AFTER TEN YEARS
One sultry afternoon in August, 1869, I
was sitting in my parlor drowsily reading the daily paper, when
I heard a quick step upon the porch, followed by the tinkling
of the bell. Without waiting for the servant to answer, I stepped
into the hall and drew the door open.
I saw standing before me a man in middle
life, plainly but neatly dressed, of sandy complexion, smooth,
pock-fretten face, pleasing expression and a striking brightness
"Good-afternoon, sir," he said,
with a half military salute; are you Mr. Ellis, Master of Trenton
Lodge, No. 5?"
I replied in the affirmative.
"Then I have to say that I am a Mason
in distress and have come to you for help."
At that I invited him to enter. Seating
myself in front of him, I subjected him to a rigid examination,
with the result that I found him one of the brightest Masons I
ever met. He could have presided over any lodge and conferred
any and all of the degrees without the slightest hitch. Satisfied
on this point, I asked him to tell his story.
"It is a long one," he replied
with a smile, "but I think I can promise you it is interesting."
"I am sure of that," I said, settling
back on a sofa, and placing a large chair at his disposal; "don't
omit any particular."
Nearly two-score years have passed since
I listened to one of the most remarkable stories I ever heard.
I took no notes of what my visitor said, and it is quite possible
that I may slip on a few minor points, such as names, but the
narrative itself will remain with me as long as I live. I was
impressed by the man's candor, his intelligence and his apparent
truthfulness. I have never doubted a single thing he told me.
"My name is John Wilkins," he
said, "and my home is, or rather was, in Knoxville, Tenn.
Having told you that much, I must go back ten years before the
breaking out of the Civil War. It was in 1851 that I was a passenger
on a steamer going up the Mississippi to my home. I was in good
circumstances, being the owner of a prosperous grocery, and was
the father of two boys and a daughter. Several years previous
I had suffered from small-pox, escaping death by a hair's breadth,
but at the time I have in mind I was in superb health, with a
natural flow of spirits, and, if I must confess it, not quite
fully over a certain wildness of conduct at which I now wonder,
though I cannot say that it ever involved me in serious trouble.
"One cold, drizzly afternoon the passengers
on the steamer were thrown into a panic by the discovery that
a man in one of the cabins had broken out with small-pox. A dozen
of the most excited demanded of the captain that he should put
the unfortunate fellow ashore and leave him to die in the woods.
"Being immune, I made a stealthy visit
to the cabin of the sick man and discovered two important facts.
He unquestionably had the disease, but he had had it for several
days, and was convalescing. He might be considered out of danger,
so far as he himself was concerned, but, as you know, the risk
from contagion was as great, if not greater, than before.
"The second truth that came to me was
the discovery that the man was a Free Mason. I assured him he
should be taken care of, and told him to give himself no anxiety
on that score. Promising to come to him again in a short time,
I slipped out of his cabin, without attracting notice, and made
my way to the deck, where the captain was standing near the pilot
house with a score of men, pale, swearing and more excited than
ever. He was awed by the display of anger and deadly resolution
on the part of the mob. I listened for several minutes before
I could get the run of the talk. The men were demanding more fiercely
than before that the boat should be turned to land. He was arguing
and protesting, for his soul revolted at the unspeakable brutality
of the thing, but he could not withstand them.
"'Oh, well,' he exclaimed with an impatient
oath, 'you are a set of infernal fools; but since you insist on
it, I'll do it.'
"I knew what he meant and my blood
"'You'll do what?' I shouted above
the din and confusion.
'Why, set this poor devil ashore and let
him die alone in the woods,' replied the captain, purposely giving
this extra twist, as may be said, to his rage.
"'By the Eternal!' I shouted, 'the
first motion you make to do that I'll shoot you dead in your tracks!'
"I had my pistol in my hand and brandished
it over my head. My words, looks and manner were for the moment
like a bombshell. I backed off, weapon in hand, and before the
mob could recover and attack me, I shouted:
'The sick man is a Free Mason! Brothers,
rally to my support, for never was one of your brothers in sorer
need of it.'
"Well, sir, you ought to have seen
what followed. Other passengers were swarming on the upper deck,
drawn by the magnet of a danger that threatened them all. There
must have been nearly a hundred of them. On hearing my appeal,
they began breaking apart, pushing away from one another and many
of them grouping around me, until two parties, about equal in
numbers, faced each other on the deck. I had stepped nearer the
captain, and my new friends followed me. He was somewhat bewildered
by the suddenness of everything, but he kept his head pretty well.
