Suave, gentlemanly Lt. Col. Arthur Fremantle of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guards picked an unusual vacation spot: the Civil War-torn United States.
By Robert R. Hodges, Jr.
After graduating from Sandhurst, Great Britain’s West Point, Arthur James Lyon Fremantle entered the army in 1852 and soon became an officer in England’s renowned Coldstream Guards (both his father and grandfather had served with distinction in the same regiment). At the age of 25, Fremantle was promoted to lieutenant colonel and eventually rose to the rank of full general, becoming along the way one of the most senior officers in the British army. In 1885, he commanded a brigade of Guards during the Sudan campaign and was later appointed governor of Malta, a strategically important British possession in the Mediterranean.
Fremantle’s credentials certainly bespeak a distinguished military career, but perhaps his greatest importance to military history lies not in his service to queen and country but rather in the form of a short three-month diary he kept while on “vacation.” Fueled by a strong desire to get a firsthand view of the boiling crisis in America as the Southern states struggled to free themselves from their Northern counterparts, Fremantle secured six-months’ leave and crossed the Atlantic.
Upon entering the Confederacy, Fremantle made a breathtaking tour, visiting every Southern state except Arkansas and Florida. Within three months he had met most of the top Confederate leaders in both Eastern and Western theaters, including Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Joseph Johnston and Jefferson Davis, to name a few. But by no means did Fremantle limit himself to the leading figures; he befriended a gamut of men and women from all walks of life, and left behind an excellent account of the common soldier and the fiery Southern womenfolk on the home front.
Like many visitors to the South, Fremantle was also curious about the “peculiar institution,” and he had some interesting if not ironic things to say about black Americans during the Civil War. Traveling by railroad, steamer, rowboat, mule wagon, stagecoach, ambulance and a broken-down horse, Fremantle managed to put himself in the thick of the action, including the Battle of Gettysburg and the New York City draft riot.
Numerous historical studies have quoted the highly observant Englishman, especially his Gettysburg account and his detailed descriptions of Robert E. Lee and other famous commanders. It would be rare indeed to find a book dealing with the Battle of Gettysburg that did not include Fremantle’s name in the list of sources. Oddly enough, little has been written about Fremantle himself; with the exception of his diary, Fremantle has all but slipped from the pages of history. Some of his friends have left behind snippets about his character in their own memoirs. Justus Scheibert, his Prussian friend at Gettysburg, may have struck on Fremantle’s greatest strength when he wrote that the Englishman was “able to win the hearts of everyone with his open, candid behavior.”
Without a doubt, Fremantle’s greatest traveling asset was his indefatigable amiability. Everyone who spoke of Fremantle in their memoirs had only kind words for the man. His very Englishness made him an automatic friend of any Southerner hoping for English intervention in the Civil War. He made things easier for himself by dressing in a gray shooting jacket, and he was often mistaken for a Confederate officer. Even Fremantle’s accent would not have given him away–by his own account, Southern gentlemen still spoke like Englishmen, although the women, curiously, had distinct American accents.
Wishing to remain a strictly neutral party, Fremantle decided to enter the Confederacy via Mexico in order to avoid the illegal act of running the Union blockade. On April 2, 1863, he landed at the squalid village of Bagdad, Mexico, near the mouth of the Rio Grande. After crossing the river, Fremantle fell in company with some rough-and-ready Texan cavalrymen dressed in “flannel shirts, very ancient trousers, jack-boots with enormous spurs, and black felt hats, ornamented with the ‘lone star of Texas.'” Although Fremantle found much to admire in the inhabitants of Texas and was treated with kindness by all he met, he was quick to remark that Texas “was the most lawless State in the Confederacy.” Everyone carried six-shooters, and due to the sparsity of population, lynching remained “almost a necessity.”
The cavalrymen had recently made a raid into Mexico and captured some “renagadoes.” After bringing their prisoners back into Texas, they left one man, named Montgomery, on the road to Brownsville. A short while later, Fremantle, traveling down the same road himself, found the unfortunate Montgomery. His arms were bound together and a rope still encircled the neck of his half-buried corpse. “Dogs or wolves had probably scraped the earth from the body, and there was no flesh on the bones,” wrote Fremantle. “I obtained this, my first experience of Lynch law, within three hours of landing in America.”
