McNiven Recollections

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******MDG note: this recollection and its source are HIGHLY suspect and should be used with extreme caution. It is included here for the sake of totality.

 

RECOLLECTIONS OF THOMAS McNIVEN AND HIS ACTIVITIES IN RICHMOND DURING THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

*****

[As told to his daughter Jeannete McNiven]
[Only those fragments what were remembered by her are reported here]

*****

Thomas McNiven [He added Mc after coming to the USA]
Born: Glasgow, Scotland – Wednesday 25 March 1835
Married: Halifax, NC – Thursday 4 June 1868
Emelia Maria von Hoffman of Richmond (1851 – 1917)
Died: Richmond, VA – Monday 18 April 1904 – 69y 24d

Came to USA with his brothers James and John on “Cora Linn” out of Glasgow on Tuesday 16 August 1853, and settled in Brooklyn, NY. Came to USA to get away from English domination and that “fat German bitch” [Queen Victoria]. He opened a “liquor store” with brother John. Became USA citizen in federal district court in Brooklyn on Thursday 25 November 1858. Joined the Waldeness Society made up of Scots who hated slavery. Signed up to work on the “Underground Railroad.” First came to Richmond on Friday 6 July 1885 to meet with local Scots who favored freeing the slaves. Ran escaped slaves, three at a time, in a false bottom wagon up the Bowling Green Road to Port Royal where they were picked up by Maryland abolitionists. When the Civil War broke out, his brother James joined the 49th New York regiment. He came to Richmond and with funds provided by the Waldeness Society and the US Secret Service opened a bakery, specializing in shortbreads, tea cookies and scones, at 811 No. 5th St. Using his Scottish contacts in Richmond, he set up an espionage network and quickly made contact with Elizabeth Van Lew. His code name was “Quaker.” His bakery was a major central exchange point for intelligence operations and his bakery delivery wagon created a good cover when going from house-to-house picking up information. Miss Van Lew was a “special” customer. He used his old British citizenship papers as a protection against Confederate suspicion. His Scottish accent was another “cover” aid.

Recollections told his daughter:
(not chronological)

“Miss Van Lew was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary [Elizabeth Bowser] was the best as she was working right in Davis’ home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information. The Germans in town were as helpful as the Scotch (sic) as they hated the rebels too. But, some of our best information came from the large amount (sic) of prostitutes working the town. Clara, in particular, served the high and mighty of the rebel officers and officials. She should have a monument. Caused quite a commotion between the city government and the rebel government, when the city found out the big man was stealing their [the city’s] blankets to pay her fees.

“Eberhardt Lohman, the builder, and his brother, the undertaker [Martin Meredith] Lipscomb, the [Johannah] Hoffman and [Louisa] Delarue widows, Robbie [page break] Orrick, Bill Rowley, the councilman [Richard Frederick] Walker, [Larkin White] Glazebrook and [Richard O.] Haskins, were all great helpers. Haskins had owned Libby Prison and knew every inch of it, so it was a big help to Miss Van Lew when she went there.

“Clara [?] was as valuable as Miss Van Lew, but in getting a different kind of information. Her large number of friends among the other whores made her able to find out important military operations. Her [Clara] regular customer “Big Belly,” a member of the rebel cabinet, couldn’t keep his mouth shut when he was with her. Her [Clara] best information from him to us was the rebel plans for the Spotsylvania movements which I personally had to rush through the lines and was almost caught twice but my British papers and my tobacco buying orders from Lorillard got me safely up and back. She [Clara] got us the schedule of the blockade runner “Phoebe,” and the information got it sunk off Wilmington.

“Miss Van Lew had the last horse left on the hill, and I had to sneak hay to feed it in flour bags.”

“We used passes Miss Van Lew obtained to go up and down the Bowling Green and Mechanicsville roads, and her family’s place east of town let us boat intelligence to City Point. Chris [Christopher Taylor, a free black employee of McNiven’s], would hide dispatches I some smelly, worn shoes that had a lap over the soles. We got a lot of help from Genl. [John H.] Winder because he was afraid she [Miss Van Lew] would expose the secret she had on him.

