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The Confederate spy who hid Booth

The Confederate spy who hid Booth

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THOMAS A. JONES, CHIEF AGENT OF THE CONFEDERATE SECRET SERVICE IN MARYLAND by John M. and Roberta J. Wearmouth. Stones Throw Publishing. 175 pages. Illustrations, maps, footnotes, bibliography. Paperback, $20.

THE ASSASSINATION of President Abra- ham Lincoln and the pursuit, apprehension and death of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, are subjects that never cease to attract the attention of those interested in the Civil War.

The scene of the assassination, Ford's Theater in Washington, draws thousands of tourists each year. The Surratt Society, based in Clinton (formerly Surrattsville), Md.--in the tavern where Booth paused in his flight to pick up weapons and supplies--regularly produces a newsletter filled with observations and newly discovered bits of information about these events.

In the warmer months of the year, but especially in April, tour buses follow Booth's escape route from Washington through Southern Maryland and the upper reaches of the Northern Neck to the spot where Booth met his end at the site of the Garrett farmhouse, now located in the median between the north- and southbound lanes of U.S. 301 not far from Port Royal.

Most residents of Southern Maryland in the early 1860s sympathized with the Confederate cause. Their lifestyle differed little from that of Virginians across the Potomac, except perhaps for greater adherence to the Roman Catholic faith. Many had sons serving in the Confederate army. It was natural that Southern Maryland, and particularly the area around Popes Creek, from which a ferry had run to the Virginia shore in antebellum days, should become the pathway for illicit communications between North and South.

Union gunboats controlled the Potomac, and Union sentries were placed at likely crossing points to prevent such communications. But the Confederate secret service could rely upon a network of sympathetic Marylanders who ensured that letters, newspapers and small amounts of critically needed supplies moved quickly to their destinations. It is said that for most of the war, newspapers published in New York appeared the next day on the desks of Confederate leaders in Richmond.

Such items crossed the Potomac in boats dispatched from Virginia in response to signals from houses on the Maryland side, with the trips made in twilight near the end of the day, when the fading light obscured objects moving across the river. With the exception of a six-month period from September 1861 until March 1862, Thomas A. Jones, who lived near Popes Creek, was the Confederacy's chief signal agent in Southern Maryland.

Jones spent the missing six months imprisoned in Washington, accused of the very act he so regularly committed, until Congress mandated that he and hundreds of others suspected of aiding the Confederacy should be released if no case could be made against them.

As John and Roberta Wearmouth indicate in their book, Jones was far more dangerous to the Union war effort than his 1861 accusers imagined. Born in 1820 into a relatively poor family, he had worked diligently to accumulate land and slaves, the latter constituting most of his capital. In 1861, Jones had a wife and eight children, was in the process of buying a farm on Popes Creek, and made his living as a farmer and fisherman.

After his incarceration early in the war, he took care to avoid placing himself in danger of arrest, leaving the river crossings to his Virginia compatriots, and arranging for the movement of communications left in hollow stumps and similar places of concealment by his network of agents.

Jones made these efforts for the Confederate cause out of sincere conviction, not for money. Late in the war, however, he did go to Richmond to be paid for his services, but arrived just as the city was being evacuated, and received nothing for his work.

Shortly after he returned home, Jones was summoned one evening to Rich Hill, the nearby home of Samuel Cox, one of the richest Southern sympathizers in the area. Jones was born at Rich Hill, and his mother had served as wet nurse for Cox; the two men consequently considered themselves foster brothers. Jones had learned that day of Lincoln's assassination, and had been aware of a Confederate plot to kidnap the president during the preceding winter. When Cox asked him to look after two men concealed in the woods nearby, he was not surprised to learn that it was the assassin Booth and his helper David Herold.

Jones brought the two men food and other supplies, including newspapers, for the next six days. Meanwhile, Southern Maryland was ransacked by those searching for Booth. At one point, Jones was present when a detective offered $100,000 for information leading to the assassin's capture. He calmly observed, "That is a large sum of money and ought to get him if money can do it." When Jones learned that the searchers had been drawn farther east to St. Mary's County, he quickly made his way to his charges, took them to his boat at Popes Creek, and saw them off for the Virginia shore. Booth gave him $18, the cost of the boat.

Both Cox and Jones were arrested in the aftermath of these events. They spent time in Washington's Old Capitol prison, along with theater manager John T. Ford, members of the Booth family, and the Confederate governors of several states. Nothing was proved against them at the time, and they were released in the summer of 1865.

Jones had lost his original farm at Popes Creek because he was unable to make the mortgage payments. He then moved to a smaller property nearby. His wife, who had given birth to their ninth child while Jones was imprisoned early in the war, died in 1863. His slaves were freed at war's end. A staunch Democrat, Jones was given several minor patronage posts in Maryland state government and in Baltimore after the war, and for a time ran a coal, wood and feed establishment in that city.

In December 1883, journalist George Alfred Townsend, who wrote under the byline GATH, paid Jones $60 for the story of his involvement in the Booth escape, an account of which appeared in Century magazine in April 1884.

During the first Cleveland administration, Jones held a federal patronage position at the Washington Navy Yard for a short time. However, voting irregularities in Southern Maryland, where Jones had returned in 1887, led to replacement of the local congressman by a Republican, which ended Jones' career in Washington.

In 1893, John E. Stone, a newspaperman and lawyer, served as Jones' ghostwriter in the publication of "J. Wilkes Booth: An Account of His Sojourn in Southern Maryland after the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, His Passage Across the Potomac, and His Death in Virginia." This work, published in Chicago to coincide with the World's Columbian Exposition being held there, did not sell well in the "Land of Lincoln." Jones died in Southern Maryland in early March 1895 and was buried in the graveyard of Newport Catholic Church. There is no gravestone, and the grave's location is now lost.

The Wearmouths' book contains a wealth of fascinating information. But facts are presented largely in piecemeal fashion, and the exposition is grammatically challenged. The book reprints most of the GATH Century magazine article, all of Jones' 1893 ghostwritten work, and Jones' obituary from the Port Tobacco Times of March 8, 1895. There is an interesting chapter on a large boat the Confederate secret service purchased to expedite the anticipated kidnapping of Lincoln. The boat was destroyed in the assassination's aftermath.

To sum up, this book would appeal primarily to those interested in the details of Booth's activities in Southern Maryland after Lincoln's assassination, or to those who want to know more about wartime communications across the Potomac.

DANE HARTGROVE of Stafford County is editor of Drum & Bugle, newsletter of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table.

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