By Eileen Church
Webmaster Note: Eileen's updated text below appeared in Crossfire No. 96 August 2011 as 'The Adventures of a Confederate Mail Runner''
On 27th May 1861 the Federal Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, issued his Suspension Order and from that date no mail could officially cross the lines. The only exception being Flag of Truce mail which could be used by civilians (but under stringent rules) but was mostly used for Prisoner of War Mail. In times of peace the organization and delivery of mail is a prosaic activity but should war disrupt the postal service it assumes a vital importance.
Maps of Civil War campaigns often show a line dividing Federal and Confederate territory, but in reality this is an abstract entity; there was no line in the soil, no great barrier of blue-coated soldiers armed to the teeth. We must remember that we are talking about vast distances and people were constantly crossing the "lines" for various practical reasons and it was natural for these people to be asked to carry letters for friends and acquaintances. It was, however, a distinctly risky business as anyone caught carrying mail by the enemy would be arrested, imprisoned and possibly shot as a spy.
As some mail deliveries came to be of vital importance officially appointed "mail runners" came into existence. Many Confederate soldiers in the Western and Trans-Mississippi theatres of war were from Union Missouri, Union Kentucky and parts of Tennessee that were under Union occupation, and to keep these soldiers in touch with family and friends "mail runners" regularly smuggled letters and packages through the lines. Captain Absalom Grimes (pictured) is, perhaps, the most well-known, being the official mail carrier for the Missouri brigades.
At the outbreak of war Grimes was working as a river boat pilot (as were his father and uncle), was 26yrs of age and unmarried. His own family was pro-union, one brother serving in the Federal Army, but his fiancee Lucy Gascott's family's allegiance was to the South and so, being in love, he followed his heart and supported the Confederacy.
All Missouri river boat pilots were required to take an oath of support to the Union if they wanted to retain their occupation and so, together with fellow pilots and close friends Sam Bowen and Sam Clements, he was ordered to Union Headquarters in St Louis to take the oath. The Union officer who was to administer the oath must have been something of a ladies man because he left the three young pilots alone and went into another room to entertain three young female visitors. Grimes and his two friends took this opportunity to pick up their bags and decamp back home to Ralls County, where, with several friends and neighbours, they formed a company of irregulars nominated the Ralls County Rangers. There being only about a dozen Rangers present and correct, by the time a captain, two lieutenants (Sam Clements being one) and a couple of sergeants had been elected there were only some half dozen or so men remaining to serve as privates.
The only Confederate service the Ralls County Rangers took part in was to make camp out in the prairie for two weeks with no tents and very little food. As it rained continuously for the whole two weeks the dejected little group returned wet, hungry and miserable. Sam Clements was so dejected and miserable that he moved out west to live with his brother in Nevada, wrote a book about the journey, entitled "Roughing It", which he published under the name of Mark Twain.
Absalom Grimes, however, was not dispirited by his experiences and he decided to enlist in Co. K, 1st Mississippi Cavalry and was soon promoted Captain. At the end of 1861 he was captured at Springfield, Missouri, brought to St Louis and, with other POW's, placed in the Myrtle St. prison. In March '62 these prisoners were taken north, by steamboat, to the prison camp at Alton, Illinois. This was a big mistake on the part of the Federals as the river and steamboats were Grimes' natural environment and he had many friends on the boats. It was one such friend that assisted his escape at Alton by allowing him to masquerade as an engineer below deck as the other prisoners disembarked. The Union guards were fooled and Grimes clambered aboard the steamboat moored alongside, which, luckily, was about to make the return journey to St. Louis. Grimes knew, of course, the pilot and engineers and was back in St. Louis a free man sixteen hours after leaving as a POW.
He made his way back to the Missouri regiments at Rienzi, Mississippi, carrying letters from families around St Louis to loved ones in the Confederate army. General Sterling Price was so impressed by Grimes exploits that he appointed him an official 'mail runner'. He returned to St. Louis and by April 6th he was ready to begin a mail carrying career that would see him imprisoned four times, make three daring escapes and be sentenced to death.