Fremantle spent an entire month traversing the state of Texas. During one leg of the journey, he found himself crammed into a stagecoach with 17 Confederate soldiers, half of whom had to ride on the roof. Due to the top-heaviness of the vehicle, Fremantle considered it a miracle that they had avoided a “capsize.” To add to his discomfort, Fremantle dared not stick his head out the window for fear of getting a boot in the face–or, even worse, receiving a dousing from the constant shower of tobacco juice. The fastidious traveler noted that even Texas women enjoyed tobacco, except they preferred snuff-dipping to chewing. Fremantle was surprised to discover that the women put the snuff in their mouths instead of taking it up the nose, Continental-fashion.
Fremantle spent much of his Texas adventure with an extremely crude mule driver named Sargent. The mule driver, who never opened his mouth without cursing, liked to cool himself by taking off his pants. Fremantle found the assistant mule driver more astonishing: Sargent’s helper was none other than a Texas judge and former member of the Texas Legislature.
Fremantle crossed the Texas frontier into Louisiana and introduced himself to Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. Hailing from St. Augustine, Fla., Smith was serving at that point in the war as commanding general of the Trans-Mississippi Department. On the day of Fremantle’s visit, Smith’s pretty wife suggested that they all go to the river to catch crayfish, which they did with much success. Less than two months after the crayfish excursion, on July 4, 1863, Vicksburg and the entire Mississippi River fell into Union hands, thus chopping the Confederacy in two. Kirby Smith then became a virtual potentate, to the chagrin of some of his subordinates, as he held control over what was sometimes referred to as “Kirby Smithdom.”
The ever-advancing Union army kept Fremantle in constant fear that he would never reach the Eastern theater. Fremantle boarded another stagecoach, but with less trepidation than before. By this time he was a veteran stagecoach traveler and had grown accustomed to the tobacco juice and cramped conditions, though he still got no sleep. At Monroe, La., he took a steamer down the Ouachita River, where he formed the impression that steamers were curious American boats resembling “great wooden castles.”
From the outset, the steamer captain was afraid they would meet Federal gunboats along the way. When they got word from a mounted courier of a battle raging downriver, the captain was ready to turn around. The passengers, not sharing the captain’s sentiments, jeered him. They were nearly all Confederate officers or soldiers returning to their units. Neither the passengers nor the captain won out, and the steamer stayed for an entire day tied to a tree, with full steam and the bow headed upriver, ready to outrun any Yankee boats. The next day, much to everyone’s surprise, the captain decided that anything was better than waiting in hostile territory; he was now determined to deliver his passengers no matter what lay ahead. With no further incident, the steamer reached Fort Beauregard. Everyone on board the steamer, including Fremantle, was greatly relieved when they saw the Confederate flag still flying from the fort.
After conversing with the officers of the fort, Fremantle learned that four Union gunboats had come into range and ordered the unconditional surrender of the fort. The Confederates, of course, responded with artillery. As always, with his eye for military detail, Fremantle carefully recorded that the fort fired 159 9- and 11-inch shells, and 45 32-pound smoothbore shot at a range of one mile. The fire crippled Arizona and loosened the plates on another gunboat.
Fremantle and his companions needed to cross the Mississippi, but because of Yankee gunboats lurking about, they had to take a less direct route. In four small boats, Fremantle and 30 Confederates worked their way through thick Louisiana swamps and bayous teeming with alligators and snakes. Fremantle and the others took turns rowing with a powerful black man named Tucker. With Tucker at the oars, Fremantle’s little boat made it to safety, while one of the other boats got lost, and the crew had to spend the night in the swamp.
Fremantle made his way to Jackson, Miss. The Union Army, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, had occupied and pillaged the city just before Fremantle arrived. With saddlebags draped over his shoulder, Fremantle strolled through town amid the still-smoking buildings and debris. He did not get very far before a civilian with long gray hair and a large revolver rode up and took him into custody. The man could not understand why a British officer would be touring Jackson at that moment, especially on the pretext of personal amusement–he was obviously a spy.
A cavalry captain soon arrived and released Fremantle, promising him safe conduct to visit General Joseph Johnston, commander of the Department of the West. Fremantle then resumed wandering around the town, which he described as a “miserable wreck.” Within a day and a half all the factories had been burned down, all the stores gutted, and almost every private house broken into and pillaged; the Catholic church and even the priest’s house were destroyed. “All this must have been done under the very eyes of General Grant, whose name was in the book of the Bowmont House hotel,” Fremantle carefully noted. The most important things destroyed, from the Union perspective, were the railroad lines. Four different lines came into Jackson and could have been used to bring reinforcements to Vicksburg. At General Johnston’s bivouac, Fremantle received a customary warm welcome. As a distinguished guest, he was given the only fork Johnston had among his entire staff, a reflection of the kindness Fremantle met but, more important, a reflection of the extreme poverty of the Confederate Army–the fork was minus one prong. The only cooking items Johnston owned were an old coffee pot and a frying pan.
