The Life Story and Narrations of Private Charles Rean – Prisoner, Blind or Tocsin?

June 24, 1862 (Tuesday)

Col. John Farnsworth doesn't believe a word of it, Charles.

The seventeen year old Private Charles Rean of Co. E, 1st Maryland Volunteer Infantry (US), had quite a story to tell. And on this day, he told it to Union cavalry, Federal officers and anyone who would listen. The 1st Maryland had been in the Shenandoah Valley fighting the illusive Stonewall Jackson, and had been no where near Richmond, Virginia. Yet, there he appeared from the early dawn haze to pickets under Col. John Farnsworth. The story of his escape was harrowing, exciting and the stuff of legends. On this day, he entertained pickets, Colonels, and Generals with his tale and warning.

The previous day, General George McClellan, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife of a premonition. “I have a kind of presentiment,” he wrote, “that tomorrow will bring forth somethingwhat I do not know – we will see when the time arrives.” Along with Private Charles Rean, the time had arrived.

Charles was born in Iowa City in 1845. At the age of three, his family moved to Albany, New York. His father had business in Montreal, and Albany made for an easy venture. Two years later, he and his mother moved to New Orleans to live with Henry Brewster, his uncle, so he could attend school at Saint Mary’s Parish, 150 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. But his parents had not split up. The mother frequently traveled to and from Albany, giving her time to both of the men in her life.

A scholarship to Dolbear's Commercial Institute (actually, College), where Charles received his education.

Sometime after that, perhaps around the age of nine or ten, he left his mother, moving to Bayou La Fourche, where he sported with a few friends along the river until his father sold his business and moved to Baltimore. Charles moved back with his father, but only stayed for a month, before moving back to New Orleans to attend Dolbear’s Commercial Institute.

Shortly after the war broke out, he left school and then left New Orleans to move back in with his father. Apparently unable to get along with him or with Baltimore, Charles left for Brooklyn. There, he met up with A.C. and Lamar Alexander (who were, by the way, no relation), plus others whose names he couldn’t remember. They were in the commercial merchant business, which was rather opportune, since he had attended a business school.

Brooklyn sounds like a fine place to catch the Union spirit!

He was under their employ until March 1st, when a streak of patriotism caught him by surprise. He resigned his post and tramped back to Baltimore to doff his cap to his father, who boarded at a private house, which address he couldn’t recall, and was by now engaged in some business along the Susquehanna River. After but one or two short days, he traveled along the B&O Railroad to Harpers Ferry, where he joined the Co. E, 1st Maryland (US), under Captain Bass, on March 18. Col. Kelley was the regimental commander, and some gentleman with a German name (he couldn’t remember it exactly) headed the brigade.

Following some scouting duties, he was in the battles of Kernstown and Front Royal, where nearly the entire regiment was surrendered to the Rebels. He was taken prisoner and transported to Lynchburg, where he was held in the local jail.

After about two weeks of confinement, Charles met a couple of ladies, who were Unionists through and through. “Why do you not escape?” asked one of the fair maidens. “How can I?” replied the young man. The young lady then told him that come evening, she would engage the sentinel and he could slip away. This dear patriot somehow engaged the Rebel, and our hero made his slip. Like any good Federal, he beat a hasty path for the enemy’s capital, arriving in Richmond on the 18th of June. Along the way, he had traded his blue coat for a civilian one, and sold his pants for two or three dollars to cover traveling expenses and a used, cheaper pair of britches.

The scene of the engaging and slipping.

Charles was somewhat familiar with Richmond because he spent some time there about four years ago. Had he not mentioned this? At any rate, to the heart of the Rebellion he strode. While perusing the books at the Richmond library, he stumbled upon a map of the area, which, for some reason, gave him the idea to make for the Union lines near Ashland, fifteen miles north of the city. En route, he passed through the camp of the 4th Virginia (they didn’t seem to mind) and between two other Rebel camps with no one being the wiser.

In Ashland, he heard that Stonewall Jackson was in Gordonsville, so he boarded a train west and rode, fifty miles to Jackson’s camp, just to gather information for the Federals, whose lines he would return to shortly. Why would he risk his life upon such a venture? That was of little importance because while he was there, he found brigade after brigade of Stonewall Jackson’s infantry. Generals like Taylor, Whiting and Hood were gathered there awaiting first Ewell’s and then Jackson’s arrival.

General John Bell Hood was coming to Richmond!

In Frederick’s Hall, the next station up, there were even more Rebels! This time he heard one, then the next and then many say, “I wish to God it was the 28th.” As he found out, Jackson was on the way to Richmond with fifteen brigades to take part in a grand assault. Stonewall had clearly blathered and gossiped all about the coming attack to anyone with ears. On the 28th, the bulk of the Rebel army would assail the Union front, while Jackson fell upon the right flank and rear.

Our dear bully boy immediately left the swarming, warring Rebels and returned to Ashland, walking over forty miles, as fast as he legs would carry him. Finally, on the morning of this date, he was taken into Federal lines by Farnsworth’s cavalry, and was being questioned by Col. Farnsworth, himself.

Charles had an answer for everything. From military tactics to the names of commanders and places, he knew it all. If he took an interest in something, he related, he would make it his project to remember it. When told that Kelley was not the Colonel of the 1st Maryland, Charles replied that maybe it wasn’t Kelley after all. Besides, his company was hardly ever with the regiment, so how was he to know?

Allen Pinkerton cleaverly used the name E.J. Allen so as to hide his true identiy as a master detective.

Col. Farnsworth was impressed by Charles, but not in a good way. He simply wasn’t buying it. “His story is not a good one, and I think false,” relayed Farnsworth to General Fitz John Porter, his superior. “He is either spy, scout, or deserter from the rebels. I think by questioning him as though you believed his tale you will have the same opinion.”

No doubt, Porter did, as he passed him along to General McClellan, who had Allen Pinkerton, his very own private investigator, interrogate him. “I would most respectfully state that this young man is one of the most important persons that it has been my privilege to examine,” mused Pinkerton, obviously impressed with our hero, “being highly educated, shrewd, and thoroughly posted upon the names of all the leading generals in the rebel army, and in military matters thoroughly posted.”

After comparing notes from Farnsworth, Porter and his own interview, he noticed several glaring inconsistencies in Charles’ own personal history. These things should have remained the same throughout each interview, but they did not. What was unchanged, however, was his telling of the military movements of the Rebel army, which he recited almost verbatim.

“My own impression,” concluded Pinkerton, “is that he has been sent within our lines for the purpose of conveying to us the precise information which he has thus conveyed.”1

Sometime after Pinkerton’s interview, Charles broke down and admitted he was a Rebel deserter from Hood’s Texas Brigade. His entire story was false, except for the bits about Stonewall Jackson’s army. That was totally true, he insisted.

"So Pink," says Mac, "since you were so accurate with the numbers of the enemy, what say you about this Reans fellow?"

But nobody really believed that, either. Charles knew too much. Your typical private in a Texas regiment isn’t going to know the minute details of when the entire army was going to attack. Still, there was something to the story. For some reason or another, the Confederates wanted the Union to believe they were going to attack on the 28th.

General McClellan decided to take the deserter at face value, and planned to send parties out to obstruct the roads that Jackson would use to get on the Union right flank. He had written to his wife that he would soon begin a “series of partial attacks” that would bring him closer to Richmond. Instead of calling off these movements on the strange word of a weird Confederate deserter and probable spy, he decided to put them into motion before Jackson could arrive.2

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p693-696. []
  2. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears, Mariner Book, 1992. []
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The Life Story and Narrations of Private Charles Rean – Prisoner, Blind or Tocsin? by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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