"I don't believe there was a man in
either party who did not own a pistol or bowie knife, and not
a few displayed both. There were pale, resolute faces among those
merchants, planters, and gamblers, and they glared like tigers
at me, my friends and the captain.
"'God! this is awful,' said the captain
to me in a scared undertone.
"'Don't you fear,' I assured him; 'this
is our fight; you have nothing to do with it; leave everything
"Now, I think I may take credit to
myself for seizing the psychological moment for executing a coup.
As sure as the sun shines, there would have been one of the bloodiest
and most desperate fights ever known on the Mississippi within
the next few minutes had I not faced the scowling mob and raised
"'Friends,' I called, 'there is a man
in one of the cabins who has the small-pox, and the fact that
he is getting well won't lessen your danger for several days.
You have the right to protect yourselves against that hideous
disease, and you can do it better than by dumping the poor fellow
on the banks to die like a rabid dog. I have had the small-pox;
I am not afraid of it; I will go into his room and nurse him;
no one else need come near him; the servants can bring the food
to a certain point safely removed from the cabin, and when they
are gone I will come out and get the food; no medicine is needed,
for the time for that has passed; the man will be completely isolated,
and none of you will be in the slightest danger. What do you say?'
"Well, I had captured them. The crowd
broke up, moving slowly here and there, all fraternizing, while
some of those who had been the most insistent for the commission
of the dreadful crime shook me by the hand and declared they never
meant what they said. None the less; they still would have insisted
upon marooning the sick man had I changed my mind and refused
to go into his cabin.
"The promise I made was faithfully
carried out. The patient never knew from me of the scene on the
upper deck, though I think it likely it reached his ears afterward
from another source. I sat in his room for hours, reading and
talking and doing all I could to cheer him. He really didn't need
anything of that nature, for the most exhilarating physical condition
in which any person can be placed is that of convalescence. You
get used to high health, but convalescence is new, thrillingly
comforting and delightful, and by the time you become somewhat
accustomed to it, its exquisite pleasure deepens and intensifies.
"I never saw a man improve more rapidly
than my friend. Of course we exchanged names, and before I finish
you shall learn his. Neither of us had ever heard of the other,
but that we became the warmest of comrades was inevitable. It
is said that the one who does a kindness to another feels tenderer
toward him than does the recipient toward the other. This man
was an educated gentleman of the highest honor and was filled
with profound gratitude. He did not gush, but merely thanked me,
"'I hope you will never be in trouble,
but should such be your lot, you may command me to the death.
Remember that,' he added with solemn significance.
"When we reached Louisville my friend
was substantially well, though the marks of his disease would
show for a long time, and it was hardly prudent for him to venture
out, except when absolutely necessary. My intention was to leave
the steamer at that point, attend to some business matters in
the interior, and to reach my home in Knoxville in the course
of a couple of weeks; but I thought it best not to part company
with the gentleman, who was too considerate to express the wish
that I should stay by him any longer. His face lit up with pleasure
when I quietly told him of my intention to see him through to
"At Louisville we had to change steamers.
The captain of the new boat was a Free Mason, and when I told
my story to him, he promptly gave all the help needed. Arm in
arm we two walked upon his boat at midnight and went to our cabin.
No other person besides the captain had a suspicion of the truth.
"By the time we reached the landing
where my friend was to leave the boat he was well, though the
discolorations on his face, of course, were plain. I had accepted
his invitation to go to his home with him. He wished me to make
him an old-fashioned visit, but I assured him I could stay only
one night. He would not consent to this until I promised to use
the first chance to spend several weeks with him. It was my intention
to do so, but somehow or other the opportunity never came.
"He was expected, and his negro coachman
was waiting for him. We were driven to one of the finest residences
I have ever seen. He was a man of wealth, of culture, and of refinement,
and was well known throughout the State. I never received kinder
or more hospitable treatment than from him and his wife and daughter,
of whom any husband and father might be proud. Late at night,
when we sat alone in his drawing-room, smoking and chatting, he
"'And now how much do I owe you, Mr.
"I took out a bit of paper and pencil
and figured for a minute or two.
"'As nearly as I can make it, it is
six dollars and fifty cents,' I replied; 'that is the extra fare
for going somewhat out of my way.'
"He took his pipe from his mouth, smiled
and shook his head.
"'That won't do.'
"'Why not? Can you make it any different?'
"'It is a hundred dollars at least.
That will never repay you. Who would have done as much for me
as you have done?'
'You for me; are we not brother Masons?'