Boarding a train, Fremantle journeyed to Shelbyville, Tenn., to visit the Army of Tennessee under the command of General Braxton Bragg. Fremantle met an assortment of colorful Confederates at Bragg’s headquarters, including the two corps commanders, Maj. Gen. William Hardee and Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. Hardee had written a drill manual titled Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, which was still used by both North and South. As for Polk, he served the Confederacy as a man of the sword and also as a man of the cloth. Polk was the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, and some of his contemporaries felt he was better suited for the church than the battlefield.
Arriving in Richmond, Va., Fremantle set out to meet the top men of the Confederate government. He introduced himself to the adjutant general of the Confederate Army, Samuel Cooper. Cooper held the highest rank in the Confederate military, but was too old for a field command. That evening, Fremantle went to Judah Benjamin’s house. Benjamin, a Jewish lawyer born in the British West Indies, served as secretary of state and was commonly considered the “brains of the Confederacy.”
The two men discussed at length the origin of secession and the possibilities of English intervention. Benjamin and his guest then walked to Jefferson Davis’ house and enjoyed dinner with the president and first lady of the Confederacy. There, the conversation continued along the same lines. The next day, Fremantle met with Secretary of War James Seddon, “a cadaverous but clever looking man,” who immediately gave Fremantle letters of introduction to Generals Lee and Longstreet.
Fremantle hurried to Winchester, Va., hoping to intercept the famous Robert E. Lee. Astride a broken-down horse–apparently the only one he could procure–he crossed through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains and entered the Shenandoah Valley at a point near Front Royal.
Near Winchester, Fremantle met two of Lee’s other foreign guests. Francis Lawley, a correspondent for the London Times, and Captain Justus Scheibert of the Prussian Royal Engineers remained Fremantle’s near-constant companions during the ordeal at Gettysburg. At Chambersburg, Pa., Fremantle met a captain dressed in the full uniform of a Hungarian hussar, Fitzgerald Ross. Although born in England, Ross had joined the Austrian army and spent a year traveling throughout the South.
As Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched north across the Potomac River, Fremantle and his decrepit horse went with them. Fremantle has left an invaluable glimpse of the Confederate army on the move. Each regiment had 20 to 30 slaves in addition to an unarmed ambulance corps. Most of the soldiers had replaced their bowie knives and revolvers with Enfield rifles. While Fremantle noted that most of the officers wore uniforms, the soldiers, although properly armed, had none. The only uniformity Fremantle could find among the soldiers of the South was the ever-popular toothbrush stuck in the buttonhole of their lapels. “I was told that even if a regiment was clothed in proper uniform by the Government, it would become parti-colored again in a week, as the soldiers preferred wearing the coarse home-spun jackets and trousers made by their mothers and sisters at home,” he noted. Fremantle described Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division as “a queer lot to look at. They carry less than any other troops; many of them have only got an old piece of carpet or rug as baggage; many have discarded their shoes in the mud; all are ragged and dirty, but full of good-humor and confidence.”
Even the Pennsylvania women who were disgusted to see the Confederates failed to daunt that Southern good humor. One creative woman protested the invaders by covering her sizable chest with a Union flag. Fremantle stood by as one cheeky Texan warned the woman, “Take care, madam, for Hood’s boys are great at storming breastworks when the Yankee colors is on them.”
Of the many friendships Fremantle made while in the Confederacy, one of the most enduring was with Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Upon their initial meeting, the general invited Fremantle to stay with his staff during the campaign. Fremantle described Longstreet as “a thick-set, determined-looking man.” Longstreet greatly enjoyed Fremantle’s description of Texas. The husky general had been stationed in Texas himself at one time and was well acquainted with both Sargent and the judge. Longstreet introduced Fremantle to Lee, who certainly lived up to the Englishman’s expectations. Lee was “almost without exception, the handsomest man of his age I ever saw….He has none of the small vices, such as smoking, drinking, chewing, or swearing, and his bitterest enemy never accused him of any of the greater ones. He generally wears a well-worn long gray jacket, a high black felt hat, and blue trousers tucked into his Wellington boots.”
