there) within the Confederate lines to secure some sort of compensation for three horses seized by a party of Confederate raiders. Circumstances might alter his plans and his story ; but if so, he would have something else at his tongue’s end. The spy left the Federal outposts and headed directly for Centerville. He met with no adventure that night, lay in the woods all the next day, or advanced under cover of them, and at dark again took the highway. He knew that danger lurked in every fence corner for one who skulked along, and he therefore put a bold face on the matter and walked [briskly forward, passing quite a number of negroes and several white men without being disturbed. Just then many slaves were trying to reach the Federal lines, and this fact got Dan into trouble.
About nine o’clock, as he stepped briskly along, a patrol consisting of three men sprang from the bushes and confronted him, supposing him at first to be a negro, when, finding he was a white man, the leader of the patrol began asking leading questions and insisting on prompt replies. For some reason,Dan thought best to change his plans. Dropping his left shoulder and humping up his back, he replied to their questions in a whining, drawling voice, in imitation of a half-wit.
“ Laid for a nigger and captured a fool ! ” growled the leader, as Dan began to ask silly questions and dance around. “ Whar’ do you live 1 ” asked one the others.
“In —ze —moon,” drawled Dan, laughing as loud as he could. “How did you get down here ? ” “On a string—ha ! ha ! ha ! ” And he jumped around and chuckled as if he had got off a good joke. “ Well, I suppose we’d better give him a kick and let him go,” remarked the leader.
“He’s no nigger, don’t know enough to be a soldier, and we’d better hurry along.” “ I don’t know about that ! ” remarked the third man, who had all along been silent. “ I don’t know of any fool in this neighborhood, and we shouldn’t let this chap go until we have a closer look at him. Here, you infernal idiot, do you know any one around here ? ” “ Missus Brown Missus Brown ! ” replied Dan, using the first name that came in his way. “ Well, its only a step down there,” said the man, “ and if she knows him it’s all right. ” So there was a Mrs. Brown close at hand.
No one could have been more surprised than the spy, and he feared he had gotten himself into a bad scrape. There was no chance for him but to go along, and go he did, amusing the men for a quarter of a mile with strange antics and silly talk. Mrs. Brown was a widow, living in a comfortable though small farm-house, and Dan was marched straight up to the door. She was a woman about 50 years of age, with a kind face and motherly ways. “ Widder Brown,” began the leader of the party, as he put his hand on the spy, “we captured this fool, down the road thar. He acts and talks like a fool, but we want to be sure he isn’t tricking us. He says he knows you. If you know him that’s all we want.” “Missus Brown know Tommy,” chuckled Dan as he boldly entered the house and sat down, and took the family cat on his lap. The widow’s vanity was a bit flattered in the first place that she had been called upon to identify a stranger, and in the next place she would lose prestige if she failed to do so.
“ Mebbe I know him—mebbel do,” she replied as she looked around for her spectacles. “ Somehow or other I alius know all the fools going, and most of ’em come around here for vittels. Now, then, I’ll look at him.”
She put on her spectacles, took the candle in hand, and Dan was scrutinized for a long minute. He looked up into her face and grinned and chuckled, tho’ his heart was in his mouth..
“ She don’t know him,” whispered one of the men.
The widow overheard it, and now she was on her mettle. Walking slowly across the room to put down the candle and her spectacles, she turned and said :
“ Yes, he’s a fool, and you are bigger fools for stopping him. ” “ Then you know him 1 ” asked the leader.
‘‘ I raythur think so ! His name is Tommy, and he lives somewhere around Fairfax. He’s been here more’n a dozen times. ”
“ Didn’t propose matrimony, did he ? ” asked one of the men.
“ No ! ” she snapped, “but if he had he’d have stood a better chance than white men who hide in fence corners to capture niggers ? ” So saying she slammed the door on them and went away. She sat down by the table and looked across at Dan, and presently mused : “Yes he’s a fool, and those men had no business hauling him around, no matter whether I knew him or not. _ I guess he’s hungry and tired and I’ll give him something to eat and send him to bed.”
Dan “played the fool” to perfection, and when he had eaten, the woman had a real motherly interest in him. She guided him up stairs, and showed him the bed he was to occupy, and then went down with the light saying : “Fools can see in the dark as well as by daylight, and then you might set the house on fire.”
The spy was out of the scrape, in one sense, and yet he was in trouble. He wanted to reach and pass the confederate outposts before day-break. If he remained in the house, he would encounter people next day who might want him more fully identified. But how was he to leave 1 The chamber was a half-story affair, all in one room, and a window at either end. One of these would let the spy out. He crept across the floor and tried the sash of one. It was old and shaky, and yet he worked at it for a long ten minutes, and gave up in despair. The sashes were not nailed but so warped that to get them up or down or out would make noise enough to arouse everybody about the house. The sash in the other window could be raised, but Dan’s fingers had scarcely touched it when two or three dogs, which seemed to be kenneled directly below, commenced a furious barking. Escape by that way was cut off. After a moment’s thought Dan decided to wait until the house grew quiet and then descend the stairs and go out by the front door. He might .have to wait an hour or more, and he therefore threw himself on the bed. He had scarcely got settled when he heard a commotion down stairs, and the heavy tread of a man. Creeping out of bed and putting his ear to the floor he soon -made out that the woman’s son had returned home after a considerable absence within the confederate lines.
Dan listened for a long time, catching w’ords enough to keep tho run of the conversation, and when he heard both moving across the floor he slipped into bed again. It was well he did so. The stair door opened, a light appeared, and as mother and son ascended, she said : “Of course he’s a fool ! Do you think I’ve got so old that I can’t tell an idiot when I see him 1 ”
“ Weil, these are suspicious times,’ muttered the son in reply, and both advanced to the bed.
Dan seemed to be fast asleep. One hand all cramped up, was on the quilt in plain sight, and he had his face screwed up until the lonesome look ought to have melted a heart of stone. “ There I don’t he look like a fool 1 ” whispered the mother. “He may be one, but it don’t do any harm to let the patrol take him into our outposts,” answered the son, and both descended the stairs.
Dan must get out of that. Not by way of the window, but down stairs and out of the front door. The patrol could not be far off, and he had no time to spare. Hastily resuming his garments he softly descended the stairs. While waiting at the door he heard the son go out, and after two or three minutes he softly opened the door. No one was in the room. Tiptoeing across it, he opened the front door and stepped out, but only to stand face to face with the son, a young man of about twenty-five and of good muscular development; For what seemed a long minute they looked into each other’s faces. Then the confederate said :
“ Throw up your hands Mr. Yank—the game is played ! ” “I just came in to bid you good night! ” coolly answered Dan, and he gathered and made a rush. The confederate did not follow, because he realized that Dan was running directly for the approaching patrol. He was under full headway when he met them, or saw that he was going to run into them, and swerved aside. “ Shoot that Yankee !—kill him ! kill him ! ” shouted the confederate at the house, and the patrol opened fire in response.
Dan was not over thirty feet away, and the gloom of the night saved him from being riddled. One bullet struck him in the left arm, just above the elbow, inflicting a painful wound, but the others went wild and he soon distanced pursuit. Dan did not get into Centerville that time, but he was there a month later!
THE CHIMNEY CORNER., Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 130, 24 July 1880
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