If you’ve read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s epic novel about the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, or seen its schlocky film adaptation Gettysburg, you might remember this guy:
That’s Arthur Fremantle. In 1863 he was a young officer in the Coldstream Guards, an elite British regiment. The son of a famous general in the Napoleonic Wars, Fremantle hungered for a real taste of war. Instead, he found himself languishing in the British outpost at Gibraltar. The American Civil War raging on the other side of the Atlantic gave him a chance to satisfy his thirst for military adventure.
I always thought Fremantle was an interesting character, and I liked the idea of reading an outsider’s perspective on the Civil War. So much American writing and thinking (and podcasting, shitposting online etc) about the war is slanted by our own emotional and political attachments. That can lead to some pretty bad history. When I started researching Fremantle, I thought that he’d offer insights about the conflict that could only come from a detached outsider.
In the summer of 1863, as the Army of Northern Virginia prepared for its invasion of Pennsylvania, Fremantle took leave of his regiment and crossed the Atlantic by steamship. He skirted the Union blockade, landed in Mexico, and began a long, often dangerous journey across the Confederacy. Traveling on foot, in rickety stagecoaches, overcrowded trains, and mule-driven carts, he experienced America at war. When it was all over, he produced a vivid travel diary called Three Months in the Southern States.
When I read this diary and researched its author, however, I found that it was far from an objective observation of the wartime South (or the North, for that matter — Fremantle arrived in New York City just in time for the draft riots). Instead, I found a sophisticated propaganda piece that offered a rationale for a potential British alliance with the Confederacy.
British military intervention in the Civil War remains one of the biggest what-if scenarios in world history. The British textile industry relied on southern cotton, and the Union blockade of Confederate ports threatened a key sector of the British economy. The British government also toyed with the possibility of cutting the US, a major international rival, down to size. But an alliance with the Confederacy presented a major moral problem: how could staunchly anti-slavery Britain ally with a nation that had proclaimed slavery to be its “cornerstone“? Pro-Confederate British writers had grappled with this problem since the first southern states seceded in 1860. By 1863, their attempts to rationalize slavery had failed to convince a majority of Britons that intervention was in their nation’s best interests.
Fremantle hoped to influence this debate over intervention. By 1862, he fervently supported the southern cause. Raphael Semmes, a blockade runner who met Fremantle in Gibraltar, found him to be an “ardent Confederate.” Fremantle even submitted his diary to James Mason, a southern diplomat in Britain, to make sure the final product matched Confederate talking points.
Fremantle’s contribution to the intervention debate was brilliantly simple. Instead of rehashing old political arguments, he argued that Confederates and Englishmen were cultural and racial kinsmen with a common way of life. British intervention would protect and preserve these transatlantic relatives while forging a major alliance.
In his diary, Fremantle constantly emphasized the Englishness of the Confederacy, and especially of elite Confederate men. Southern officers, he said, “glory in speaking English as we do, and … their manners and feelings resemble those of the upper classes in the old country.” He found their military culture to be “very similar to what it is in the British army.” Southern generals wore their facial hair “in the English fashion,” while Jefferson Davis apparently served first-rate tea. At an Episcopal service in Augusta, Fremantle “might almost have fancied [myself] in England.” Even the southern landscape, at times, could be “rather English-looking.” Fremantle suggested that by intervening in the Civil War, the British government would be fighting on behalf of a society that was essentially their own.
Fremantle’s own experience seemed to prove the closeness of English and Confederate culture. Earlier English travel diarists had written with disgust about American habits like chewing tobacco. None other than Charles Dickens called it an “offensive and sickening … filthy custom” in which no Englishman would ever partake. Yet Fremantle breezily described now “I no longer shrink at every random shower of tobacco juice; nor do I shudder when good-naturedly offered a quid.” He also learned to love American fare (especially bacon, which he ate “voraciously”) and American slang (“nooning it” under the blazing sun, crossing “criks,” “getting tight” around campfires, disparaging “Uncle Abe.”) Fremantle even dressed like a Confederate, ditching all his clothing except for a grey shooting jacket. He looked, ate, and to an extent talked, like a southerner.
The only place where Fremantle called attention to his Englishness was when he talked about slavery. A Charleston slave auction, he said, was “not a very agreeable spectacle to an Englishman,” and he professed to feel “the dislike which an Englishman naturally feels at the idea of slavery.” But Fremantle had nothing more to say about the grim spectacle of fifteen men, three women, and three children sold into bondage, apart from his remark that they seemed “perfectly contented and indifferent.” Three Months in the Southern States is full of descriptions of slaves who are happy, contented, vain, childlike, and loyal. In one chilling indication of Fremantle’s adoption of southern racial attitudes, he began using the word “nigger” in his entry for May 20.
Even after the war ended in April 1865, Fremantle continued to defend his favorite southern “gentlemen.” In fact, when Raphael Semmes met him for a second time in London, he found him “more of a Confederate than ever.” Fremantle defended southern leaders against accusations of atrocities at Andersonville prison in Georgia, where thousands of Union POWs died of disease and starvation. The hard, undeniable evidence of mistreatment was nothing more than “odious calumnies,” Fremantle huffed in a letter to the London Times. Pictures of emaciated prisoners were “sensational” and “disgusting.” He felt it was his duty to “vindicate … the spotless honour” of “great” southern leaders like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. They were not traitors, rebels, or war criminals. They were great Americans, “gentlemen” to the core.
The Fremantle diary and Fremantle’s postwar defense of the Confederacy can tell us a lot about the role of truth in history. On the surface, Fremantle’s diary looks like an honest, truthful record of the wartime South. Hidden political goals, however, influenced every word. During the war, he tried to convince his countrymen to side with a slaveholding republic; when the war ended, he fought to create a slanted, mythologized image of the Confederacy. Fremantle insisted that this image was “the truth of what was going on in the South.” And his story showed how a well-crafted image can shape a reality all its own.