- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

In 1866, former Confederate cavalry Gen. Fitzhugh Lee wrote of Frank Stringfellow, “He was the confidential scout of generals R.E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart … [and] his service, in his particular line of duty, was greater than any one man in the Army of Northern Virginia.” The Washington-area exploits of this colorful yet obscure soldier will be the focus of this article because space does not permit a full account of his achievements.

The Culpeper, Va., native attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria. While a student, he courted Emma Green, daughter of a prominent furniture maker, James Green, who lived at 121 N. Fairfax St. Green’s stately Colonial mansion, now called the Carlyle House after its original owner, Scottish merchant John Carlyle, and owned by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, is a landmark in Old Town Alexandria.

Stringfellow’s knowledge of Alexandria and Washington and his love for Emma would motivate him to undertake audacious missions that would provide invaluable information to the Confederacy.

The 20-year-old graduate taught Latin at a Mississippi school in 1860 to save money to marry Emma. During the damp Mississippi winter, he suffered an illness originally misdiagnosed as tuberculosis that reduced the weight covering his 5-foot-8 frame to just 100 pounds. Nevertheless, the strong-spirited, accomplished horseman returned home to Virginia in the spring of 1861 determined to fight with the elite cavalry.

To his mortification, the Little Fork Rangers, the only cavalry unit formed in Culpeper County, took one look at his smooth face and feeble body and rejected him, as did the next three cavalry units that passed through the county.

The resolute young man gorged until he gained 15 pounds, but pending hostilities near Manassas prompted him to devise a bold plan that he later wrote would get him either “killed or in the cavalry.”

With his two pistols drawn, he crept into the woods surrounding the Culpeper camp of Company E, 4th Virginia Cavalry, known as the Powhatan Guards, and captured the careless pickets. He then paraded these surprised soldiers into the center of camp and demanded to see the commanding officer. The officer, who was appalled to discover his men held hostage by a scrawny youth, cautioned Stringfellow that he was involved in a dangerous game. Stringfellow later would recall that his argument that “if he could do this to these soldiers, just think what he could do to the Yankees,” persuaded the officer to give him a chance to fight. The new recruit, who confessed that his guns weren’t loaded, was sworn into the Powhatan Guards.

Foray into Alexandria

When the company arrived at Manassas, Stringfellow heard a plea for volunteers to go into Union-occupied Alexandria to retrieve information from Confederate sympathizers. He had not seen Emma for more than a year, so he volunteered along with a bugler. When the pair reached Union lines, the bugler sounded the charge, and Stringfellow yelled orders for several imaginary units to charge. The confused pickets fled before the presumed attack, allowing the Confederates to cross Union lines unmolested.

Stringfellow proceeded to Emma’s house alone but discovered Union officers occupying the upper levels. Undeterred, he crept into the cellar from the back of the house and asked Emma’s maid to fetch her. One needs only to visit the vaulted tunnels beneath Carlyle House to envision this secret lovers’ reunion. Emma agreed to call on the informers and returned within a few hours with vital information of Union Gen. Irvin McDowell’s planned attack. The two rookie spies arrived back at camp with their mission accomplished.

During the Battle of First Manassas, Stringfellow was one of two couriers who delivered the message to Col. J.E.B. Stuart ordering him to mount a charge against the New York Zouaves. Stringfellow requested and received permission to accompany Stuart into battle.

Several weeks later, Stuart summoned Stringfellow to his tent. The general informed the nervous private that he had heard good things about him his foray into Alexandria, the ingenious way he had gotten into the cavalry and had observed him in battle. In short, Stuart invited Stringfellow to join an elite group of scouts. Stringfellow readily accepted the perilous assignment and began an illustrious career.

A close escape

In January 1862, his first official covert mission sent him into Alexandria to pose as a dental apprentice. He arrived at the office of a local dentist and Southern sympathizer with appropriate papers to assume his new identity. Each evening, Stringfellow condensed newspaper information and left an envelope under the roof eaves for a courier to pick up. Although he desperately wanted to see Emma, he made no contact for fear of endangering her.

Things went smoothly for several months, but in early April, Emma entered the dentist’s office. Her eyes froze on her beau, and she cried his true name joyfully. With coolness of mind, he replied that she must have mistaken him for another. Emma realized the gravity of the situation and apologized for her mistake.

That night, the dentist’s wife warned Stringfellow that her husband had betrayed him, and the spy bolted out of the bedroom window to the sound of approaching hooves. He led the Federal troopers on a chase and ultimately eluded them by submerging himself in a stream and breathing through a straw. He retrieved his hidden horse, then returned to the Confederate cavalry and served Stuart well as a scout during the ensuing campaigns, especially on the triumphant Catlett’s Station raid of Aug. 22, 1862 (during which the Rebels captured Gen. John Pope’s hat, cloak, dispatch book and important Union intelligence).

Fort Defiance

In February 1863, Stuart provided his trusted scout with a cavalry company led by Capt. John Farrow and sufficient money to enter Washington to set up a reliable line of communication to Richmond. Stringfellow left Farrow’s men to wait below Bull Run and the Occoquan while he and two soldiers familiar with the area proceeded on foot to the Fairfax home of one of them, Charlie Arundel.

Arundel informed his companions that Union soldiers frequently checked his house, so the three built a crude fort in the woods that they named “Fort Defiance.” They camped there several days while Stringfellow enlisted local families to aid in his communication line, and they awaited the return of a well-known sutler’s wagon.