"He looked calmly in my face and smoked
for a minute or two in silence. He saw I was in earnest, and without
speaking paid me my extra fare to and from Louisville. With the
rare tact which was natural to him, he made no further reference
to my services.
"The next morning I bade him and his
family good-by. Just as the coach was starting for the landing,
his daughter hurried out of the door and placed a sealed letter
in my hand.
"'Father says you are not to open that
till you get home,' she said.
"I nodded and promised as I shoved
it into my coat pocket. When I broke the seal a fortnight later,
the first thing that caught my eye was a hundred dollar bill.
Penciled on a sheet of paper were the words:
'If it should ever be in my power to do
you any favor, no matter of what character, I beg that you give
me the opportunity.'
"Bear in mind that all this took place
in 1851. Ten years later came our great Civil War. You people
in the North know nothing of what we suffered in the border States,
nor, indeed, do the people of the South itself, though they have
had to drink the cup to its dregs. But in Knoxville, as in certain
parts of Kentucky and Missouri, it was unadulterated hell, for
the Secessionists and Unionists were about equally divided. It
grew hotter and more frightful every day. In the same city, the
same street, the same square, the same house, men met who were
eager to spring at one another's throats and were only waiting
for the chance to do so. I was a pronounced Union man from the
start, and my two boys, one of whom was just old enough, enlisted
in the Federal army. I stayed at home to look after my business,
or until the necessity for my leaving should become more urgent.
After a time the Secessionists gained to a large extent the upper
hand. Parson Brownlow and a few of us used to meet secretly to
discuss and decide upon the best course to follow, if, indeed,
any course was open to us other than to bide our time.
"Some of the hotter-headed Unionists
began burning bridges in different parts of the State with the
purpose of harassing Confederate military movements. This continued
after a number of them had been shot, and it was proclaimed that
any one found guilty of the crime would be punished with death.
"Hardly a day passed that men were
not arrested on the street charged with bridge burning and thrust
into jail. One day, just as I came out of my house, I was taken
in charge by two soldiers in command of a corporal and hustled
off to jail. When I was thrust into the suffocating place, I found
more than sixty of my friends and neighbors all charged with the
At this point in Wilkins's story I interrupted
"See here, my friend, the war is over
and you needn't be afraid to tell me the truth. Did you help burn
any of those bridges?"
"No; I was innocent, though if they
had waited two nights longer I should have had to plead guilty
in order to be honest. We had a big scheme on foot, but one of
our number betrayed us. I know who he was, but will say nothing
more, for he has been dead several years, and it is as well, also,
that I make no reference to the manner of his taking off.
"If it be conceivable, matters grew
worse. They kept bringing more prisoners and shoving them in upon
us, until we hardly had room to move about. Finally Parson Brownlow
himself was fairly thrown into the big room with us. Well, he
was a character. He could pray harder, sing louder and use more
sulphurous language toward the Secessionists than any ten men
north or south of Mason and Dixon's line. The style in which he
denounced the Southern Confederacy and all the leaders in it,
from the President down, made one's hair fairly rise on end. I
can see him now, as the gaunt, spare preacher stood up among us,
his eyes blazing, while he rolled out his denunciations and called
down the vengeance of God upon the enemies of the Union. Then
he would tell us of our duties to one another as well as to our
country. I have seen the tears course down his cadaverous cheeks
while thus pleading with us to lead pure and godly lives. Then
all at once he would break out with his strong and not over musical
voice into one of the sweet, grand old Methodist hymns, followed
by a prayer, like that of some inspired prophet of old.
"One favorite expression of his was
that we who suffered imprisonment or death for our principles
were doing our country as much good and were as much martyrs for
the Union as if we fell in battle. He drove that truth in upon
us, seasoned with the assurance that those at whose hands we suffered
should receive full punishment, not only in this world, but in
the life to come.
"We had been in prison only a few days
when an orderly came to the door with a slip of paper in hand,
and called out in a loud voice the names of two of the prisoners.
They rose to their feet.
"'Come with me,' said the orderly;
'the provost-marshal wants you.'
"They followed him out of the door.
A few minutes later we heard the discharge of several guns, as
if fired by a platoon. We looked at one another with scared faces.
All knew what it meant; our two neighbors had been shot. Whether
they had taken any part in bridge burning I do not know. Evidently
there had been a secret investigation, and they had been pronounced
"Precisely the same thing took place
the next day and the day following that. Since no one could shut
his eyes to the fearful truth, it was the custom in each instance
for Parson Brownlow to offer up a prayer, denounce the Confederate
authorities in his red-hot fashion, while the victims shook the
hands of all in turn. Then they went out and met their fate like
"We prisoners received visitors now
and then, our jailers making no objection, for no harm could follow
from such calls. I remember a mild old Quaker who came every day.
