History likes to look for heroes—individuals with exceptional stories who can serve as the embodiment of others of their kind. In the (very specific) world of international observers to the Civil War, Colonel Arthur Fremantle is that hero. He is familiar even to many casual students of Civil War history as “that British guy who hung around with the Confederates,” in large part thanks to the widespread consumption of Michael Shaara’s popular book The Killer Angels and the aptly-named movie version Gettysburg. His fame is not without merit; Fremantle’s diary detailing his travels through the Confederate States is filled with interesting observations and commentary on the Civil War and the American South through the fascinating lens of a complete outsider.
Arthur Fremantle was not, however, the only international observer to the Civil War (or even the only British observer), a fact that is often overlooked. Representatives were also sent from Napoleon III’s France, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia, as well as from a handful of other European states. The international implications of any kind of outcome made the war relevant to the interests of European power politics, to say nothing of the military knowledge that could be gained through observation of the war.
As a European military force about to reach the climax of its power, the Kingdom of Prussia was perhaps one of the most interested states from a military standpoint. Thus, in the opening months of 1863, the Prussian military command sent a man by the name of Justus Scheibert to observe the war, with instructions to pay special attention to “the effects of rifled cannon fire on earth, masonry, and iron, and the operation of armor on land and at sea.” In 1863, Scheibert was a thirty-one-year-old captain in the Prussian army and an expert on military fortifications and engineering who heavily sympathized with the Confederacy.
Scheibert’s fondness for the South seems to stem from a practical military perspective, as he had no respect for the Northern military or political leadership, which he viewed as an ill-qualified mess of bureaucracy. In his account of his travels written directly following the war, Scheibert unfavorably compares President Lincoln’s lack of significant military experience with the wartime experience of Jefferson Davis, deriding him as “not equal to the task” of transforming the Union army from an “armed mob” into an effective fighting force, despite the fact of Union victory. Further citing the internal divisions of the Union states and the rapid turnover of generals for political reasons, Scheibert declares that these conditions “paralyzed all fusing of the separate branches [of the Union Army] into a unit,” only attributing the eventual Union victory to the experience gained over years of warfare.
Military matters aside, Scheibert maintained a fondness for the culture of the South and its military leadership as a whole, drawn from their apparently pseudo-European sensibilities and the grandeur of its leaders. He nostalgically compares the gentlemen of the South to “Old England’s cavaliers” who kept alive ancient literary and cultural traditions with their “good-natured conversation and somewhat ceremonious manner.” He seems to have been racially prejudiced, never mentioning any objection to the southern states’ slaveholding practices and speaks about the “kind treatment” of slaves in the South. He even records a correction he received upon using a racial slur, in which he was told that it was a Yankee word of low intelligence. His descriptions of some of the major Confederate generals use equally friendly terms, as when he describes Stonewall Jackson as a man with more features of a thinker than a warrior, with an attitude of great respect and dignity. His first encounter with General Lee is described with outright awe bordering on hero worship, perhaps due to the fact that, as Scheibert notes, “he had formerly been an officer of engineers, like me.” Did Scheibert see Lee’s success as an inspiration to his own military career? Admittedly, admiration for Jackson and Lee hardly qualifies one for the label of an overt Confederate sympathizer, but coupled with Scheibert’s other attractions, they do compound.
In his time observing the war, Scheibert was present for several major battles, including the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Siege of Charleston Harbor. Staying for only seven months, he quietly returned to Prussia to report his findings to the military staff, eventually authoring two accounts, one for popular consumption (from which many of the above quotes are drawn) and one for his superiors. In my next post, I will discuss Scheibert’s military conclusions drawn from his observations.
Luvaas, Jay. The Military Legacy of the Civil War: The European Inheritance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1959.
Scheibert, Justus. Seven Months in the Rebel States. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The Confederate Publishing Company, Inc., 1958.
Trautman, Federic, trans. A Prussian Observes the American Civil War: The Military Studies of Justus Scheibert. Columnia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2001.