In the PBS series Mercy Street, Frank Stringfellow is a spy and assassin. A cold-blooded killer with a hint of the psychopath, he seems to enjoy the violence that the war has unleashed. (Or at least that’s how I read the character thus far. That may not be the intention of the show’s creators.) It’s hard for me to understand why the otherwise appealing Emma Green is in love with him, handsome or not.
The real life Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow was teaching Latin in Mississippi when the American Civil War broke out. He hurried home to Virginia to enlist in the Confederate army, where he was turned down by multiple units as the classic hundred pound weakling.* He decided to prove his worth with a dramatic act of derring-do. He scouted out an Confederate** encampment, captured three men from the picket line, and took them to their commander as his prisoners. The commander was impressed.
Accepted into the Confederate Army on the grounds of brains and daring, Stringfellow soon became a spy for the Confederacy. He became known for disguises and narrow escapes. On one occasion, he disguised himself as a woman and used a travel pass that had been issued in the name of a young woman of his acquaintance to attend a ball given by Union officers, where he danced, flirted, and gained useful information about troop movements. (I suspect candlelight made the deception a little easier, even for the willowy young Stringfellow.) Later in the war, he posed as a dental student, traveling from hotel to hotel in Washington DC. By the end of the war, some Union officers considered Stringfellow “the most dangerous man in the Confederacy” and there was a $10,000 dollar reward on his head.**
After the war, Stringfellow fled to Canada, where he found religion. In 1867, he returned to Virginia, entered an Episcopalian seminary, was ordained as a priest and married his long-time love, Emma Green.
In 1898, at the age of 58, Stringfellow attempted to enlist as an army chaplain in the Spanish-American War. He had been too scrawny for the army thirty-seven years before. Now the army rejected him as too old. Once again, Stringfellow had an unexpected card to play. After the Battle of Cold Harbor in May, 1864, Stringfellow had been close enough to General Grant to shoot him in the back, but hadn’t been able to bring himself to pull the trigger. After the war, he wrote to then President Grant about the incident, evidently providing enough detail to make the president believe it was true. Grant wrote back, saying that he or any future president would grant Stringfellow a request. Stringfellow called in his marker and was allowed to serve as an army chaplain.
He returned safely from the war and continued as a minister until his death in 1913. If he’d lasted a bit longer, I suspect he’d have found a way to sign up in the First World War, too.
*At 5 foot 8 inches tall and less than 100 pounds, he could have been accurately named Frank Stringbean. (Sorry. Sometimes I just can’t resist.)
**Not a typo
**Roughly $155,000 in today’s money using the Consumer Price Index, which is the simplest, if not necessarily the most accurate, of the various ways to make this calculation.