Walter Bowie; Rebel, Ranger, Spy

By: Earl Eisenhart

In a tidy family plot in the cemetery of Bowie Maryland 's Holy Trinity Episcopal Church stands the gravestone of a notorious Confederate war hero. A nearby gap in the cemetery fence serves as a neighborhood shortcut. It is likely that few of the passersby, walking only steps from the stone marker, are aware of the extraordinary tale of Walter Bowie.

Scion of Prince Georges County

Walter Bowie was born in 1838, the son of respected local plantation owner and lawyer Walter William Weems Bowie. His mother was Adeline Snowden Bowie, of another prominent local clan. Wat, as his family called him, grew up at Eglington, the family estate. The property lies just east of what is now the Bowie Baysox baseball stadium.

A lawyer himself, with a practice in Upper Marlboro, Wat Bowie was tall, handsome and an accomplished horseman. He wore a heavy, drooping mustache. He was 23 years old when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

A vigorous young man of strong convictions, Walter was quick to embrace the Southern cause. Sympathy for the South was strong in the Prince Georges County of 1861. PG County in those days was part and parcel of the South. Large plantations dominated the landscape and more than half the residents were slaves. Walter's father was among the county's largest slave owners. Young Wat is known to have owned at least one slave in his own right, a “Negro woman Betty”, probably a nurse maid, who was willed to him by his great-grandmother, Mary Weems, when he was three years old.

Going South

There is no question of where the white aristocrats of the county stood on the consuming issue of the day. In the presidential election of 1860, a grand total of one vote was counted for Abraham Lincoln. When it became clear that the Maryland legislature would not move to join the new Confederacy, a number of young men decided to “go south”. Walter was among them.

What set Walter apart was his connection to the county's most prominent family. For the most part, the Bowies and their neighbors, while very much sympathetic to the South, did not want Maryland to secede. They knew that the state's economic future depended on the North and had no desire to see their plantations become bloody battlefields. Most chose to follow the lead of the family's great statesman, Oden Bowie, who would later serve as governor. Oden, a 2 nd cousin of Walter, took the position that states should be allowed to secede if they wished, but Maryland should stay with the union.

Walter was impatient with his elders' prevarications. As soon as war erupted, he headed for Richmond .

There he was granted a commission as a captain in the Confederate Provisional Army, but was not assigned to any command. The commission, it turns out, was cover for a different role – a spy in the Confederate Secret Service.

Walter would soon prove a daring, some would say reckless, and highly valued operative. His knowledge of the areas around Washington and connections to southern sympathizers so close to the capitol made him especially useful. During the first two years of the war he undertook numerous missions carrying dispatches and other information through Southern Maryland to and from Confederate operatives. He also recruited new soldiers to the cause.

Eluding the Yankees

Several of Wat's missions nearly ended in disaster. On October 14, 1862 , Bowie was arrested by Union detectives while recruiting in the Woodville area of lower Prince Georges. He was charged with espionage and hauled off to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington .

He wasn't there for long. Although the details are a bit sketchy, it appears that friends of the Bowie family managed to bribe the prison guards, and Walter and a friend, C.F. Ford, “escaped” together on November 17.

Less than a year later, on May 20, 1863 , Walter and a colleague, Charles Hume, were captured again. This time while surreptitiously crossing the lower Potomac from Charles County to Virginia . Unbeknownst to their captors, the spies were carrying stolen fortification plans for Washington DC . The two were taken under guard toward the Union fort at Point Lookout. Unwilling to spend the rest of the war behind bars, or be hanged for treason, Walter grabbed a gun from one of the guards and shot and killed him. Hume was killed in the ensuing hail of gunfire, while Walter somehow managed to escape unharmed.

By this time Walter was quite notorious, and the Union army, aided by detectives from Washington , was determined to hunt him down. Agents swarmed the Southern Maryland countryside.

