by Florence Markoff

The story of the great Civil War spy.


This statue of Young is located in Burnside Park in downtown Providence.

If there ever was a spy story that made every other spy story pale by comparison, it's the tale of the wild adventures of a Rhode Island Civil War hero from Pawtucket. His name was whispered among Southern troops in frightened tones and some said he was the most dangerous man the war produced. He blazed a trail of fear across the South that has never been equaled in spy history.

The people of the Blackstone Valley first noticed him when he went from village to village in an open carriage seeking volunteers. His boyish enthusiasm for the Union cause caught the imagination and interest of the villagers. In one day of fiery speechmaking, he recruited sixty-three volunteers!

During the dangerous period of the Shenendoah Valley campaign, he came to the attention of General Edwards by performing a deed of great daring. It was most important the General know what plan of attack was going to be used by the Southern army. Into the General's headquarters walked an undersized officer, standing five feet two inches in his boots, who asked for three men and four Confederate gray uniforms. In less than six hours, the young man brought the General the information he needed for a successful battle. His feats of daring soon began to be noticed. In the disguise of a farm boy or a dapper Southern blade, he could live for days in the midst of the enemy.

His favorite sport was capturing Southern generals. The Confederacy had to be especially cautious because there were many losses of top brass. One officer, General Jubal Early, felt that sentries had to be redoubled at his headquarters, and an especially alert sentry was placed at his door day and night. For weeks, the Southern general lived in fear of capture by the famous Northern spy. He even confided his fears to the young sentry. Little did he realize the sentry in front of his door was the very spy he feared!

By the time the war ended, there were many more stories about the famous spy. One thing was sure—he would always be found wherever there was intrigue or danger. In army circles his name was mentioned cautiously. In Washington, there were those who said that even Mr. Lincoln mentioned his name in hushed tones. But Rhode Islanders spoke his name proudly. There's even a statue of the spy in Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence, facing the Omni Biltmore Hotel. It's called The Scout—a special tribute to... Lieutenant Colonel Henry Harrison Young.

Editor's Notes

In 1864 Jubal Early was defeated by forces under the command of Young's superior, General Phillip Sheridan, and was removed from command.

Henry Harrison Young was born in 1841 and was only twenty-five when he was lost his life in late 1866 while crossing the Rio Grande with a group of veteran soldiers on their way to serve as a bodyguard for Mexican General Mariano Escobedo.

More on Henry Harrison Young and his spy unit, known as the Jessie Scouts, can be found at JessieScouts.com.

Providence resident Florence Markoff (1927-2017) was a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality.

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This article last edited September 6, 2010

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