Fremantle could not have stumbled into a more climactic ending for his already adventurous Southern odyssey. On July 1, 1863, as the army approached the town of Gettysburg, the traveler heard increasingly louder firing from the front. Soon, the wounded began moving to the rear of the army, some on foot, others on stretchers or ambulance wagons. Closely following the wounded came Union prisoners, some 4,000 captured on the first day of fighting.
Fremantle provided as thorough an overall view of the crucial battle as could be expected from any single observer. As Hood later remarked in a letter to the Southern Historical Society Papers, Fremantle “was ensconced in the forks of a tree not far off, with glass in constant use, examining the lofty position of the Federal army.” Not only did the curious Englishman make note of the enemy’s defensive positions on the high grounds south of Gettysburg, he also observed Longstreet and Hood casually whittling sticks as they worked out the day’s plan of attack with Lee and their staff. Lee’s plan for July 2 consisted of a joint attack. Longstreet would press the enemy’s left flank at Little Round Top, while Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell would attack the right flank, and A.P. Hill would move on the Union center, in order to prevent the Federals from reinforcing their flanks.
Although the subsequent attack failed to dislodge the Federals from the heights, their line was pushed back and more prisoners were taken. As the artillery opened fire at 4:45 p.m., “a dense smoke arose for six miles,” Fremantle observed. While the cannons blasted away, a Confederate band “began to play polkas and waltzes, which sounded very curious, accompanied by the hissing and bursting of the shells.” Hood was wounded and retired from the field, which greatly worried his Texans. The day’s fighting certainly showed why the Confederates had such a propensity for getting their commanding officers killed, Fremantle noted. Longstreet himself “led a Georgian regiment in a charge against a battery, hat in hand, and in front of everybody.”
On July 3, Lee decided to concentrate his heaviest attack on the enemy center, launching a massive infantry assault, now known as Pickett’s Charge, after one of Longstreet’s division commanders, Maj. Gen. George Pickett. At noon, when all the batteries were in place and Longstreet’s corps was hidden in the woods across from the mile-wide field facing the Federal center, Longstreet himself took a brief nap. At this point, Fremantle and Ross, the Austrian, rode into Gettysburg hoping to reach the cupola of a church and thus command a better view of the battle.
Just as they entered town, Fremantle and Ross were caught in the cross-fire as the two armies began a heavy artillery barrage. When the officer escorting the foreigners was hit by a ball, they turned around. Fremantle immediately rushed back to find Longstreet. By going into town, Fremantle had missed the crux of the entire battle, not that he could have seen much from the woods. As he approached Longstreet’s position, he passed more and more wounded men. “At last I came to a perfect stream of them flocking through the woods in numbers as great as the crowd in Oxford-street [London] in the middle of the day,” he wrote.
When he finally found Longstreet, Fremantle saw a fresh regiment advance to the front and thought he had made it in time to witness the assault. Ready to offer his congratulations, Fremantle said to the general, “I wouldn’t have missed this for any thing.” Longstreet, calmly sitting on top of a fence, retorted: “The devil you wouldn’t! I would like to have missed it very much; we’ve attacked and been repulsed.”
Longstreet asked for a drink, and Fremantle handed him a flask of rum. Fremantle begged Longstreet to keep the flask as a memento, and the general obliged. Lee soon arrived to console his troops. “If Longstreet’s conduct was admirable, that of General Lee was perfectly sublime,” the Englishman observed. Lee spoke with the individual soldiers as he rode through the ranks. He recommended that Fremantle find better cover because enemy shells were still coming in. Fremantle was greatly impressed as Lee took full responsibility for the action, saying, “All this has been my fault–it is I that have lost this fight.”
On July 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began the march back to Virginia. The morale of the army was still high; along with thousands of Union prisoners, Lee’s men had also captured numerous wagons, mules and other supplies. Fremantle found Longstreet in an exceptionally good mood that morning. A Union soldier bearing a white flag had come to report that Longstreet had been captured and wounded but that the Federals would take care of him. “General Longstreet sent back word that he was extremely grateful, but that, being neither wounded nor a prisoner, he was quite able to take care of himself,” Fremantle wrote.