Captain Grimes set up a brilliant system for collecting the mail in Missouri by recruiting female Southern sympathisers to tour the State under the guise of corsetieres. At this time almost all ladies wore corsets and were measured for them in the privacy of their own homes. This provided a perfect subterfuge for the collection of letters. These lady corsetieres wore double lined crinolines with pockets sewn between the linings enabling them to carry up to 1000 letters. It would be a very brave Union soldier that would dare to look up a lady's crinoline!
Grimes's first trip as official Mail Runner proved successful, making use of steamboats (of course), the railroad and a small skiff which he floated through the Union lines at Cairo. His second trip, however, proved to be something of a disaster when he had to make a detour into Arkansas to avoid military activity in the area. Unluckily he was recognised by a Union officer, arrested and taken to the jail at Cairo. Luckily he had managed to hide his carpet bag full of mail before being approached by the Union soldiers and so was arrested as an escaped POW and not as a spy.
Always a man of ingenuity, he had the forethought to hide a knife and hacksaw blade in the lapels of his jacket which were undetected by his captors. Luck seemed to be with Grimes as the Mississippi water level was high and the Cairo jail flooded. The Captain used this to his advantage and hacked a hole in the wooden floor of his cell while it was under about two feet of water. When the water had subsided he made his way through the hole and made his second escape from Union custody.
He managed to board a steamboat which was going to Pittsburg Landing and the fact that it was full of Union soldiers did not deter him in the least. He was hidden below deck and provided with dry clothing by the chief engineer who was, yes you've guessed, a close friend. He eventually made it to the Confederate Army camp at Corinth, unfortunately without the mail, which was extremely disappointing for the waiting Missouri soldiers. Captain Grimes made the return journey, carrying the mail from Corinth, by steamboat, again hidden below deck by the crew and by June 4th he was safely back in St Louis to continue his mail running exploits.
One of these exploits took him up the Ohio River to Indianapolis. Whilst walking back to his hotel one evening he came across a rather noisy meeting and decided to enter the building and investigate. Eminent townspeople were offering money for substitutes to take the draft. Grimes, being Grimes, accepted a bid of $875, gave a false name, collected the money and hightailed it back to his hotel. He returned south the next morning a much richer man than he had left!
On another occasion Grimes decided to blow up an enemy vessel; the powerful new Union iron-clad steamer 'Essex' which was tied up on the wharf at St Louis. With the help of several friends, one of whom was a blacksmith, he constructed a home¬made bomb, placed it in an old carpet bag, lit the long fuse, and boarded the Essex. Unfortunately this was not just a riverboat but a well-guarded Union gun boat and he was unable to get below deck to place the bomb. Realising that time was running out he beat a hasty retreat back to the blacksmiths shop, expecting at any moment to be blown sky high. He made it back with just four inches of fuse left to burn.
Occasionally Grimes became a cropper! In September 1862 he was captured on a riverboat after being betrayed by a St. Louis hotel clerk. He threw his carpet bag full of letters over the side but this time his luck had deserted him, the bag refused to sink and was recovered by the Federals. On this evidence he was sentenced to be shot, the execution to take place on the first Friday in December. He was detained in the infamous Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis - but not for long On 2nd October he managed yet another daring escape, leaving behind a 32lb cannonball that had been chained to his leg.
A man of less determined character might have given some thought to quitting, but Grimes carries on as mail runner for the Missouri and Kentucky soldiers even though he is now a wanted man with a price on his head and a death sentence hanging over him.His next journey south is conducted disguised as a 'hobo' and he makes it to the Confederate camp at Holly Springs. If Captain Grimes could not reach the camps he would drop the mail into the CSA postal system when he reached Confederate territory. If any part of his return journey had to be made overland in Federal territory he would drop some of the mail in small amounts, so as not to arouse suspicion, at several US post offices on the way.
