PBS is airing a new Civil War era show on Sunday night called Mercy Street about a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. What you might not know is there is a connection locally to J. E. B. Stuart and Martinsville in one character in the show and one real life cavalryman, spy, and man of God.
Born on June 18, 1840, at The Retreat along with Rapidan River in Culpepper County near Raccoon Ford, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow began the year 1861 in Noxubee County, Mississippi, far away from the state of his birth and the battlefields that his fame as a Confederate Scout would grow. He was a teacher of Latin and Greek. His own education began south of his home in Albemarle County before enrolling in Episcopal High School in Alexandria and graduating in 1860. This gave him knowledge of Alexandria and led him to an assignment that in 2016 would put him on PBS in Mercy Street.
In the summer of 1861 Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow came face to face with James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart during the First Battle of Manassas. Stuart’s keen eye for the talent of war drew him to young Stringfellow. Frank asked Stuart directly if he could serve under him and Stuart knowing of the younger man’s prowess as a scout invited him to serve as “his personal scout.” Stuart said of Stringfellow, “A young man of extraordinary merit.”
After the Battle of First Manassas in July 1861, Stringfellow served under Stuart. Serving as scouts in this same command, among others, were other men who became well known such as Redmond Burke, Will Farley, and John S. Mosby. The two former became mentors for Stringfellow.
Author Allen Foster described scouting or spying as "the most dangerous and thankless form of Civil War military service," in The Eyes and Ears of the Civil War and hardly the business of a weakling. Yet to see Frank Stringfellow clean shaven, blonde, blue eyed, 94 pound, teaching classic languages in Mississippi in 1860, one could hardly imagine that he became as Author John Bakeless in Spies of the Confederacy called him “the most dangerous spy in the Confederate army.”
A scout or a spy “ran the gauntlet” “often going alone on secrets missions” such was the life of Frank Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s first mission was in Alexandria behind the Union lines. He had another agenda as his fiancé Emma Green lived there too. He scouted when with the army, but when he went out alone, he was a spy, dressed in civilian clothing, a hanging offense if captured out of uniform.
Bakeless describes one of Stringfellow’s early assignments, January through April 1862, had him posing as a dental assistant and living in the home of the dentist. A cover story was devised in the including an assumed identity, fake baptismal and medical certificates. The agent had to know about the man he was impersonating, a real dental assistant who was with the army and hundreds of miles away. His job was to read all the daily newspapers. Why? They were full of military intelligence. The press considered it a sacred duty to keep the public informed, in spite of outcries by the generals. The more things change, the more they stay the same. They say history never repeats itself. After reading the papers, Stringfellow wrote out a report and left it in a certain place outside the dentist’s office. Each night another agent picked it up and, presumably, delivered it to the Confederate government in Richmond.
One day a man with his face wrapped in a towel disappeared into the dentist’s office with Stringfellow and horrified those in the waiting room with howls of excruciating pain. He left still holding the towel to his face. The man was a fellow agent with so urgent a message it couldn’t wait to go through the usual nocturnal channels of communication. One of the people in the waiting room was a federal officer who apparently never guessed he had just witnessed a classic scene of espionage.
Trouble arose when the dentist’s wife began to show more than friendly interest in Stringfellow, who personally had the highest of moral codes. The dentist, already aware of his assistant’s true identity, noticed his wife’s seeming infatuation and promptly reported the agent to Union authorities. For the first time, but certainly not his last, Stringfellow fled for his life.
He returned to Stuart in time for the First Ride Around McClellan in June 1862 around Richmond. Stuart wrote in Official Report of the Seven Days, “My escort did good service. Private Frank Stringfellow, Fourth Virginia Cavalry, was particularly conspicuous for gallantry and efficiency at Cold Harbor. The majority of the Hanover Company (G), Fourth Virginia Cavalry, possessing invaluable merits as guides, were distributed as such among the various generals.” Later than summer, he led Stuart on his raid on Catlett’s Station nearly capturing Union General John Pope.
As 1862 became 1863, he was back in Alexandria. This bring us to one of the more famous and humorous incidents of Frank Stringfellow. “One evening just before dark, the Scout was walking along the street in enemy occupied Alexandria. He turned a corner and suddenly came face to face with a Federal officer, who having seen him before, recognized him as a Confederate. Realizing that capture could have a very disagreeable ending, the scout turned and fled at top speed, as there were many other Federal soldiers along the street. Calling to him to ‘Halt,’ and calling to the soldiers along the route, the officer soon had a large detail on his trail. Joined by fresh men, the pursuers gained on the scout, who dodged around corners and ran on until he felt he could go no further.
Suddenly he saw the open door of a house just ahead. He dashed in and slammed the door behind him. Seeing no place downstairs to hide, he quickly mounted the stairs. In the first room was an old lady, wearing the hoopskirt of the time, and sitting at a table darning a tablecloth. Taking in the situation, as she recognized him, she quietly said, ‘Here Frank.’
