Arthur Fremantle, Confederate Propagandist

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:

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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.

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Images for Episode 8, Soldiers of Capital (Part One)

Episode 8: Soldiers of Capital (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency was 19th-century America’s premier private police force, the leader of a flourishing industry that offered solutions to the chaos and corruption of the nation’s law enforcement. But the Pinkertons were more than just detectives. By the 1890s, they were a private army-on-call for powerful corporations. In the first episode of this two-part series, we’ll chart the birth and evolution of the Agency — from its founding by a radical immigrant in the 1850s to its bloody pursuit of outlaws and Irish labor groups in the decades after the Civil War.

Music: “Fratres (for violin and piano)” by Arvo Part, from the album Tabula Rasa (ECM Records, 1984).

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Bibliography

Pamela Bedore, Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)

S. Paul O’Hara, Inventing the Pinkertons, or, Spies, Sleuths, Mercenaries, and Thugs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)

Allan Pinkerton, General Principles and Rules of Pinkerton’s National Police Agency (Chicago: George H. Fergus, 1867)

——————– The Expressman and the Detective (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1875)

——————– The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1877)

——————– Thirty Years a Detective: A Thorough and Complete Expose of Criminal Practices of All Grades and Classes (New York: G.W. Carleton, 1884)

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, edited by G.R. Thompson (New York: Harper & Roe, 1970), 272-313

Beau Riffenburgh, Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2013)

Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases: A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003)

Francois Eugene Vidocq, Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime, trans. Edwin Gile Rich (Edinburgh: AK Press / Nabat, 2003, originally published 1828)

October update

Dear listeners,

Here’s a short update on what to expect from the show in the near future.

The next episode will come out in December. It’s called “Soldiers of Capital.” It’s about Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, one of my favorite topics in American history. It’s a two-parter, and it’s going to be a blast.

The long gap between episodes is because of a) graduate school (I’m in my second and final  year of a history MA program) and b) working a couple of jobs to pay for the  degree! I wish I could say it’s because I’ve been deep in the podcast salt mines, lovingly crafting the perfect episode, but this, unfortunately, is not the case. Coursework, grading, and research have to take the front seat for now.

In the meantime, I’ll still be recommending Dark Myths shows to fill the aural void. If I have time I’ll publish the occasional blog post. Until next time, friends.

Sam

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Images for Episode 7: From Camelot to Abilene

Episode 7: From Camelot to Abilene

Stream or download it for free on iTunes, Stitcher, or Podomatic.

In a country as big and diverse as America, stories are crucially important to our sense of common identity. But where do those stories come from, and who creates them? In this episode, we examine the work of writer Owen Wister, who gave Americans one of the touchstones of our common culture: the cowboy. But beneath the familiar surface of this legendary figure lies a complex web of dark and unexpected ideas. By exploring “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” an essay written at the height of the volatile Gilded Age, we gain insight into the origins of the cowboy — and how myth can overpower truth.

Music: “Fratres (for violin and piano)” by Arvo Part, from the album Tabula Rasa (ECM Records, 1984).

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Bibliography

Poultney Bigelow, “Frederic Remington; with Extracts from Unpublished Letters”, The Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association 10, no. 1 (January, 1929): 45-52.

John Cobbs, Owen Wister (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984).

Bruce Glasrud and Michael Searles, eds, Black Cowboys in the American West: On the Range, On the Stage, Behind the Badge (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)

David McCullough, “The Man,” in Frederic Remington: The Masterworks, eds. Michael Edward Shapiro and Peter H. Hassrick (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1988).

Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Harper Collins, 1982).

Ben Vorpahl, My Dear Wister: The Frederic Remington – Owen Wister Letteres (Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company, 1972).

G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (New York: Macmillan & Co, 1902).

—————— “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 91, no. 544 (September, 1895): 602-616.

Dark Myths Show of the Month: A New Winter

In the mood for an unnerving, fast-paced, Serial-esque show set in the UK? A New Winter, the Dark Myths show of the month for June, might just be what you’re looking for.  If you haven’t visited the Dark Myths page in a while, pay us a visit — we’ve added a number of fantastic shows over the last few months.

In the words of the creator:

“It’s the winter of 2000 in a small village in the UK and a family have been brutally murdered in suspicious circumstances. The only evidence is one set of footprints in the snow leading to the murder scene – but nothing leaving it. This is a man’s first hand account of what happened in this brutal winter where over 25 people were murdered or had disappeared.”

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