It’s been years since Harrison Raines set foot in Richmond. Although a proud Virginian, he fled the South before the Civil War, unable to bear the evil of slavery. In 1862, battles rage on all sides of the Confederate capital, but Raines is not here as a soldier—he comes as a spy. Union intelligence, led by the formidable Allen Pinkerton, has sent him to steal the plans for a rumored Confederate superweapon: a seagoing ship clad entirely in iron that could break the Union blockade and turn the war around. Raines may be in home territory, but he is not at ease. In Richmond, they hang spies.
While investigating the ship known as “the Monster,” Raines’s closest friend—a freed slave named Caesar Augustus—is arrested for murder. Saving Augustus from the gallows will take quick wit, daring, and influence at the highest levels of the Confederacy.
The Ironclad Alibi is the 3rd book in the Harrison Raines Civil War Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Ironclad Alibi
A Harrison Raines Civil War Mystery
By Michael Kilian
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2002 Michael Kilian
All rights reserved.
As they turned their rain-wet, road-weary horses into Richmond's Main Street near the center of the Confederate capital that cold and miserable February morning, Harry Raines's black manservant Caesar Augustus of a sudden commenced singing "Dixie."
He had an excellent baritone and sang the tune with great brio, causing several of the many pedestrians on the sidewalk to stare. And, prompting his companion, a Virginia planter's son and now Union federal agent, to wonder if the emotional and mental strain of being back in this city had proved too much for the former slave.
"Den I wish I was in Dixie, Hoo-ray, Hoo-ray!
"In Dixie land I'll take my stand, to lib and die in Dixie.
"Away, away, away down South in Dixie. Away, away, away down South in Dixie!"
Harry smiled at the onlookers politely, feeling foolish, hoping these Richmond folk would think that in Caesar Augustus he was blessed with an example of that very rare slave who found happiness and contentment in the bondage that the South was fighting to uphold in this awful war, now in its second year.
But few seemed so persuaded. More than one eyed Caesar Augustus with apprehension, as though he might be a loon, and dangerous. What black man could be so cheerful in such a time?
Cheerful or no, Caesar Augustus was quite sane — and no slave. Harry had seen to that — in this very city — several years before, well in advance of the guns at Sumter.
Very dark in color, the black man had been born into servitude at Belle Haven, the sprawling James River plantation that had been in Harry's family for four generations. He'd been one of more than a hundred Negroes belonging to Harry's father, now a Confederate colonel serving with General James Longstreet.
Only a few months apart in age, and lacking any other companions on the large plantation save Harry's older brother, the two had been friends since early childhood. Acknowledging the relationship, Colonel Raines had spared the young African the life of a field hand, to which his large size and unusual strength had commended him. Instead, upon Harry's twenty-first birthday, the Colonel had given his youngest son Caesar Augustus as a present, to do with as he might, thinking this a kind and magnanimous gesture.
The very next day, Harry had hurried Caesar Augustus into Richmond and secured the emancipation papers required for his freedom. For this, Harry and his father had nearly come to blows, and might have done, if Harry had not then and there left the family and taken up residence in Richmond, signifying his profound dislike of "the Peculiar Institution" on which his family's wealth had for so long depended.
Eventually, he crossed the Potomac and settled in Washington City. Caesar Augustus did the same.
Now, they were returning, in a good cause but in probable folly. This had become a war of vicious, consuming passions, especially in the Confederate capital. They could forfeit their lives for this homecoming. The Rebel government had taken to hanging captured spies publicly at the Richmond fairgrounds on the western edge of town, and it hadn't been particular about the evidence used to convict them.
Harry was well qualified for the noose. He was on a mission for the Secret Service recently organized by the former railroad detective Allen Pinkerton, a mission requested by President Abraham Lincoln himself.
The Confederates were at work on a monstrous weapon — an iron-sided ship believed to be invulnerable to enemy shell and shot. Little was known about it, but much was rumored. It was feared the vessel would be able to destroy or push aside the Union's blockading squadron on Chesapeake Bay — and then steam all the way up to the Potomac and pummel Washington at its leisure. With the North's defeats at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff the year before, spirits were at a low ebb. This sailing fort could spark a panic of disastrous proportions.
Help was said to be on the way, though Harry had no idea what that could possibly be. In the meantime, Lincoln and Pinkerton wanted to know how close the Confederate vessel was to ready, how well it was armed and worked, its strengths and weaknesses, and what the Confederate government intended to do with it.
This was a lamentably tall order. Harry knew a lot about boats; little about ships. He was going to need some significant help, and this his black companion was not now providing.
Caesar Augustus had volunteered to accompany Harry, in the guise of slave and servant. He was well aware of the dangers attendant upon this adventure. His behavior now was mystifying.
Harry pulled up his coat collar and down his broad-brimmed hat, slouching forward in his saddle and pretending at first not to hear as Caesar Augustus returned to the refrain. "Away, away, away down South in Dixie ..."
