Monday, June 17, 2013

Countdown to Gettysburg: June17th1863 -- James Fremantle Meets President Jefferson Davis, June 17, 1863

  Continuing our countdown towards Gettysburg's 150th anniversary we find Arthur Fremantle arriving in Richmond on this day in 1863 where he meets with Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin who introduces him to President Jefferson Davis:

  17th June, Wednesday.--We reached Petersburg at 3 A. M., and had to get out and traverse this town in carts, after which we had to lie down in the road until some other cars were opened. We left Petersburg at 5 A. M. and arrived at Richmond at 7 A. M., having taken forty-one hours coming from Charleston.

  The scenery near Richmond is very pretty, and rather English-looking. The view of the James river from the railway bridge is quite beautiful, though the water is rather low at present. The weather was extremely hot and oppressive, and, for the first time since I left Havana, I really suffered from the heat.

Richmond, VA taken in 1862

  I kept my appointment with Mr. Benjamin at 7 o'clock. He is a stout dapper little man, evidently of Hebrew extraction, and of undoubted talent. He is a Louisianian, and was Senator for that State in the old United States Congress, and I believe he is accounted a very clever lawyer and a brilliant orator. He told me that he had filled the onerous post of Secretary of War during the first seven months of the secession, and I can easily believe that he found it no sinecure. We conversed for a long time about the origin of Secession, which he indignantly denied was brought about, as the Yankees assert, by the interested machinations of individuals. He declared that, for the last ten years, the Southern statesmen had openly stated in Congress what would take place; but the Northerners never would believe they were in earnest, and had often replied by the taunt, "The South was so bound to, and dependent on the North, that she couldn't be kicked out of the Union."

Judah P. Benjamin

   He asserted that England had still, and always had had it in her power to terminate the war by recognition, and by making a commercial treaty with the South; and he denied that the Yankees really would dare to go to war with Great Britain for doing so, however much they might swagger about it; he said that recognition would not increase the Yankee hatred of England, for this, whether just or unjust, was already as intense as it could possibly be....

  He said the Confederates were more amused than annoyed at the term "rebel," which was so constantly applied to them; but he only wished mildly to remark, that in order to be a "rebel," a person must rebel against some one who has a right to govern him; and he thought it would be very difficult to discover such a right as existing in the Northern over the Southern States.

   In order to prepare a treaty of peace, he said, "It would only be necessary to write on a blank sheet of paper the words 'self-government.' Let the Yankees-accord that, and they might fill up the paper in any manner they chose. We don't want any State that doesn't want us; but we only wish that each State should decide fairly upon its own destiny. All we are struggling for is to be let alone."

   At 8 P. M. Mr. Benjamin walked with me to the President's dwelling, which is a private house at the other end of the town. I had tea there, and uncommonly good tea, too--the first I had tasted in the Confederacy...

President Jefferson Davis

 Mr. Jefferson Davis struck me as looking older than I expected. He is only fifty-six, but his face is emaciated, and much wrinkled. He is nearly six feet high, but is extremely thin, and stoops a little. His features are good, especially his eye, which is very bright, and full of life and humor. I was afterwards told he had lost the sight of his left eye from a recent illness. He wore a linen coat and gray trousers, and he looked what he evidently is, a well-bred gentleman. Nothing can exceed the charm of his manner, which is simple, easy, and most fascinating. 

  He conversed with me for a long time, and agreed with Benjamin that the Yankees did not really intend to go to war with England if she recognized the South; and he said that, when the inevitable smash came--and that separation was an accomplished fact--the State of Maine would probably try to join Canada, as most of the intelligent people in that State have a horror of being "under the thumb of Massachusetts." He added, that Maine was inhabited by a hardy, thrifty, seafaring population, with different ideas to the people in the other New England States. When I spoke to him of the wretched scenes I had witnessed in his own State (Mississippi), and of the miserable, almost desperate situation in which I had found so many unfortunate women, who had been left behind by their male relations; and when I alluded in admiration to the quiet, calm, uncomplaining manner in which they bore their sufferings and their grief, he said, with much feeling, that he always considered silent despair the most painful description of misery to witness, in the same way that he thought mute insanity was the most awful form of madness.

  When I took my leave about 9 o'clock, the President asked me to call upon him again. I don't think it is possible for any one to have an interview with him without going away most favorably impressed by his agreeable, unassuming manners, and by the charm of his conversation. While walking home, Mr. Benjamin told me that Mr. Davis's military instincts still predominate, and that his eager wish was to have joined the army instead of being elected President.

  During my travels, many people have remarked to me that Jefferson Davis seems in a peculiar manner adapted for his office. His military education at West Point rendered him intimately acquainted with the higher officers of the army; and his post of Secretary of War under the old government brought officers of all ranks under his immediate personal knowledge and supervision. No man could have formed a more accurate estimate of their respective merits. This is one of the reasons which gave the Confederates such an immense start in the way of generals; for having formed his opinion with regard to appointing an officer, Mr. Davis is always most determined to carry out his intention in spite of every obstacle. His services in the Mexican war gave him the prestige of a brave man and a good soldier. His services as a statesman pointed him out as the only man who, by his unflinching determination and administrative talent, was able to control the popular will. People speak of any misfortune happening to him as an irreparable evil too dreadful to contemplate....

(to be continued....)

Read more about the James Fremantle and the Gettysburg campaign my new book for teens just published by Sky Pony Press, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War, available at Amazon and

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