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Frank and Emma Stringfellow: An Honor Long Overdue

Posted on Monday, September 12, 2016 at 8:33 am

Presentation of the colors by the Fairfax Rifles.

Presentation of the colors by the Fairfax Rifles.

On May 14, 2016, just before the rain clouds rolled in, was held a grave-marking ceremony, under the auspices of the Mary Custis Lee – 17th Virginia Regiment Chapter #7 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at Ivy Hill Cemetery (President Debby Mullins presiding) in Alexandria, Virginia. Honored that day were the graves of Confederate spy (later Episcopal priest) Benjamin Franklin (Frank) Stringfellow and his wife, Emma Frances Green. There has been some recent revival of interest in these two persons because of the PBS series Mercy Street. This Ceremony was followed by a Reception at the R.E. Lee Camp Hall Museum on Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria. The Museum is usually open the first Saturday of the month and contains many artifacts relating to the War, including a camp stool used by General Lee.

The Chapter had originally planned to place Iron Crosses on the graves of two Confederate soldiers who died at the Mansion House Hospital. They are buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery. Those will be marked this fall. Caroline Eaton, one of the Ladies who is with Co. A  2nd Maryland Infantry reenactors, happened to be at Ivy Hill Cemetery and noticed that Frank Stringfellow had no Iron Cross on his grave. So, it was decided to do that one first. There was some research on-line and one of the descendants was found, who put the Chapter in touch with a few others. Susan Hellman, director at the Carlisle House in Old Town (the Mansion House had been in front of it) put the Ladies in touch with Frank Stringfellow (a living name sake) who read a letter from Frank to Emma during the Ceremony. As the number of guests grew, Lucy Goddin with the Ivy Hill Cemetery Historical Preservation Society helped in making the event possible.

About 80 attended the ceremony, 26 of whom were related to Frank and Emma. Two cousins came from California. A great-grandson came from Seattle, Washington. Most came from Maryland, Virginia and DC. The oldest is 90 – Robert Barr of Sterling, VA, descendant of Frank and Emma’s eldest daughter, Ida Stringfellow Barr. Until this event, some of the relatives had never met. Some had lost touch over the years. They are now happily connected. Thanks to Lindsey Stringfellow Weilbacher, from Pocomoke City, MD, everyone got to see a dress of Emma’s. She was a very tiny lady and was called Teeny Momma in the family. Also on display at the Reception was the double-shot pistol Frank used in the famous incident where he captured two Virginia cavalry men after they wouldn’t let him in the cavalry because he was considered too small.

Ancestor tributes were given by Frank Stringfellow Walker, Margaret Bright and Frank Stringfellow.

Many readers are aware of Mercy Street, an American period medical drama television series. It is set during the War Between the States and follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. The first season of six episodes premiered on-demand on January 14, 2016, and made its broadcast debut on January 17, concluding its six-episode run on February 21. PBS announced in early March that Mercy Street had been renewed for a second season.

Although loosely based in fact, some of the characters are not given fair treatment. One of these is Frank Stringfellow, who in one episode is shown plotting to blow up the hospital while President Abraham Lincoln is visiting. His plot is foiled when he discovers that his love, Emma, will be serving as a nurse that day. As far as is known, no such plot was ever planned. Frank is painted as a buffoon and cold-blooded killer, but the real person is far from that.

The Real Frank Stringfellow

Frank Stringfellow was born in Culpeper County, Virginia in 1840 to Robert R. and Ann Picket Slaughter Stringfellow. He was the youngest of three sons. He graduated from Episcopal High School in Alexandria in 1860. So it is probable he had met Emma while in Alexandria. Plus one of Emma’s sisters, Jane, had married Frank’s brother, Robert, who was an Episcopal priest. And another of her sisters, Mary, married Frank’s cousin, Horace Stringfellow, also a priest.

When the War began, Frank tried several times to join the Confederate army. But because of his small stature he wasn’t accepted – he was reportedly around five feet in height and weighed about 100 pounds. What he lacked in size he made up for by using his brain. It seems Frank managed to capture two soldiers from the Fourth Virginia Cavalry (CSA) at gun point and marched them to their Company Commander’s tent. This persuaded the officer that Frank had skills to offer and he was sworn in on May 28, 1861.