He spoke kindly to all of us, sometimes bringing us delicacies
or messages from our families and friends, and bearing away such
messages as we had to send. His visits were the only rays of sunshine
that pierced the woeful gloom, and he was feelingly thanked over
and over again for this thoughtfulness.
"One day I penciled the following words
on a small piece of paper and handed it to him:
"'The man who befriended you ten years
ago when you were taken down with small-pox on a Mississippi steamer
is now in Knoxville jail unjustly charged with bridge burning.'
'Will you be kind enough to mail that for
me?' I asked, handing the paper to him. 'Read it first.'
"He deliberately adjusted his spectacles, held the slip at
arm's length and carefully read the line or two.
'I don't know,' he replied; 'these are'
troublous times, my friend; those few words may mean more than
they seem to mean. The authorities allow me to visit thee and
thy friends on the understanding that I am to take no unfair advantage
of the opportunity.'
"'I give you my word of honor,' I said,
'that the words have no other meaning than what they show on their
"He hesitated for a moment or two and
then crumpled up the paper and shoved it into his waistcoat pocket,
with the remark:
"I cannot make thee any promise, but
I will see what I can do.
"The summary executions went on as
before, with the same horrible detail - the calling out in a loud
voice of two names, the farewell and shaking of hands, Parson
Brownlow's prayer, with a few words of exhortation and the promise
to look after the families of the victims, so far as it should
be possible to do so, and then a few minutes after the doomed
ones had passed out the whole company burst into singing 'The
Star Spangled Banner.' One object of this was to drown the sound
of the volley which we knew would soon be fired. We became so
accustomed to the report that we knew just when to expect it;
but sing as loud as we might, we never failed to hear the awful
crash, which pierced the walls of the jail.
"You cannot imagine the breathless
hush which came over us when the door opened and we caught sight
of the orderly with the little slip of paper in his hand. When
the names were pronounced, the scene which I have described invariably
followed. It is said that men can become accustomed to anything,
but that, tomb like pause as we concentrated all our faculties
upon the dread form as he was about to pronounce the doom of two
of our number never lost its deadly intensity. There was always
a moment or two when I do not believe a man in the room breathed.
"One dismal, drizzly morning, when
we were all shivering with cold, the messenger of fate seemed
to shout with more fiendish loudness than ever before.
"'William R. Jones and John Wilkins!'
"When the solemn hush ended we began
shaking the hands of those who crowded around us.
'Well, boys,' said I with a mirthless smile,
'my turn has come. Good-by!'
"'Remember,' fairly shouted the parson,
'you are dying as much for your country as did your comrades at
Manassas and before Richmond. This can't go on much longer; these
hell-hounds will soon run their race and God will smite them in
"It seemed to me that the parson put
more unction into his prayer than usual, while the scowling orderly
stood at the door and impatiently awaited the close of the exercises.
As I finally passed out, I heard the strains of our national song,
sung with a heartiness and vigor that thrilled me through.
"The orderly walked in the direction
of the provost marshal's office, with me just behind him and my
neighbor at my heels. The provost was a large man, whom I had
known for years as possessing a furious temper. He was very profane
and one of the fiercest Secessionists in the State. When I entered
his office he was savagely smoking a huge cigar, the smoke of
which partly obscured his flaming features. Glaring at me as I
halted near the door and looked at him seated in front of his
desk, he fairly shouted with a sulphurous oath:
"'I should like to know what that means!'
"He held in his hand, which shook with
anger, a yellow piece of paper, that I saw was a telegram. The
writing on it was so large that I read the words from where I
"'WAR DEPARTMENT, Richmond, Va.
Provost-Marshal, Knoxville, Tenn.:
"'Release John Wilkins from custody at once and do not allow
him to be molested or disturbed in person or property. Allow him
to pass back and forth between the Confederate and Federal lines
"'By order of
"'JAMES A. SEDDON,
" 'Secretary of War, C. S. A.'
"James A. Seddon was the gentleman
whom I had befriended in time of sore need, and it was to him
my few penciled lines were addressed which I handed to the Quaker
visitor at our jail. He had mailed them to Richmond, and it had
no sooner been read by Secretary Seddon than he telegraphed the
order for my release.
"A glance at the writing and the whole
truth flashed upon me. I could not conceal my exaltation of spirits,
and as the provost-marshal still held the telegram at arm's length,
as if it were a venomous serpent, he took his cigar from his mouth
and again roared with a number of oaths:
"'I say, what does that mean?'
