Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Unlikely Spy

Felix Grundy Stidger, 1903
Like others in my family history, Felix Stidger's story is one that should be made into a tv series or movie. Stidger's autobiography, published in 1903, describes how he joined the Secret Service and spied on the Sons of Liberty in 1864. The book, Treason History of the Order of Sons of Liberty, 1864, can be viewed on the Internet Archive and Google Books.
He begins his story looking back at his childhood growing up in Spencer County, Kentucky, son of a carpenter and farmer's daughter. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother raised him and his brother John with the help of her siblings nearby. Stidger wrote that his mother "had no means of support for herself and babes except as she might earn with her needle." We know from the 1860 US Census that Narcissa's youngest brother Isaac Newton Holsclaw, a tailor, and his family lived in the house. They likely helped her make ends meet.

Given Narcissa's limited means, Stidger could only attend during winter months and sometimes not at all. After a total of three years of school in Taylorsville, Stidger started working in the County Clerk's office at the age of 15. A month before he turned 17 he started a three-year apprenticeship with a carpenter and builder, Martin Aud. During this time he managed the books for Aud, and later went to work in his general store. After working various jobs in Boyle County, Kentucky, Jacksonville, Illinois, St. Joseph, Missouri, he returned in the Summer of 1860 to Bloomfield, Kentucky (just south of Taylorsville) to work as a clerk at a general store. Stidger describes Bloomfield as "a very pretty little place, with an intelligent population, a well to do surrounding country" and an "infernally disloyal sentiment against the United States Government."

Bloomfield, Kentucky was a hotbed of Confederate feelings at the outbreak of the Civil War. Stidger was one of only four Union sympathizers in the town, and even "the notorious John Morgan came all the way from Lexington to organize the nucleus of his command at Bloomfield." As the negative feelings grew in Bloomfield, Stidger returned to Taylorsville in August 1862. The next month, Confederate troops invaded the town on the way to Louisville. The Union Army pushed back into Taylorsville, and when they did, Stidger joined the 15th Kentucky Infantry. He was assigned to be a clerk in the Assistant Adjutant General's Office at Division Headquarters. He saw battle on his very first night in General Rousseau's duty, at Perryville and later Stone River and Chickamauga.

The main field officers of the 15th Infantry were killed at the Battle of Perryville. Among the new field officers was Captain Henry Kalfus, a physician from Louisville who would later play a role in connecting Stidger with the Order of the Sons of Liberty in 1864. Stidger recalls how the newly elected Field Officers were without horses, "and I having a good fine horse of my own that I had bought from home and had not yet returned, Major Kalfus came to me when he received his appointment, knowing I had no use for a horse in camp, and asked the use of my horse until he could procure one of his own, which request I readily complied with."

Stidger became responsible for keeping the records of the Division, and came to know every discharge, leave of absence, resignation or furlough that came through the command. After a string of battlefield losses in 1862 & 1863, the 15th Kentucky Infantry had a wave of requests for discharge. Among them were Major Kalfus. Most of these were rejected, but after Kalfus' third tender of resignation, he was put under arrest and dishonorably discharged. Anger over his dismissal from the Army pushed Kalfus into the Sons of Liberty in 1864.

During the winter of 1863-1864, Stidger learned that his mother was deathly ill and confined to bed. He asked for a furlough to return home to attend to her. When that was not approved, Stidger asked for a medical discharge. He was approved for discharge on 14 February 1864.
Source: Fold3.
Source: Fold3. Service record of Felix Stidger.
Stidger's discharge papers give some additional context to his physical appearance. He was 5'8", with dark complexion, black hair and dark eyes.

Stidger arrived back in Taylorsville on 17 February 1864. The area was still full of Rebel sympathsizers and guerrilla bands. In his autobiography, Stidger recalls how he was followed home from the pharmacy after buying medicine for his mother, and the family was robbed at gunpoint.
Stidger. Page 28-29.
After his mother's death, Stidger went into hiding and eventually made his way to Louisville. A band of guerrillas returned to his home with the intention of killing him and his brother. Felix and John were determined to even up with score with the guerrillas, Confederate abettors. Once in Louisville, he sought out the Deputy Provost Marshall for the District, who happened to be the son of the owner of the general store where Stidger had worked in Bloomfield before the war.

The next post will dive into how Stidger went undercover against the Sons of Liberty.

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