From this time forward, the stories about Frank Stringfellow and his exploits are legendary. Frank was a spy for the Confederacy. His ability to blend in, obtain the information needed, and return to report what he had learned came to the attention of J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart asked him to serve as his personal scout.    While participating in battle when needed, he wove his way in and out of Alexandria and Washington City on his more clandestine missions. There is no doubt when he had the chance to be in Alexandria, he saw Emma.

During the War his escapades were many – often avoiding capture by using his wits. Only one time was Frank captured – this was right before the War ended. He was held prisoner while his identity was trying to be established. After 21 days, he escaped before it could be discovered who he was. By this time the war was over.

But Frank’s troubles weren’t over. Because certain of his enemies considered him “as the most dangerous man in the Confederacy” a $10,000 reward was offered for his capture. Frank went to Canada where he remained for a year or so. During this time he wrote to Emma in 1866 “I begin to realize that a new life is opening up to me” – that “man does not live by bread alone – but by every word that proceedeth from the Father.”

Frank returned to Virginia in 1867 and married Emma. He graduated from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in 1876. With Emma he raised six children. He was a beloved priest and went where his calling took him. He also participated in many of the reunions telling of his adventures as well as speaking at meetings about the same.

In 1898 Frank wanted to serve as a chaplain for the U.S. armed forces during the Spanish-American War but was considered too old. Because of a letter he had written years before to President Grant telling of an incident during the war – that he had been close enough to shoot him and he didn’t – Grant replied if at any time he needed something, any future president would be glad to grant to him what he wanted. So Frank wrote to President William McKinley (also a Civil War veteran) reiterating this story and was allowed to become a U.S. Army Chaplain.

He returned from this war and continued his ministry until his death in 1913.

Emma Green Stringfellow

Emma’s parents were James and Jane Muir Green. She was the 8th of nine children born to the couple – born in 1843 in Alexandria, Virginia. Her father, James, was the owner of the Green Furniture Company, the Mansion House Hotel and the Carlisle House in Alexandria, as well as the owner of a number of pieces of real estate. He was considered one of the wealthiest men in Alexandria when the War began.

Emma was brought up by parents who instilled in her the ethics by which she lived. Her father had shown what hard work could do and her mother showed her how to live by faith. She was brought up as an Episcopalian and it was her mother who instilled in her the importance of religion. Jane Muir Green was a strong woman who managed her home, raising nine children, and was well educated.

Emma and her siblings were the children of privilege. Provided with the best education possible and her parents’ teachings, she was able to face the future with confidence. She was both her father’s and mother’s daughter. She was full of drive and energy and was a devout and conscientious Christian.

When the War began, most of the older Green children had married and moved away from Alexandria. Emma, her older brother James, and her parents were the only ones left in Alexandria. A younger sister, Alice, had died in 1860. Her older siblings who had married were living in the Culpeper, Virginia area or other areas south of Alexandria.

The family lived both in the Culpeper area and in Alexandria during the War.

Though there is no written proof that Emma was a nurse during the war, it is very probable she did what she could to ease the suffering and offer what comfort she could to the Confederate prisoners held at the Union hospital established in her father’s hotel.

The Green family was fortunate enough to have their properties returned to them after the war and was able to return to Alexandria.

Emma married Benjamin Franklin ‘Frank’ Stringfellow in 1867. They lived in Fairfax County where Frank farmed while preparing to enter the Theological Seminary. He attended from 1873-1876 and was ordained a priest shortly after finishing school.

Emma and Frank had six children, all of whom lived to adulthood.

Frank Stringfellow died in 1913 and Emma in 1929. They are buried in the family plot at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.

Emma was a true southern belle provided with every comfort and opportunity. During the war she grew up and afterwards married the man with whom she had an understanding at the beginning of the conflict.

While much is not known about Emma, her husband Frank Stringfellow became quite well known during the War.

-By William S. Connery

William S. Connery lives in Alexandria and is a frequent contributor to The Courier. He has two History Press books: Civil War Northern Virginia 1861 and Mosby’s Raids in Civil War Northern Virginia and is available for talks on various War Between the States topics. He can be reached at william.connery@verizon.net.


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