"'Since it is written plainly enough
for me to read it from where I stand, I should think you ought
to be able to do so.'
"He glared at me as if about to burst
with rage, swung around in his chair with a snort of disgust,
and waved the orderly away with me. He had probably given his
orders to the man and was unable to do justice to the situation.
On the outside I was told I was at liberty to go whither I chose.
"General Burnside at that time was
besieging Knoxville and drew the cordon close. Taking advantage
of my strange permission I passed into his lines, where, being
well known to a number, I was well received. I made the trip to
and fro several times, doing considerable in the way of trade.
It was rare that any one was given such privileges as I, and the
situation was not only peculiar, but so dangerous that it could
not last. For a civilian to pass freely from the lines of one
army to those of their enemy, when he was known to be the foe
of one, was an anomaly in warfare that must soon terminate.
"When the curious condition had lasted
something over a week I was fired upon one night when turning
a corner of the street in Knoxville. The man who discharged the
pistol was not more than a dozen feet distant. I saw the flash
and I heard the whistle of the bullet in front of my eyes. Instead
of breaking into a run, he coolly walked off as if he did not
care a rap whether I identified him or not. It would have been
useless for me to demand his punishment or to appeal for protection.
I knew I was certain to be shot if I remained, and the man who
did me up would never suffer there from. So the next time I went
into Burnside's lines I stayed there. My two sons were serving
under him, and I was given employment in the commissary department,
in which I remained to the close of the war.
"When it was safe for me to visit Knoxville
again, I found that my property had utterly vanished, and I was
not worth a dollar beyond the pay I had saved. My wife had died
at the outbreak of the war and both my sons had been killed in
battle. My only daughter married about that time and moved with
her husband to the North. Like thousands of others in the South,
it was necessary for me when fifty years old to begin life over
"I had enough from my pay to take me
to Canada, where I made my way to a lumber camp and hired out
as a day laborer. My companions were good-hearted and kind, though
rough, rugged and strong as bears. They forgot sometimes that
I was not as tough as they, and the work which I undertook wag
often beyond my power. I strove to the utmost to 'hold up my end,'
anxious not to betray my physical weakness.
"One day while straining to lift a
large piece of timber I felt something give way within me, and
seized with a sudden deathly nausea, I sank to the ground in a
faint. When I rallied I was so weak that one of the men had to
help me to the cabin in which we slept and ate our meals. There
I was put in my bunk and a messenger brought a country doctor
from the nearest village, which was a dozen miles away. The physician
did all he could for me, but he had not the remotest idea of what
was the trouble. He left me some simple medicines and promised
to come again in the course of two or three days.
"Well, I lay in my rough bed for six
weeks, during which time there was not a single movement of my
bowels. The lower part of my body seemed as inert as so much wood.
The doctor was not able to give me the slightest help, but always
left me some of his medicine, which I religiously took according
to instruction. I was too weak to leave my bed for more than a
minute or two, and seemed to get neither better nor worse. Injections
and every means possible were tried and produced not the slightest
"As I said, six weeks passed away without
any change in my condition. As I lay awake one afternoon, it occurred
to me that it was time to take some of the medicine, which was
on a rough stand beside my bed. I rolled over on one side and
reached out my hand for the phial. At that instant I thought a
cannon had been discharged in the cabin. I lunged head foremost
and tumbled upon the floor, where I lay like a dead man until
some of my friends came in to prepare supper; and lifted me upon
the couch again.
"Then the truth was discovered. A rupture
of the bowels had taken place on my left side, and through the
opening thus formed passed all the food that I ate, with the exception
of a small proportion, which sometimes found its way into the
bladder. The relief that had thus come gave me strength enough
to walk, and by and by I felt so well that no one would suspect
that anything was the matter with me. It was utterly impossible,
however, for me to do any kind of manual labor. I made my way
to the hospital in Montreal, where after a time I was discharged
as incurable. I journeyed to Philadelphia, where I went through
the same experience. I am now on my way to my married daughter
in Troy, where I expect to end my days. Being without a dollar
to my name, I am compelled to apply to my Masonic brethren for
Mr. Wilkins told me that the only food he
dare eat was mush and milk. I gave him a meal of that, and saw
the opening in his side, over which he carried a bandage, something
like a truss. I handed him, in the name of my lodge, more money
than he asked for, shook his hand, and still smiling and with
his farewell accompanied by a bright jest, he passed out of my
home and I never saw or heard of him again.
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