Lifting her skirt, she indicated his hiding place. He quickly took his place, and she adjusted the folds of her dress, and draped the tablecloth over the table and the hidden scout. Calmly she resumed her darning.
As the soldiers dashed into the house, they quickly searched the downstairs rooms with no success. Mounting to the next floor, the officer addressed the quiet old lady. ‘Where is he? He came in here’ the old lady continuing her darning, answered, “Who are you looking for? Someone ran in the front door a moment ago. He must have run through, and out the back door.’
Taken aback, the Federals continued to search the upper rooms a while longer; then left the house. “Once he emerged from his hiding place resolved from that day on to be a better and more Christian man. That I shall speak of myself is because much of my experience was acquired when I was alone with God.”
With the end of the war Frank Stringfellow found himself with $10,000 on his head and the title of “the most dangerous man in the Confederacy.” He tried to make a go of it as a farmer in Culpeper. He wrote, “I wish you could see my hands now. I can boast of seven blisters on one hand and lots of corns. Tomorrow morning, I expect to begin my crop. There is but little money in farming at present, but green backs are not the only desirable thing in life, I wish good habits.”
In 1867, he returned to Virginia to farm at “Wakefield” in Fairfax County. He married Emma Frances Green that year. They had six children. After months of study, Stringfellow entered the Episcopal Seminary of Virginia, and became an ordained minister in 1876 at age 36. In the years that followed, he held charges in Powhatan, Middlesex, Farmville, Boydton, and other counties of Virginia.
He didn’t stay long in one place. He told friends when they urged him to settle down, ‘I don’t think it’s good for a minister to hold a church too long. His congregation gets used to him, and they’re likely to stop listening to what he says.” Rev. Stringfellow was what we would today call a “rainmaker.” He built churches everywhere he served in the impoverished South, and employed his well-honed ingenuity and humor to solve any problem.
From 1890 until 1894 Franklin Stringfellow served as Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Martinsville, Virginia. Virginia Windle recorded in the Christ Church Chronicles Spring 1990 that on September 1, 1890, Reverend Frank Stringfellow was rector of Patrick Parish in Henry County with 54 communicants.
Stringfellow was already in Martinsville at least several months before September 1890. During his tenure in Henry County Stringfellow was involved with Confederate Veterans groups. In fact, when the Stuart-Hairston Camp of Confederate Veterans chartered on May 26, 1890, the Chaplain was Frank Stringfellow with Commander Peter Hairston, Adjutant James S. Redd, oand ther commanders included W. W. Morris, James G. Penn, and B. F. Powell. Quartermaster was C. B. Bryant, Treasurer was S. G. Sheffield, Surgeon G. E. Waller, and Assistant Surgeon P. R. Drewry. Members included Thomas J. Jamerson, J. R. Armstrong, J. M. Smith, H. J. Winn, G. T. Franklin, J. O. Coon, W. T. Redd, Alexander Joyce, and J. H. Brown.
On March 14, 1892, Bishop Randolph confirmed more than 150 people. The next month there was 72 communicants. That same month, Franklin County reunited with the Patrick and Henry Counties. Stringfellow confirmed six people in Rocky Mount preaching the first sermon by an Episcopal minister in that place.
A month later construction on a Rectory began and completed on April 2, 1892, at a cost of $3,000. “This project was accomplished in large measure due to the untiring effort of Mr. Stringfellow.”
Stringfellow tried to expand the influence of his church into neighboring counties such as Patrick. He spoke on August 25, 1892, at Patrick Springs. Earlier that year he was in Franklin County speaking at Rocky Mount on March 15, 1892. All this comes from the records of Christ Church in Martinsville.
In 1892, Stringfellow became a director of the Fife Tabernacle Association that led by Reverend W. P. Fife led a “great evangelistic campaign.” A group including President Henry Clay Lester as President, C. B. Bryant as Secretary, Treasurer J. W. Carter and directors James M. Smith and O. C. Smith raised capital stock of $3,000 to $10,000. They built a building at the end of Ellsworth Street across from Water Street at the back of Pannill Knitting
On May 23, 1893, the congregation decided to “erect a comfortable brick church to hold a congregation of 275 at a cost of $5,000.” On December 1, 1893, Frank Stringfellow continued his pattern and resigned as the Rectorship of Patrick Parish and moved to Nelson County. The Reverend Alfred W. Anson succeeded Stringfellow.
Stringfellow wrote of his time in Martinsville, “From the growth of the town and a new charter with important amendments and from other causes, we fell that this Parish is in better condition than it was ever known before, for all of which may God almighty receive all the praise.”
Frank Stringfellow went home to the Lord on June 8, 1913. He rests today in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria beside his wife Emma.
Peavey, James D. Confederate Scout Virginia: Frank Stringfellow
Jones, Virgil Carrington. Ranger Mosby
Williamson, James A. Mosby’s Rangers
Records of Christ Episcopal Church
Smith, A. Franklin, Information in the Christ Church Episcopal Records