After parting company with his Confederate friends and changing his gray jacket for a nondescript black one, Fremantle worked his way through Northern territory, arriving in New York City in time to witness another battle. Up to 1,000 people were killed or injured during five days of rioting when mobs protested the new army draft, instituted in New York City on July 11. Blacks who competed with working-class whites for jobs were often the target of violence. No black person was safe on the streets. “The people who can’t pay $300 [to avoid military conscription] naturally hate being forced to fight in order to liberate the very race who they are most anxious should be slaves,” Fremantle observed tartly.
What were the Englishman’s overall impressions? Certainly he was quite taken by the Southerners. With educated men, Fremantle was a gentleman among gentlemen. But the common soldier also held a warm place in Fremantle’s heart, and he particularly admired the die-hard spirit of the Southern ladies, the most ardent Confederates of all. Notwithstanding the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Fremantle still insisted, “I never can believe that in the nineteenth century the civilized world will be condemned to witness the destruction of such a gallant race.”
How could an educated man well versed in military matters have been so wrong? He gave several reasons why he felt the Confederacy might win: The Confederates had surplus weapons and ammunition produced at various works. But the main reason lay in the abundant perseverance they displayed on the battlefield and the home front. Fremantle also speculated that the South would put blacks into the army if need be. That prediction proved perfectly correct. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress passed a bill calling for the enlistment of up to 300,000 black troops. But the bill became moot less than a month later–Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April.
Probably more than anything else, Fremantle simply wanted the South to win. Although he never advocated English intervention or approved of slavery, he still held less respect for Northerners, who he felt waged war on civilians and who would sooner kill black people than emancipate them. Besides, there was something to be said for Southern hospitality.
Harrisonburg, Va., author Robert Hodges recommends Colonel Fremantle’s diary as the best source for further reading, noting that the most recent edition is Three Months in the Southern States, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1993. He also suggests a look at fellow tourist Fitzgerald Ross’ memoir, Cities and Camps of the Confederate States.
In the hours immediately following the Confederate debacle at Gettysburg, the ever-observant Arthur Fremantle continued to monitor events from the Southern side of the field. Despite their crushing defeat, the Confederates displayed a tight-lipped calm that greatly appealed to their English visitor. Robert E. Lee, in particular, astonished Fremantle with his stoic demeanor.
“He [Lee] spoke to all the wounded men that passed him, and the slightly wounded he exhorted ‘to bind up [their] hurts and take up a musket’ in this emergency,” wrote Fremantle. “Very few failed to answer his appeal, and I saw many badly wounded men take off their hats and cheer him. He said to me, ‘This has been a sad day for us, Colonel–a sad day; but we can’t expect always to gain victories.’ He was also kind enough to advise me to get into some more sheltered position, as the shells were bursting round us with considerable frequency.
“I saw General [Cadmus] Wilcox (an officer who wears a short round jacket and a battered straw hat) come up to him, and explain, almost crying, the state of his brigade. General Lee immediately shook hands with him and said cheerfully, ‘Never mind, General, all this has been my fault–it is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can.’
“In this manner I saw General Lee encourage and reanimate his somewhat dispirited troops, and magnanimously take upon his own shoulders the whole weight of the repulse. It was impossible to look at him or to listen to him without feeling the strongest admiration.
“It is difficult to exaggerate the critical state of affairs as they appeared about this time. If the enemy or their general had shown any enterprise, there is no saying what might have happened. General Lee and his officers were evidently fully impressed with a sense of the situation; yet there was much less noise, fuss, or confusion of orders than at any ordinary field day. The men, as they were rallied in the wood, were brought up in detachments, and lay down quietly and coolly in the positions assigned to them.
“At 6 p.m. we heard a long and continuous Yankee cheer, which we at first imagined was an indication of an advance; but it turned out to be their reception of a general officer, whom we saw riding down the line, followed by about thirty horsemen. Soon afterwards I rode to the extreme front, where there were four pieces of rifled cannon almost without any infantry support. To the non-withdrawal of these guns is to be attributed the otherwise surprising inactivity of the enemy.
“I was immediately surrounded by a sergeant and about half-a-dozen gunners, who seemed in excellent spirits and full of confidence, in spite of their exposed situation. The sergeant expressed his ardent hope that the Yankees might have spirit enough to advance and receive the dose he had in readiness for them. They spoke in admiration of the advance of Pickett’s division, and of the manner in which Pickett himself had led it. When they observed General Lee they said, ‘We’ve not lost confidence in the old man: this day’s work won’t do him no harm. Uncle Robert will get us into Washington yet; you bet he will!'”