Foreigner’s diary describes ‘sufferings’ of Rappahannock County during Civil War

‘It is almost uncultivated . . . no animals are grazing where there used to be hundreds . . . numberless farms burnt’

A diary kept by a “strange outsider” during the height of the Civil War, which later would be heralded as one of the most thorough examinations of the South during wartime, includes numerous observations of Rappahannock County — its people, farms (or what remained of them), and scenic vistas.

Courtesy image

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a member of the H.M. Coldstream Guards, was 28 years old and on military leave from the British Army when he arrived in Brownsville, Texas, three months before the decisive Battle of Gettysburg.

“He was traveling for pleasure, and like the sailor who spends his shore leave rowing in the park, he naturally picked the only place where there was a war on,” observed editor Walter Lord in his 1954 introduction to “The Fremantle Diary,” published originally in 1863 London under the title, “Three Months in the Southern States.”

“He had gone to the South instead of the North because he had the Victorian’s sympathy for the underdog, but he had no deep convictions — his real reason was adventure, pure and simple,” Lord wrote.

Fremantle “threw himself enthusiastically” into his journey, moving from Texas into Louisiana and on to Georgia, until entering the headquarters of General Braxton Bragg’s army in Tennessee. From there he visited Charleston and Richmond, where he boarded a train for Culpeper — his original plan to march with General Robert E. Lee in whatever direction he’d be going.

The Englishman’s entrée for his whirlwind tour of the South were letters of introduction from the numerous generals he met along the way, and the “oddly dressed” tourist would make the most of the privileges extended him.

“Fremantle probably covered the South more thoroughly than anybody else who lived through the Confederacy. Certainly he saw more people,” Lord pointed out. “As he traveled along he quickly showed that he was a marvelous celebrity collector. He looked up everyone — Lee, Longstreet, Jeff Davis, Joe Johnston, Beauregard and all the rest.”

“Remarkably,” the editor continued, Fremantle “charmed even the grumpiest Confederates, like Longstreet and Bragg. Invariably, he became a member of the family — whether he was sharing the only fork in Joe Johnston’s mess or sharing Lee’s confidences at Gettysburg . . .

“Nowhere is there a more revealing firsthand picture of the South at war. He’s a master at painting in trivial details, that bring the war and its personalities to life — General Magruder in a gay evening of amateur theatricals; General Bragg getting baptized; General Joe Johnston gathering wood for a locomotive; General Longstreet whittling on a stick at Gettysburg; General Beauregard getting gray hairs due not to lack of sleep but lack of hair tonic.”

Fremantle, intentionally or not, observed far more than the war between the states, recording in his journal a rare contemporary account of the “rip-roaring American frontier life,” wrote Lord. He described how to effectively address a mule team, how to dodge tobacco juice, and the taste of polecat. He wrote of the locomotive engineer who shoots his passenger, the steamboat passengers who shoot each other, and bashful passengers who lose their clothes during a stagecoach robbery. He’d been in the United States only three hours before he witnessed his first lynching.

But we turn the diary’s pages to Saturday, June 20, 1863, when Fremantle, armed with his introductory letters, “left Richmond at 6 a.m. to join the Virginian army” in Culpeper. Before his train’s 5:30 p.m. arrival, he changed cars in Gordonsville, where he observed an enormous pile of “excellent” rifles — captured by the Confederates at Chancellorsville — slowly rotting in the humid air for the simple reason a soldier can only carry so many guns.

As the Englishman noted, Culpeper changed hands often during the Civil War, its surrounding countryside experiencing more troop movement by both sides than anywhere else in the theater. In fact, depending on the occupancy at the time, a horse stable on East Culpeper Street had sheltered Lee’s beloved “Traveller” and Ulysses S. Grant’s “Cincinnati.”

“Culpeper was, until five days ago, the headquarters of Generals Lee and Longstreet; but since Ewell’s recapture of Winchester, the whole army had advanced with rapidity, and it was my object to catch it up as quickly as possible,” Fremantle scribbled in his diary.

The Southern army, he added, was kind enough to have awaiting his arrival in Culpeper not only a horse but a personal chaperone, a Sergeant Norris from Maryland.

