In his own words: Civil War veteran was a natural storyteller

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 15, 2012 

Judging by his wartime letters and later recollections, Civil War Veteran John H. Smith, who is buried at Lynden Cemetery, had a knack for telling stories.

TEEN TRAPPER

As an older man, he recounted how he left home when he was 17 and spent the winter of 1849 on his own as a young trapper.

"I began to feel like a wild animal in a cage; much like Daniel Boone must have felt when he left Kentucky for the wilds of Missouri," Smith wrote.

In his case, Smith left Illinois for the wilds of Iowa.

At one point, he and the family dog spent a day and a night trapped atop a tall boulder while a sea of buffalo crossed the prairie below them.

"They crowded each other in a solid mass, like a stream of dark colored water rushing along," Smith wrote. "Thousands and thousands of them - great monsters that would weigh two thousand pounds, more or less, apiece!"

FATAL ENCOUNTER

Smith also recounted a grim experience after he, his wife, and their 3-year-old daughter moved to Missouri in 1859. One day, Smith was walking to town for supplies when he caught a ride in a wagon driven by a black slave. Asked by the slave what he would do if Smith were a slave, Smith suggested escaping by traveling upriver at night and hiding in trees during the day, ready to shoot any bloodhounds sent to track him down.

When the slave apparently took his advice and managed to escape, vigilantes vowed to punish the man in the wagon. Six men rode to Smith's cabin at night to capture and hang him. Forewarned, Smith sat waiting with his rifle and a borrowed revolver when the men broke down the cabin's heavy door.

"I saw a man's foot come up into the doorway," Smith wrote. "I made one quick spring, bringing the muzzle of my gun to within a foot of the foremost man's breast and pulled the trigger. A loud report followed, and the first man, along with the one directly behind him, threw their hands up and fell backward. They must have been shot through the heart."

Quickly grabbing the revolver, Smith killed a man who tried to smash his head with the butt of a rifle, and then killed a fourth man running toward the cabin.

Knowing a larger group would soon return, Smith's wife and child fled to Indiana while Smith escaped to Denver, where he earned money mining gold before reuniting with his family.

PRISONER OF WAR

In a Jan. 18, 1863, letter to his wife, Rachel, Smith told of his narrow escape while a solider.

Smith was captured by Confederate soldiers near Carthage, Mo., and forced to walk barefoot to a campsite. During the clash, Smith and two others had been captured when their horses were shot out from under them.

"My horse was shot through the head and I got my foot fast under him and could not git it out til I was captured," Smith wrote.

The other two prisoners were shot and left in a sinkhole. Smith, being a Northerner, was to be taken to headquarters and hung. After marching awhile, a guard kept watch over Smith while the other Confederates prepared camp for the night.

"I was using every invention of my mind to form some plan of escape but my hands was tied and I could think of no other but to bite the string into a thread at a time when the guard was not watching me," Smith wrote. "That was the plan. I had not thought of the angels of freedom that was hovering around that dark valey."

About 100 Union soldiers opened fire from a hill above Smith.

"The guard fell dead almost at my feet with 2 balls through him," Smith wrote.

Within minutes, 17 rebels were slain and 23 were captured. They were marched east to Springfield, Mo., where they were tried and sentenced to be shot.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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