During 1863 the Confederate Army was forced further south and Grimes is confronted with the task of getting the mail past the Union blockade at Vicksburg. To solve this problem Grimes went back to his friend the blacksmith, who fashioned two watertight boxes which were fastened to the bottom of a small skiff. Grimes and a friend of his, Bob Louden, paddled down the river towards Vicksburg. Waiting until dark the pair then partly sank the skiff and, with one man at each end, floated it past the Union fleet. They then baled out the skiff and paddled into Vicksburg much to the elation of the besieged regiments.
Grimes was extremely shocked by the state of the army in the city and it affected him deeply; two hundred men in the Missouri regiments alone had succumbed to wounds or illness (mostly illness) since his last visit a month before. He was so depressed by what he saw that he had thoughts about giving up and it was only by the personal intervention of senior officers, including General Breckinridge, that he was persuaded to continue. Breckinridge provided him and Louden with Union uniforms and they rowed back upstream past the Union blockade. The currents being very strong on this part of the Mississippi it took eleven hours for the two exhausted men to reach the Yazoo river and Confederate lines. He was there prevailed upon to spend some time piloting Confederate vessels on the Yazoo and Tallahatchie rivers.
It was during this period that he came up with another of his amazing schemes; this time to hi-jack one of the Union provision boats that were docked at Memphis. His objective was to get these badly needed goods into Vicksburg. The terrible hardships that he had witnessed being suffered by the men defending the city were still heavily on his mind. The scheme was given official sanction and with twenty- five hand-picked men he made his way to Memphis where he contrived to get several men onto the boat as deck hands and the rest boarded as paying passengers. But as they waited on the morning of July 6th for the vessel to slip it's moorings they were dismayed to see a boat entering Memphis displaying a large canvass banner which read "Vicksburg has fallen".
Although crestfallen at the fall of the city Grimes continued with his mail running duties and in November he arranged for Lucy to travel to Memphis so that they could marry, but he is recognised and arrested before the ceremony can take place. He finds himself once more confined in Gratiot St. prison, St Louis awaiting sentence of death, this time by hanging, to be carried out in July 1864. True to form Grimes is soon involved in a conspiracy to escape and on 18th June he and four other make a break for freedom. Grimes almost made it past the guards (even with a 32lb iron ball chained to his leg) before being shot in the neck and leg. Three of his fellow escapees were shot and killed but one did succeed in gaining his freedom.
While Captain Grimes was recovering in hospital his many friends made great efforts to secure his release, even writing to the President himself. Lincoln, impressed by the man's courage, resourcefulness and ingenuity - Lincoln was always fond of a good yarn - and convinced that Grimes had been a military mail runner and not a spy signed a full pardon for him on 1st December 1864. It took Grimes some time to regain his health and strength owing to the starvation diet and regular beatings that he had received in prison, but, in St. Louis, on 7th March 1865 he is well enough to marry the ever patient
Lucy and take a honeymoon trip on a riverboat (what else?) to New Orleans.
After the war he spent thirty years as a riverboat pilot on the upper Mississippi before becoming the manager of a hunting reserve a few miles outside St. Louis, his final employment being with the General Compressed Air Vacuum Cleaning Company. Following the death of his beloved wife Lucy, with whom he had seven children, he married a much younger woman. Shortly afterwards he shot a man on a St. Louis street for making insulting remarks about his new wife.
From 1908 to 1911 his name is to be found on the rolls of The Confederate Home of Missouri, listed as "Capt., Co. K, 1st Missouri Cavalry."
He died in 1912, aged 77yrs, at his daughter's residence in St. Louis. In his final year, at the insistence of his daughter and with her help, he wrote the memoirs of his adventures as a Confederate mail runner. Captain Absalom Grimes is a little known character in the history of the American Civil War, but to the Missouri and Kentucky soldiers and their loved ones, for whom he repeatedly risked his life, he was an absolute hero.