A Visit to the Warings

Exhausted and hungry, Walter turned up on May 23rd at “Bald Eagle”, the plantation home of a distant relative, John Henry Waring, near Upper Marlboro. John Waring was away on business and his wife, Julia Worthington Waring, was not pleased to see Walter. She pleaded with him to leave immediately, saying it was too dangerous and “you are tracked everywhere”. She had reason to be alarmed. As it turned out, her 17-year old son Billy was secretly home on leave from a Confederate cavalry unit. She knew if the Yankees found Walter at Bald Eagle, Billy would be arrested too. Walter, who could be quite charming when he wanted to, told Mrs. Waring not to worry; he was certain he had eluded the union troops.

Late that night however, the household was awakened by a pounding on the door. Union soldiers had surrounded the house. Mrs. Waring tried to delay the captain and his men at the front door, to give Walter and Billy time to escape. Billy would have none of it, proudly donned his uniform, and presented himself for arrest.

Meanwhile, Walter hid in the kitchen. As the Federals searched the bedrooms, Billy's older sister, Elizabeth Margaret Waring Duckett, took some soot from a tub, grabbed a dress and kerchief and helped Walter disguise himself as a female slave. Walter gave Elizabeth the papers he was carrying and walked out the kitchen door right under the noses of the Union troops. He hopped on a horse and fled into the woods.

The Warings were not so fortunate. Realizing that Walter had escaped, the soldiers locked up Mrs. Waring and her four daughters in one of the bedrooms. While the soldiers were otherwise occupied, the women burned Walter's fortification plans in the fireplace.

The soldiers left the next day taking with them John Waring who had returned during the night to find his home in chaos. He was arrested along with Billy, and three of his daughters, and carried off to prison in Washington . (Mrs. Waring and her youngest daughter Julia were permitted to stay at the house, although they were later exiled to Virginia .)

No sooner had the soldiers left Bald Eagle with their prisoners, than Bowie appeared back at the house from his evening spent hiding in the woods. According to the eyewitness account of Julia Waring, “Walter jumped up on the terrace by the greenhouse and began dancing. He was still black and dressed in Peggy's red calico dress and her bandanna on his head. We were all too full of sorrow to join in his merriment, although we were very glad he had escaped. He came in and washed and [left the house] and I really never saw him again.”

While Walter Bowie left the Warings' lives in shambles, his wartime saga was far from over. He once again managed to sneak past the Union troops who were hunting for him and made his way back to Virginia .

Serving Under Mosby

Wat Bowie had a price on his head. He was by now far too notorious to work undercover as a spy. What to do? He decided to put his horsemanship skills to good use. Undoubtedly using family connections, he approached the now infamous Confederate cavalryman John S. Mosby, commander of the forty-third Battalion of Virginia cavalry, better known as “Mosby's Rangers”.

Mosby signed him up as a lieutenant and before long he distinguished himself as Mosby's eyes and ears on forays into the Maryland countryside.

Ever resourceful and energetic, Walter was soon organizing southern sympathizers in Montgomery County to harass Union soldiers, steal horses and supplies, and find new recruits. He relied upon the help of friendly locals for places to rest and hide from Union soldiers.

Among the safe houses he used was the “Rose Hill” home of William Canaby, near Cloverly. In June 1864, two of Wat's recruits were captured by Union troops. Succumbing to interrogation, they revealed that Canaby had harbored Wat and his men. Troops were sent to arrest Canaby and he was promptly dispatched to prison at Ft. Delaware .

Kidnapping the Governor: A Plan Gone Awry

Walter was desperate to find a way to get Canaby, John Waring (who was also now interred at Ft. Delaware ) and others released from Yankee captivity. He came up with a truly audacious scheme.

Walter decided he would kidnap the governor of Maryland , Augustus Bradford, and hold him as ransom for his friends. He managed to persuade Colonel Mosby to loan him several battle-hardened rangers for the mission. Bowie and his contingent rode from Upperville Va. to a crossing near Mathias Point in King George County .

