Patrick K. McDonnell

Exclusive–O’Donnell: Lincoln’s Special Forces, The Jessie Scouts

A lonely roadside sign stands by a winding Virginia country byway marking the site Union Jessie Scout Jack Sterry, also known as Lincoln’s Special Forces, spoke his last words. Through his cunning, he tried to lead the Confederate army down the wrong road, away from where it was crucially needed. I serendipitously stumbled upon the placard. Another book found me—the marker proved to be a portal into an epic untold story.

“This way, General Hood,” said the young guide clad in the butternut of a Confederate calvary trooper as he “gracefully saluted and pointed northward” on the fateful morning of August 28, 1862. General John Bell Hood “halted his column and closely questioned the guide, feeling certain that he was in error. And yet it would seem that the guide must be right. He was intelligent, confident, definite, certain of his instructions, and prompt and clear in his replies.”

Hood’s Confederate troops had marched up the road toward Thoroughfare Gap to Manassas to reinforce General Stonewall Jackson at the Second Battle of Bull run. “The situation was critical; no exigency of war could be more so. It was not merely the issue of a battle, but the fate of a campaign that hung in the balance.”

The guide urged Hood to take the road north away from the battlefield, where he claimed General Jackson was retreating.

“Did General Jackson himself give you these instructions?” asked Hood.

“Yes, General. Stonewall Jackson’s trains, General. He is pushing them toward Aldie, where I supposed you would join him,” responded the guide.

“I have heard nothing of all this!” exclaimed an astounded Hood.

“Then I’ll tell you what it is, General Hood; those devilish Jessie Scouts are at it again!—cutting off Stuart’s couriers! Jackson has heard nothing from Longstreet since yesterday morning, and he’s afraid you’ll follow the old order and try to join him by Thoroughfare Gap.”

“How did you learn all these things?” General Hood continued to interrogate the guide but was “yet scarcely suspicious of treachery—the guide was so bland and free and unconstrained.”

“I am Frank Lamar, of Athens, Georgia, enrolled with the cavalry of Hampton’s Legion, but now detailed on courier service at the headquarters of Stonewall Jackson.”

The full details of this remarkable story are told in my bestselling book, The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations. The book reveals the drama of the irregular guerrilla warfare that altered the course of the Civil War, including the story of Lincoln’s special forces who donned Confederate gray to hunt Mosby and his Confederate Rangers from 1863 to the war’s end at Appomattox—a previously untold story that inspired the creation of U.S. modern special operations in World War II. The book also captures the story of the Confederate Secret Service.

When a message went down the line requesting that the colonel commanding the Hampton Legion immediately report to the crossroads, “the guide suddenly remembered that he had never really belonged to Hampton’s Legion;” and proceeded to tell a tale of how to impress a girl “he had deserted from the infantry and captured a horse, and his real name was Harry Brooks.”

Despite diligent questioning, “many of us believed, almost to the last, that the guide was a true man” until a mortally wounded Confederate scout was found who conveyed with his dying words that he had been “shot by one of our own men!” and his dispatches stolen. All eyes immediately turned to the guide. Unshaken, the Jessie Scout boldly declared:

“Stop! I have three more words for you. I am neither Frank Lamar, of Georgia nor Harry Brooks, of Virginia. I am Jack Sterry, of the Jessie Scouts. I did not kill that rebel, but I was with those who did. His dispatches by this time are safe enough! I should like my friends to know that I palavered with your army for a good half hour while General Pope was battering down your precious old Stonewall. Now men, I am ready!—and in parting, I will simply ask you to say, if you should ever speak of this, that Jack Sterry, when the rebels got him, died as a Jessie Scout should!”

Harper’s magazine : Alden, Henry Mills, 1836-1919

Jack Sterry sat astride the crossroads of history; at the right time and right place, he tried to shape the course of events through his personal agency, Sterry was part of an extraordinary group of men. Often referred to as Jessie Scouts, they were named after the wife of Major General John Charles Frémont, an explorer and a politician. He was a U.S. Senator from California and the first presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 1856. At the start of the Civil War, Frémont was a general officer in command of the Department of the West. Known as “the Pathfinder” for his pioneering missions that explored and mapped the West while fending off hostile Native Americans, Frémont organized the specialized group of operators at the beginning of the war in St. Louis and employed them in Missouri, which was embroiled in guerrilla fighting.

His wife, Jessie Ann Benton Frémont, was also the daughter of a U.S. Senator. The flaxen-haired beauty grew up at her father’s side, rubbing elbows with politicians and sharing his political views, including becoming an outspoken advocate against slavery. Brilliant, powerful, charismatic, and a tremendous advocate for her husband, one admiring journalist of the time dubbed Jessie not only a “historic woman but the greatest woman in America.” In many circles, it was known Jessie “was the better man of the two.”

Reportedly, she first advised her husband’s Scouts to wear their enemies’ uniforms. “Jessie, who had been with her husband until lately, frequently saw these men and became very popular with them. Hence their present attachment to her. They swear by her and wear her initials on their coats, inserted in a very modest but coarse style.” In addition to embroidering her initials, they also adopted Jessie as their namesake.

Colt Navy and Army Revolvers and an 1860 Cavalry Saber Carried by Men in The Unvanquished. Patrick K. O’Donnell

When John Charles Frémont moved east in the spring of 1862 to take command of the Mountain Department, located in southwest Virginia and what would become West Virginia, he brought men who understood rugged terrain and an enemy skilled in guerrilla fighting. The taming of the American West and conflict with Native Americans, including the adaptation of some of their fighting tactics, would have a profound impact on the foundations of American special operations and unconventional warfare. One contemporary stated that the Pathfinder, “proceeded to follow his notion derived from experience in the Western frontier. He knew that the safety and efficiency of his army in a wild, wooded, and rugged region depended on the accuracy with which he received information of the plans and movements of the enemy. He at once called around him a set of Western frontiersmen, who had served all through the campaign in Missouri. Some had been in the border wars of Kansas; some served long years on the Plains, hunting the buffalo and the Indian; men accustomed to every form of hardship, thoroughly skilled, not only in the use of the rifle, but drilled in all cunning ways and devices to discover the intentions, position, and strength of a foe. The best of these men were selected and placed in a small organization called the Jessie Scouts.”

Members of the U.S. Army, civilians, and later even a turncoat former Confederate cavalry trooper, the Scouts morphed into the enemy, taking on their uniforms, accents, and mannerisms: “He seems a Tennessean, a Georgian, an Irishman, a German—anything indeed but what he really is,” recalled one contemporary. To pass off as Confederates, the Jessie Scouts developed false backgrounds for men they impersonated and learned convincing cover stories to pass themselves off as the enemy. The previously untold story of these covert warriors, decades ahead of their time, who shaped the fate of the Civil War, is also the story of the foundation of current American special operations forces.

Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically-acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of thirteen books, including his forthcoming book on the Civil War The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations, which is currently in Barnes and Noble Stores nationwide. His other bestsellers include: The Indispensables,  The Unknowns, and Washington’s Immortals.  O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. 

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