Stringfellow headstone, which has a pointed top as many Confederate stones do so Union sympathizers can’t sit on it.
The television show Mercy Street has introduced a character Frank Stringfellow. I had high hopes for the show and in a lot of ways I enjoy it because they get a lot of things right. The amputation scene for instance, was probably about right. Until the war, doctors would have little chance to perform an amputation and almost none in medical school.
Frank Stringfellow, however, they have messed up and more’s the pity because this is a fascinating man. Barely five feet tall, 94 pounds soaking wet, with curly dark blond hair and an almost feminine appearance, he looked like anything but a soldier let alone a master spy. Yet, by the end of the war he was the one of the most wanted men in the North with a $10,000 price tag on his head and a shoot on sight order.
He was turned down by the Little Fork Rangers, Madison County Troop, Goochland County Dragoons, and the Prince William County Troop. That’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands and scouted out a Confederate camp bristling with guards and pickets. He captured three of the pickets and marched them at gunpoint to the Colonel and asked if he now thought he was good enough to join the army. The colonel thought he might be and put him to work as a scout.
Shortly thereafter, Col. Jeb Stuart told Lee he needed another scout and Lee reassigned Stringfellow to Stuart. It was a match made in heaven. Almost literally. Stuart had a penchant for acquiring spies who either were preachers or would become preachers as Stringfellow did later in life. One of Stuart’s bloody parsons said he didn’t know how many souls he saved during the war, but he did send a fair few on their way. He refused to stay in camp and always rode at Stuart’s side.
Stringfellow was a master of disguise and, with his diminutive size, could easily pass for a woman. He had an extremely light beard and with hair pieces his lady friends helped him with, he could dazzle the Union officers at the balls, and did. In one episode they captured a young captain who was on his way with a pass for a young lady to attend a soiree. Stringfellow used the pass to pose as the young lady to go to the dance. Unfortunately, a friend of the missing captain sounded the alarm, but Stringfellow escaped with usual daring and was back to camp with information.
Mercy Street shows him working in collusion with his fiancé Emma Green, but in fact when he was in Alexandria, he never contacted for her safety and his. Once when he was undercover working as a dental assistant, she brought her grandfather in and blurted out his name. He had to disavow her and say she was mistaken. She was quick enough to realize he was undercover and agreed she was mistaken. He had been slipping into Alexandria for two years at the time.
Unlike Stuarts other parsons, Stringfellow hated hurting people and avoided killing anyone if at all possible. He remarked in later letters he even regretted having to knock out pickets to sneak into camps.
During the Wilderness Campaign, Stringfellow wormed his way into Grant’s camp. He was close enough to Grant to hear his talking to his staff officers and could see his silhouette through the tent. The war might have taken a very different turn right there, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot a man in the back.
Stringfellow survived the war and eventually married Emma, though he had to flee to Canada for some time before he could safely do so. Years later one of his men met Stringfellow’s beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter and said, “It was like looking into the face of my young captain all those years ago.”
It just goes to show, sometimes good things do come in small packages.