When the wagon clanked down the thoroughfare, the three Rebels ambushed it at a wooded curve. Stringfellow relieved the driver and two passengers of what he needed most passes into Alexandria. He released the sutler but left the two passengers to be held prisoner at Fort Defiance while he proceeded into Alexandria alone under the guise of delivering a borrowed load of wood.

Stringfellow reached the store of James Sturrett, an old friend. They decided the scout would make deliveries, which would enable him to travel into Washington unmolested. This time, Stringfellow wasted no time in sending the store owner to fetch Emma. The couple spent many happy moments amid the scout’s trips to visit Southern informers in the War Department and others who would become links in his vital intelligence line an information resource that served the Confederacy well until the end of the war.

A desperate endeavor

A chance street-corner collision with a Union officer abruptly ended his time with Emma. The officer, whom Stringfellow had captured months earlier at Catlett’s Station, recognized the Rebel and shouted for other soldiers to join in pursuit of the famous scout. Stringfellow darted in and out of alleys to the point of desperate breathlessness.

Seeing a familiar house, he raced inside, then sped upstairs, where he discovered an old woman mending a tablecloth. She recognized him, grasped the situation, lifted her hoop skirt and ordered him to hide beneath it. He did so in the nick of time, and from his unusual hiding place, listened as his adversaries searched the house. The lady calmly told them she had heard someone run out the back door. When the shaken spy emerged from beneath her skirts, the plucky matron informed him she was a friend of his mother’s.

He reached the Arundels’ home to hear news that his two comrades were dead. They both had fallen asleep, and their two prisoners had worked free, axed them to death and escaped. The enraged scout procured a horse and rode toward the Federal picket post spoiling for a fight. He presented his pass, and during the conversation with the picket, learned that the picket command post was at the “Widow Violett’s” house, a former Lorton landmark located in the Y intersection of Lorton and Furnace roads. He concluded that there couldn’t be more than 50 Yanks at the command post, so he and Farrow’s 36 men should be able to take it in a surprise attack.

He located Farrow and his men and persuaded them to join him in a night assault on the house. However, Stringfellow felt concern that the company contained primarily new recruits, only a couple of whom had ever fired a shot. Snow fell heavily as the column reached the river, where the soldiers broke the inch of ice with their carbines. The noise of coaxing the horses down the steep bank caused the Union pickets to fire into the darkness. After the difficult crossing, Stringfellow had just 18 men who were willing to proceed.

The attackers approached on foot, then sprawled in the snow while Farrow moved forward to listen against the kitchen wall. The enemy knew they were out there but felt secure inside their fortress. Farrow determined that of the 30 men in the house, 20 were in the kitchen. Stringfellow and three men were to storm the kitchen, while Farrow would take the rest to carry the house. To make their prey think they had departed, the Rebels waited hours in the frigid weather. Shortly before dawn, the house quieted, and the numb Confederates knew they must strike or be overwhelmed by the larger force at sunrise.

The gray soldiers crept toward the kitchen door, saw a sentinel, dragged him from his horse and disarmed him. Several crashed through the kitchen door and fired at everything moving. Bullets indiscriminately struck friend and foe in the darkness. A carbine fired so close to Stringfellow’s back that it jarred him. A blue-clad soldier pushed a gun into the scout’s side, but a shot fired through a porthole from outside felled the Yank.

Next, one of Stringfellow’s new men mistook him for the commander of the post. In the scout’s own words, “He seemed convinced that it was his special task to kill me. I caught a glimpse of a pistol at my head, threw it aside just as he fired, cutting off a lock of hair under my ear. I explained to him who I was and thought the matter settled. But while I was fighting another man, he took a second shot at me, so close as to stick powder in my face. By now I was convinced I would have to take his pistol or he would kill me. We had a scuffle for life and I fell on top, but he even fired then, hitting the large brass buckle on my belt. For a moment it knocked the breath out me, and I had a strong notion to kill him anyway. I explained again who I was and told him if he shot at me again I would kill him.”

Larger than life

When the smoke cleared, dead and wounded covered the kitchen floor. Stringfellow received word of Farrow’s wounding and rushed outside to his old friend. Although mortally wounded, Farrow asked Stringfellow to cock his pistol for him and help him get back into the fight. Stringfellow supported Farrow; they entered the house, and Farrow fired every shot in his pistol. Room after room surrendered. Upon departure, Stringfellow left Farrow at a nearby house, where the dying soldier presented the scout his revolver. Farrow’s revolver is now in the Museum of the Confederacy.

The Confederates made off with 20 prisoners, but there is no doubt that Stringfellow had loomed larger than life to his enemies. The Union report of the March 22, 1863, raid claimed that up to 100 Confederates had overpowered the picket post.

After the war, at age 36, Stringfellow commenced a new crusade that of saving souls as an Episcopal minister. He also lectured to large crowds about his wartime experiences to raise money for the church and Confederate charities until his death at 73. He and Emma, whom he married after the war, are buried on the entrance circle of Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria. A small metal marker at the base of the granite shaft hints of the accomplishments of this extraordinary man who served the Confederacy and his God with an unconquerable spirit. It reads simply, “Capt. F. Stringfellow, Confidential scout under Genl. R.E. Lee.”

Virginia Morton, author of “Marching Through Culpeper,” conducts tours of Culpeper’s Civil War sites. Frank Stringfellow is a central character in her historical novel.

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