Fremantle would spend only 30 minutes in Culpeper because Norris, although “unwell when I arrived,” was anxious to rejoin Lee and his troops. So at 6 p.m. the pair set off on horseback for Rappahannock County, in a blinding rainstorm to boot.

“Our horses both had sore backs, were both unfed, except on grass, and mine was deficient of a shoe. They nevertheless traveled well, and we reached a hamlet called Woodville, fifteen miles distant, at 9:30,” the diary reads. “We had great difficulty procuring shelter; but at length we overcame the inhospitality of a native, who gave us a feed of corn for our horses, and a blanket on the floor for ourselves.”

When the pair awakened the next morning — Sunday, June 21 — the rain had stopped but the difficulties persisted.

“We got the horse shod with some delay, and after refreshing the animals with corn, and ourselves with bacon, we effected a start at 8:15 a.m.,” Fremantle wrote. “We experienced considerable difficulty in carrying my small saddlebags and knapsack, on account of the state of our horses’ backs. Mine was not very bad, but that of Norris was in a horrid state.”

It would get worse.

“We had not traveled more than a few miles when the latter animal cast a shoe, which took us an hour to replace at a village called Sperryville,” the Englishman wrote.

But it was what Fremantle observed before the pair reached Sperryville that took up most of that diary’s page. Here is a well-traveled visitor, who in the space of only a few months had seen virtually every corner of the South, whose homeland is as scenic as they come, who was taken with the viewshed that opened up between Woodville and Sperryville.

“The country is really magnificent,” he wrote, “but as it has supported two large armies for two years, it is now completely cleaned out. It is almost uncultivated, and no animals are grazing where there used to be hundreds. All fences have been destroyed, and numberless farms burnt, the chimneys alone left standing.

“It is difficult to depict and impossible to exaggerate the sufferings which this part of Virginia has undergone. But the ravages of war have not been able to destroy the beauties of nature — the verdure is charming, the trees magnificent, the country undulating, and the Blue Ridge Mountains form the background.”

And then Fremantle made this observation:

“Being Sunday, we met about thirty Negroes going to church, wonderfully smartly dressed, some — both male and female — riding on horseback, and others in wagons; but Mr. Norris informs me that two years ago we should have numbered them by the hundreds.”

Indeed, one year before the Civil War erupted the white population in Rappahannock County hardly outnumbered the 3,500 blacks enslaved here. The four-year war would reduce those numbers.

A short distance past Sperryville, Fremantle doesn’t pinpoint where, the pair of travelers “began to catch up [with] the sick and broken-down men of the army, but not in great numbers. Most of them were well shod, though I saw two without shoes.”

Despite the earlier transportation snags, the two men made considerably good time that Sunday, reaching Front Royal — from Woodville, on today’s less curvy roads, a distance of 29 miles — at 5 p.m.

“Front Royal is a pretty little place, and was the theater of one of the earliest fights in the war, which was commenced by a Maryland regiment of Confederates who, as Mrs. Norris observed, ‘jumped on to’ a Federal regiment from the same state and ‘whipped it badly.’ Since that time the village has changed hands continually.”

Procuring corn for the horses, as it was in Woodville, turned out to be difficult — “immense trouble,” the tourist wrote — but “to Mr. Norris’s astonishment I was impudent enough to get food for ourselves by appealing to the kind feelings of two good-looking female citizens of Front Royal, who during our supper entertained us by stories of the manner they annoyed the Northern soldiers by disagreeable allusions to ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.”

Fremantle, in the subsequent pages, would catch up with Lee in Gettysburg, and amazingly remain by the general’s side during the most climactic point of the Civil War.

In fact, early on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, as the Confederate High Command huddled in a Gettysburg meadow — arguing about whether to attack Union lines — the Englishman peered down on them from a tree.

“Colonel Fremantle of England was ensconced in the forks of a tree not far off, with glass in constant use,” a still bewildered General John B. Hood recalled a dozen years after the war had ended.

As Lord would conclude: “General Hood never said what he thought about the presence of this strange outsider, but he probably took it for granted. By that time, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle . . . had become a familiar sight throughout the Confederacy.”

About John McCaslin 398 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at