This had to stop. Harry turned to evidence his displeasure with what he hoped would be taken for a steely glare. This was not easily managed, as he was near of sight and was not wearing his spectacles.
He could see well enough, though, to note that Caesar Augustus was grinning broadly at him in response.
"Have you abandoned all sense, Sir?" Harry said.
"Ise jist tryin' to be a good darkie, Marse Harry. Show ma deep and abidin' loyalty to de glorious South and its noble cause."
The servile dialect was a further irritant. In serious contravention of Virginia law, Harry had over the years educated Caesar Augustus to a level of literacy approximating his own. The man could quote whole passages from Shakespeare. This "darkie" talk was mockery.
"You are already in Dixie, Sir," Harry said. "You needn't sing about wishing to be here. You've no more wish to be here than do I."
"Yet here we be."
"Then let's get on with this, so that our departure may come the sooner. You risk more than our lives with your tomfoolery, Caesar Augustus. I would remind you of our purpose here."
The grin disappeared. "I'm sorry, Marse Harry."
"An apology is not necessary. A little more caution here is."
"Yessir, Marse Harry. From now on, you won't hardly know I'm here."
Harry looked back to the thoroughfare before them, noting crowds of people crossing it in the far distance. They seemed to be heading for the hill on which stood the neoclassical capitol building, once solely Virginia's but now the Confederacy's. Even in this soggy drizzle, it loomed majestically over this scrubby little industrial city. They had started construction of a new dome for the hilltop U.S. Capitol in Washington City, but until its completion, the Southern ediface would seem the grander thing. Thomas Jefferson had been a poor president, in Harry's judgment, but was a splendid architect.
He wondered at the great numbers of people accumulating there in such a cold and wet inclemency. Perhaps there was some momentous news being announced. A Union general out west named Grant had been advancing on the Confederate bastions of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in Tennessee, last Harry had heard. Other Union forces had invaded the coast of North Carolina. He feared the Federals might have suffered some reverse or disaster and that all these people had come forth to publicly rejoice.
But then, the disaster might just as easily have been one befalling the South. He thought of asking someone on the street, then thought better of it, not wanting to draw that much attention to himself.
A squadron of resplendent Confederate cavalry, wearing better uniforms than Harry had seen on a Southern back in months — or a Northern one, for that matter — came trotting out of a side street of a sudden, turning so closely they almost drew Harry and Caesar Augustus into their formation. A few of the horsemen glanced at them as they passed by, mostly in appreciation of Harry's horse, but the troop continued without pause, spurs and sabers jangling. One rider at the rear looked Harry's way again, with some curiosity, receiving a quick and deferential nod in response.
The troop moved on.
As they neared Ninth Street, the crowd became even thicker, the people all in a general press toward the capital grounds. Someone among them — it was a woman's voice — of a sudden called out Harry's name.
He snapped his head in that direction, but could see no one he knew — no one, at least, whose features he could make out without his spectacles. There was the blur of a woman's face turned his way. A blue bonnet and cloak. Riding on a few paces further, Harry pulled forth his spectacles and quickly set them in place. By the time he looked again, the lady had vanished.
"Did you see who that was?" he asked Caesar Augustus.
"Yes," said Caesar Augustus.
Band music could be heard ahead.
"Well, who was it?"
"That much I could tell. What woman?"
"A woman with a Confederate officer. I stopped lookin' when I noticed that."
Harry reined his horse to a halt, looking carefully among the throng this time but recognizing no one. He idly ran his hand over his jaw. He wore no beard, only a longish, cavalier's moustache, which was now soaked with rain. He feared he must look more like some saddle tramp than a Virginia gentleman.
"Where are they?" he asked, quietly.
"Guess they've gone." Caesar Augustus moved his horse ahead of Harry's. "Hope they've gone."
Filling the street, the crowd had fully blocked the way. Harry could see people swarming up over the capitol's wide, sloping lawn.
He'd been happily anticipating the warm comforts of Richmond's Exchange Hotel — the cheery fire that would be blazing in the main lobby, the reviving whiskey to be had in the hotel's pleasant bar — for nearly all the days they'd been on the road. But now he decided that would have to wait.
Abruptly turning his horse left, he proceeded back one block, then started up Eighth Street toward Broad and the top of the hill. When they were clear of the crowd, Caesar Augustus came alongside him.
"Thought you wanted to go straight to our hotel, Marse Harry."
"I think it best we establish our bonafides now, without delay," Harry said. "We'll go directly to the president's house and call upon Mr. Davis. That should preclude a great many questions people might have."
"Still think that's a damn fool idea."
"President Davis is my father's friend."
"Maybe so, but are you? And what are they going to think about your horse?"
The mount, a bay gelding, had a military saddle set upon a U.S. Army blanket bearing a major general's stars. Harry's coat covered much of this suspicious tack, but when he dismounted, it would occasion some notice.
"Only a few blocks more," he said.