“She [Miss Van Lew] said it was John Marshall who warned her about the Southern aristocrats. She said when she was a little girl, and Marshall often visited her family, he told her ‘these Southern planters are not republicans. They want to go back to being part of England, so they can be sirs and lords. Watch out for them, or there won’t be a United States anymore.’

“I met with her [Miss Van Lew] after a service at old St. John’s in 1862, I think it was July 6th, when Mr. Haskins whispered to her that I was ‘a friend to be trusted.’ She had already been helping us, but not through our regular routes.

“One time, when Chris took some tea biscuits to Davis’ house, little Mary had the terms that the rebels were offering at Hampton Roads to Lincoln’s men to end the war. [Miss Van Lew] made good use of them, plastered them all over town. The rebels officials were sick about it.

“Most all of the rebels would take bribes, if it was in good USA, not their money, or gold, I supplied her [Miss Van Lew] with lots. [Lt. -] Col. [Paul] Revere [IV] spread some all over Libby and Belle Isle, and they [the Union prisoners] were treated much better for a while by the guards.

“The traitor {Lt. Richard] Turner was as mean a man as ever lived, and he was proud of his “Rat Hell” of Libby Prison. He could never be bought. [page break]

“[?] Caphart at the Isle was ‘handled’ by Clara’s knowledge.

“She [Miss Van Lew] had lots of couriers and sources she wouldn’t ever tell me who they were.

“Dr. [James B.] McCaw especially helped her [Miss Van Lew] with the wounded US prisoners, and through her helped us with valuable information. Her [Miss Van Lew] custard dish with the secret bottom came from Johannah Hoffman, later my mother-in-law. She had brought it with her from Bavaria when she and Phillipe Hoffman came to America.

“The most fun, if you can call something like that fun, was when we stole Col. [Ulric] Dahlgren’s body from the rebels. She [Miss Van Lew] found out fro “Bull Head” [?] that they were going to bury him at Oakwood and about when. Chris hid in a tree, and I was on the roof of [?] Scher’s house across the road and saw the spot they buried him. Later, her special party, including Lipscomb, dug it up and ‘planted’ again under some trees in one of Eberhardt’s wagons, and she [Miss Van Lew] had it taken to Rowley’s place, and then to Orrick’s. Johannah and Louisa were staying for a ‘holiday’ at Orrick’s and they helped dig the grave. Some holiday. When I was told about its success, I sent her [Miss Van Lew] note to Butler via the Carringtons to let the Dahlgren family know.

“Genl. [Benjamin] Butler was a cad to do business with. He wanted us to be his slaves, but would do little to help us. Miss Van Lew got us the plans for all the rebel lines east of Richmond in April 1864, and Butler could have marched right into the city, but he dragged and dragged and the opportunity was lost. When Genl. [Godfrey] Weitzel took over, he was a gentleman.

“Clara got the plans for Genl. [Ambrose Powell] Hill’s movements out of Petersburg, and Miss Van Lew’s courier got them to [Gen. U. S.] Grant just in time to ambush him and kill him. That’s why Quinn and the rest of us used to have reunions at the foot of his statue north of Richmond on his death’s anniversary.

“The rebels got very suspicious of me in January of 1865. They picked me up three times and were very rough in questioning me, but couldn’t get me to say anything and let me go. I figured it was time to get out of Richmond and left everything in Miss Van Lew’s hands.

“We used code names, some like: Quaker for me, Mr. Palmer for Mr. Rutherfoord, Fred for Mr. Haskins, Mr. Babcock for Miss Van Lew, Preacher for Mr. Glazebrook, Coachman for Mr. Spruell, Mrs. Rice for Mrs. Anderson, Farmer for Mr. Orrick, Belle for Clara, Mr. Knox for Mr. Quinn, and so forth. You know, when the rebels captured a real Mr. Babcock who had been spying, we had to change Miss Van Lew’s code to Romona. [page break]

“When Miss Van Lew was buried, I stayed at her grave for hours, long after all her family left. It was like I lost my mother.