There they encountered a problem. There were no boats there to ferry his men and their horses across the river. Bowie slipped across the river under darkness to case things out. There he discovered that a contingent of the 8th Illinois Calvary was stationed at the courthouse in nearby Port Tobacco. The next night he and seven of his most reliable rangers snuck across the river and spent an evening drinking with blockade-runners and assorted riffraff at Brawner's Hotel. Sometime after midnight , Bowie and his men slipped over to the courthouse, quickly subdued the snoozing soldiers, snatched their horses and disappeared into the night.

The rangers rode fast until daybreak and then sought refuge from prowling Yankee troops. According to one account, they hid out at the home of Dr. Samual A. Mudd, a known sympathizer who would later see infamy as the man who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg.

By early morning the next day, Bowie and his men arrived at Eglington unscathed. They stocked up on provisions and rested briefly. Wat's brother Brune, who had been wounded in the Confederate army, and was apparently home on “French leave”, was added to the raiders' party. Not wishing to shine unwanted attention on the family estate, the group did not stay overnight, but bivouacked near Hardesty's store near the intersection of Annapolis Road and Church Road .

From there, Bowie traveled by back roads to Annapolis and somehow managed to get close enough to Bradford to discover, not surprisingly, that he was too heavily guarded to be kidnapped. Forced to abandon their mission, Walter and his men headed back to Virginia . Deciding the way they had come was too risky, they headed west with the intent of crossing the Potomac near Rockville .

A Swarm of Angry Quakers

Wat and his men decided to “requisition” what they could as they made their way through the Maryland countryside. Their route toward White's Ford and back to Virginia took them near the small town of Sandy Spring . On the evening of October 6 th they determined to pay a late-night visit to the Bently and Gilpin General Store. Quakers owned the store and the Rangers expected little resistance or trouble. This turned out to be a miscalculation.

The good people of Sandy Spring were fed up with the constant raids and scavenging conducted by troops and partisans on both sides. (Just two months earlier, remnants of Confederate General Jubal Early's cavalry had stormed through the area in an abortive march on Washington .) At this point, even Quakers had taken up arms to protect their property.

So it was that while the raiders easily overwhelmed the shop owners who lived next door to the store, they soon found themselves pursued by a group of local citizens, Quakers included. The townsfolk also sent word to Rockville to alert the Union garrison.

The posse of about 15 citizens caught up with Bowie and his men on the morning of October 7 about three miles north of Rockville , where they had stopped to rest and graze their horses.

Fighting to the Last

Bowie saw his pursuers advancing through the trees. Ever brazen, he straddled his horse, took reins in hand and attacked them head-on. Riding at a gallop, he was slammed off his horse by a shotgun blast to the face; the blow delivered by a local carriage maker named William Ent who had taken refuge behind a tree. Bowie was the only casualty of what became known locally as the “Battle of Ricketts Run.”

(The site of the skirmish may be found off Somerville Road near the Metro tracks, next to the McDonalds.)

The remaining rangers drove off the citizen-posse and removed their injured leader to a nearby farmhouse. Brune stayed with his brother while the other raiders hightailed it back to Virginia . Walter Bowie died shortly thereafter.

Brune was captured by union troops and a detachment was sent in pursuit of the other raiders, but they escaped over the Potomac near the mouth of the Monocacy.

(The Quakers involved in the incident were brought before a church counsel and charged with “impudence” for their un-Quaker like actions, but were allowed to remain in the church.)

Going Home

Wat's body was returned to Eglington on October 8. He was laid to rest at Willow Grove , a family property directly across Annapolis Road from Holy Trinity Church . Bowie 's mother Adeline was so distraught she never uttered another word. She died three months later.

In recent years, Bowie 's remains, and those of his immediate family were removed from their resting place at Willow Grove to make way for a housing development. They were re-interred at a plot in the shade near the rear of the Holy Trinity cemetery. There to remain undisturbed and unnoticed 140 years after Walter Bowie's fateful last adventure.

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