Musings on Arthur Fremantle’s “Three Months in the Southern States”

Arthur Fremantle in the 1890s.

When historians look at a primary source, it is often to cut and run. You go to the part of the source that deals with your subject and that is it. In the case of Arthur Fremantle’s Three Months in the Southern States, I decided to read the whole thing. I logged which passages I found interesting or useful for later books.

Fremantle was an officer in the British army with a long, but generally uneventful career, aside from a stint in Sudan during the Mahdist War. He is mostly known for being a tourist in the midst of the American Civil War. He did this in the summer of 1863, moving from Brownsville to New York City, witnessing the turn of the tide against the Confederates, and seeing part of every Confederate state save Arkansas and Florida.

Fremantle was in Mississippi when Ulysses Grant surrounded Vicksburg. He stayed with the Army of Tennessee right before the Tullahoma Campaign and at Charleston a few weeks before the main Union offensive began. Most of all, he witnessed Gettysburg and saw the New York City Draft Riots. His passage on the aftermath of Pickett’s Charge is superb both as prose and as a source for Confederate actions after the doomed attack on Cemetery Ridge. In those moments, one can see why Robert E. Lee was so venerated by his men during and after the war.

Along the way Fremantle met leading Confederates such as Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, P.G.T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, and a host of others. With most meetings he included his personal observations. He was rarely critical, and used even humorous, such as noting that Beauregard’s hair going white due to a lack of hair dye or Lee’s amiability, which he described as “excessive.” Davis, unsurprisingly, mused over the quality of despair while talking with Fremantle and Benjamin. Of all the Confederates he met, he left the strongest and most positive impressions of Longstreet. In particular, one sees Longstreet’s sarcasm. When some Pennsylvania women complained that their hogs were being seized, Longstreet replied, “Yes, madam, it’s very sad very sad; and this sort of thing has been going on in Virginia more than two years—very sad.”

Longstreet Portrait

As a travel log, the diary is not a page turner. Yet, there is a lot of variation. In Texas he often wrote of lynching and lawlessness. In Mississippi he witnessed devastation and cruelty, and was himself nearly killed in Jackson. In Tennessee he was treated with hospitality by Bragg and his officers. Leonidas Polk in particular won him over and Polk’s assertion “How can you subjugate such a people as this?” becomes the book’s thesis. Namely that the Confederates, whatever their flaws and military weaknesses are a determined people fighting against “a war of aggression, ambition, and conquest.”

Fremantle’s assertion that the South is right is for him an about face. He mentioned that in 1861 he backed the Union due the Confederacy’s embrace of slavery. On his travels, Fremantle constantly commented on the condition of slaves, attended a slave market, and included many anecdotes. In particular, he wrote of two slaves who are not interested in emancipation: John the barber and Nelson the stage-coach driver. What each had in common was a master who gave them wide latitude, allowing them to work for money, which meant they are well dressed. They represented a kind of slave professional class that might lose their status in a world without slavery. One can find evidence of similar attitudes among large sections of the free people of color of New Orleans during the era and in other oppressed groups in history, whether that be the Irish middle class of the 1800s or the black middle class of Apartheid South Africa.

To be fair, Fremantle did not come away from his encounter with slavery without negative comments. He noted that the Confederates were unlikely to free their slaves for combat, due to the economic cost and general racist fears of armed ex-slaves. More tellingly, amid his comments on well dressed slave women and a slave guarding a Union prisoner, there is an incident in Louisiana that is arresting. As he approached the Mississippi River, two Rebel soldiers fooled a slave into thinking they were Union men. The slave then asked to join them and offered to steal his master’s horse. The slave was beaten with rods. John and Nelson might be doing better than most, but the unnamed slave certainly was not.

What partially converted Fremantle to the Southern cause was the zeal of the people for independence and his own encounters with the North. Fremantle was impressed with Confederate leaders and soldiers, who he described as having “a sort of devil-may-care, reckless, self-confident look, which is decidedly taking.” More importantly, Fremantle was an elite Englishman hanging around elite Southerners. He was happy to report that Southerners imitated English accents, words, and manners. They declare themselves to be Anglophiles, with the only exception being their veneration for Napoleon. As such, Fremantle is flattered by men of the same class.

By contrast, when Fremantle reached Union lines he was threatened with hanging. Although he was well received by Benjamin Franklin Kelley and other Union officers, he found their soldiers unimpressive. He mocks the Pennsylvania militia. He found the North a land of plenty and many of its elite men were unwilling to sacrifice life or even money in the war. While conceding the North had the advantage of numbers and resources, Fremantle believed they were lacking in spirit and to a lesser degree generalship.

Fremantle’s final days in America also did nothing to encourage a change of heart. In New York City he witnessed the draft riots and men screaming “Kill all niggers!” In that moment, Fremantle confronted popular anger, which he despised, and racism. For his time, Fremantle certainly was not a racist. He thought blacks would make great soldiers and he was constantly impressed by the slaves he met. Although he thought slavery was less cruel than he expected, it remained the part of Southern society he found most wanting. Indeed, as befitting an Englishman of his time, he has meaner things to say about the Irish than any other ethnic group, mentioning “American ideas of Ireland’s wrongs, and all that sort of trash.”

New York City Draft Riot

Fremantle believed the right of national self-determination outweighed the evil of slavery, but he was not a deep or philosophical thinker, more a curious traveler with a knack for anecdotes and personal observation. The diary works on many levels. In the end, the diary is not a great read but engaging, and far less dry than most. It contains a wealth of incidents and observations both personal and social. Anyone writing about Vicksburg, Gettysburg, or the New York City Draft Riots must read it. Lastly, it offers the musings of an elite Englishman as he observes two of mankind’s most persistent evils: war and slavery. In Fremantle’s case, he found war, at least in 1863, to be the greater evil of the two.

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