Away from Main, the streets were largely deserted. At the next intersection up the hill, they stopped for a rumbling farm wagon, remaining in place as they took note of a carriage approaching behind it, the driver hunched over his knees with an oilskin draped about his shoulders. A woman peered at Harry from behind the leather window curtain.
This face he knew. It had been a few years since he'd looked upon her, but he recognized her at once.
She was pale and drawn, and blonde of hair beneath her bonnet. Her eyes, which fixed on him, were an extraordinary bright blue. The curtain dropped back in place as the coach went by.
"Miss Van Lew!" he cried.
The carriage rolled on along the street a few feet more, then stopped. The pale face reappeared.
"Harrison? Harrison Raines?"
He quickly moved his horse to the carriage's side. She was a pretty lady for her years, but wan, and very serious. Her voice was as musical as he remembered, but had lost its joy. She seemed to speak from a deep well of melancholy.
"Harrison Raines I am, Miss Van Lew," he said, bowing in the saddle with a sweep of his dripping hat. "At your service."
She came from one of Richmond's wealthiest and most socially prominent families, though her mother was from Philadelphia and her late hardware merchant father came originally from New York. With the war, the Van Lews were doubtless now considered pariahs. Elizabeth had never married, and was now over forty — about the same age as the notorious Rose Greenhow, the Confederate spymaster in Washington who'd been found out and jailed.
"Why are you in Richmond?" Miss Van Lew asked, as though amazed by his presence. "You went North. Why would you come back here?"
Harry had prepared an elaborate, all-purpose answer to that query, but it would be of little use with this lady. She knew where his true sympathies lay in this war.
"Personal business, Miss Van Lew."
She studied him a moment. She was extremely intelligent, he recalled, and seemed to be making some assessment about him. Nervous suddenly, she glanced quickly up and down the street.
"How did you get through the lines?"
"I would speak further with you, Mr. Raines. And soon. But this is not the place or circumstance. I've just come from my farm and must get home." She paused. "Can you call upon me this evening? You remember the house?"
"Yes, of course. On Church Hill. Grace Street. Across from St. John's, where Patrick Henry made his speech."
"He demanded liberty," she said, derisively. "But he offered none to his slaves."
"He was my father's hero. Not mine."
She smiled, looking oddly a little daft.
"Later, then, Mr. Raines. I shall be most happy to see you. Supper will be at eight o'clock."
He tipped his hat. "That's most kind of you."
"The invitation extends to the gentleman traveling with you," she said. "Come to the rear of the house. I don't know the nature of your 'personal business,' but it will do you no good to have people suspect we are friends."
The window curtain fell, and the carriage moved on, attaining some speed.
He would be discreet, but he expected she would prove a useful friend. He had scant other in this city of his youth.
"Who is that woman?" asked Caesar Augustus, pulling his horse close to Harry's.
"You never met her, but she knows about you. Her name is Elizabeth Van Lew, and I daresay at this moment she is the only publicly avowed Abolitionist to be found in Richmond."
The black man stared after the moving coach. "Then she's a mighty dangerous person to be around," he said.
"Everybody's dangerous here," was Harry's reply.
The Confederate President's House on Twelfth Street sat atop a hill as high as the one supporting the capitol. Unlike Mr. Lincoln's grand official residence in Washington, it was not a very imposing structure — four stories tall, but otherwise an ordinary house fronting a gravel court, with adjoining stable and standing very close to the street.
Two Confederate soldiers loitered on the gravel, while another pair stood more ceremoniously to either side of the steps leading to the high, first floor main entrance. Three civilians, all dressed in black and smoking cigars on the steps, eyed Harry and Caesar Augustus with some curiosity.
But Harry was not challenged until he reached the door.
"I'm calling on the president," he said to the soldier who stepped in his path. "I'm Colonel Raines's son, Harrison Raines."
The soldier grinned. "You want to see President Davis? Don't you know what day this is?"
Harry stood stupidly for a moment, then shook his head.
"It's Inauguration Day," the soldier said, as though to a child. "He's down there at the Capitol, taking his oath of office."
Harry felt immeasurably stupid. He was, according to an oath he had sworn in Washington, a captain in the U.S. Secret Service — a scout, for want of a better term for what he did. Yet somehow it had escaped his notice that the very head of the Confederacy was being formally invested in that office on what was likely the most public occasion Richmond had ever staged. "Major Allen," as Allan Pinkerton clandestinely styled himself, would not be amused at this incompetence. He might wonder if Harry ought not be reassigned to a task more in keeping with his abilities — such as cleaning stables.
"I've only just arrived in Richmond," Harry said, at length. "Been on the road a long while, and haven't read any newspapers."
That was true. They'd taken a circuitous route, avoiding population centers and troop encampments, arriving at the Southern capital from the west, not the road south from Fredericksburg.
"Where'd you come from?" the soldier asked.
"Western Virginia." That was also the truth — if not all of it.
"They ain't got newspapers in Western Virginia?"
Excerpted from The Ironclad Alibi by Michael Kilian. Copyright © 2002 Michael Kilian. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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