“She [Miss Van Lew] wouldn’t use the code that Genl. [George H.] Sharpe [federal intelligence chief] had supplied for all of us. She insisted on creating her own, so the general would know what she sent. But, we broke it, so I could read what she sent before it went out, but we never let her know.

“Occasionally, we brought in letters from the Swede writer Bremer that she had sent to Miss Van Lew in care of her sister Mrs. Dr. Klapp in Philadelphia, and we would smuggle out her [Miss Van Lew] reply letters.

“Orrick’s farm was our most valuable way station, as he was German, and the Hoffman women were German, and the Delarue women were Franco-German, those women could pose as fellow countrymen, and as seamstresses, with ease cross over the lines, with our messages. The Crosses and Tillers in Hanover helped us a lot.

“You know Miss Van Lew always each day sent flowers and a Richmond Dispatch paper to Grant for breakfast, most of the time by the Carringtons.

“Our councilmen associates kept us well supplied with the conditions of the rebel supplies and their shortages, as well as local placement and movement of troops.

“As Walker was a major in the Home Guard, he obtained the plans for the fortifications around the town for us, yet Kilpatrick and Dahlgren made poor use of them.

“Old St. John’s had a lot of sympathizers in the congregation, and certain tombs in the graveyard surrounding the church made handy places to leave information for us by those who did not want to be seen talking with us. We had lots of friends among the Presbyterians, Lutherans and Quakers.

“We used carved favors, made from peach seeds, hanging from men’s watch chains and ladies’ pendants, as recognition signals. In their centers were little swinging three-leaf clovers. When it was upside down, it was safe to talk. When it was right side up, not safe.

“Clara reported to us about how very much greenback money “Big Belly” always had. Where did it come from? Not us. If Davis had only known about it.

“Miss Van Lew planned the [Col. Thomas E.] Rose and [Col. Abel] Streight prison escape almost alone, Walker helped, as did Rutherfoord and Louisa, but I was on a mission in North Virginia at the time. Mrs. Glazebrook was the one that got them to the turnpike and to Mrs. Rowley’s.

“Because most of us did not reveal to each other who all of our informants were, especially Miss Van Lew, I never knew how many true patriots we had in [page break] Richmond. I was personally acquainted with somewhat over 300.

“Miss Van Lew and Mrs. Delarue could come up with the most unusual disguises. Johannnah and her youngest daughters made some of them. Sometimes, I didn’t recognize them myself when I met them.

“A lot of dollars American went into organizing the riots. And some of our workers at the Arsenal fixed up some very bad ammunition from time to time. We used a lot of dollars American to workers among [Brig. Gen. Alexander R.] Lawton’s and [Col. Lucius B.] Northrop’s departments to misdirect important rebel supplies. We got cooperation from some railroad workers for dollars, too.

“Twice in August and October 1864, we slipped [loyalist] Gov. [Francis Harrison] Pierpont into town to meet with his acting government of Richmond, and the rebels never even knew who he was, even though he was sitting in the [Capitol] Square for several months at a time, and stayed at Hoffman’s Pleasure Gardens. That’s when [David J.] Saunders [Sr.] agreed to head the city after its capture by our troops.

“Genl. Weitzel had most of us to dinner in Davis’ old home when he made his headquarters there, but I was already out of Richmond.”

###

[information supplied by transcriber] in []

[Although Thomas McNiven never identified “Bull Head” and “Big Belly,” could they have have been Col. Lucius B. Northrop and Secretary Judah P. Benjamin respectively?]

Transcribed by:
           Robert W. Waitt
           4509 Fitzhugh Avenue
           Richmond, VA 23230

           [grandson of Thomas McNiven]

 

Page last updated on 07/08/2008