A Confederate Englishman in South Carolina

Guest post by Karen Stokes

Henry Wemyss Feilden (1838-1921), the son of an English baronet, resigned his commission in the British army and became an officer in the army of the Confederate States of America in 1863. Like many of his countrymen, he was sympathetic to the Southern cause for independence, and after risking his life to run the naval blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, he recorded some of his impressions of Southerners in a letter to an aunt in England:    

One’s first idea after speaking to the people of the South for a short time, is that they are an intolerable set of boasters, but though such is their character to a superficial observer, yet when one sees more of them, and knows what they say they intend to do, that never will they give in as long as life courses through the veins of a Southern man, that they have beaten the Yankees in every stand-up fight under the most disadvantageous circumstances, one must admire them…The more I see of the Southern ladies, the more I hear of their actions, of their grand heroism, of their sacrifices, of their sufferings, the more I am lost in astonishment. Words cannot express my admiration of them…

The young Englishman’s fervent admiration for one particular Southern lady resulted in marriage. In 1864, Captain Feilden wed Julia McCord, a young woman from a prominent South Carolina family. Throughout their long and happy partnership, she treasured and preserved the letters he wrote to her during the war, and they have recently been published as A Confederate Englishman: The Civil War Letters of Henry Wemyss Feilden.     

Feilden’s letters eventually made their way back to America and found a permanent home in Charleston. These manuscripts have been a part of the collections of the South Carolina Historical Society for more than sixty years, but despite their significance, it is only recently that they have begun to receive the attention they deserve. In Amanda Foreman’s bestselling book of 2010, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Captain Feilden figures as one of the principal (and most interesting) characters, and now, his story is told more fully with the publication of his wartime correspondence.

Though Captain Feilden was appointed as an adjutant, serving as a staff officer for General P. G. T. Beauregard and his successors, he also fought in a number of engagements during the war. His vivid, sometimes romantic letters to Julia offer a compelling view into the operations of the military department headquartered in Charleston, conditions and events in and around the besieged city, and the heart of a man in love. They also record Feilden’s impressions of the celebrated general, Stonewall Jackson, whom he met while in Virginia, and describe the people and landscapes of wartime Florida, where the captain was sent on an inspection tour. In the last months of the war, Feilden recounted the evacuation of the Confederate troops from Charleston and his participation in their last desperate battles in North Carolina against the army of General William T. Sherman.

In late February 1865, reporting on Sherman’s destructive campaign through South Carolina, Captain Feilden wrote to his wife from Florence, S.C.:

We evacuated Charleston on Saturday morning the 18th. Columbia was occupied by the enemy on the 17th and the enemy left it on the 20th. I have just seen a gentleman from there. He tells me Columbia is burnt to the ground and that it is an awful scene of desolation, the population starving. Sherman then moved to Camden burning a large portion of that town. His army is now moving on Cheraw…I have been working night and day since I left Charleston, and have never taken off my clothes. I am wearing the same clothes that I left in. So you see I am a very fair specimen of a Confederate officer. I am very well and in excellent spirits. I hope you are the same. I am distressed of course at the amount of misery that I see around me. I am staggered when I think how God can permit such villains as these Yankees to wander over the country, burn our cities and turn out our women and children to perish of starvation.          

In the dire social and economic conditions that prevailed in South Carolina after the war, Feilden was unable to provide adequate financial support for himself and his wife, and so in 1866, he took her back to England with him. He was reinstated in the British army, resuming an honorable and distinguished military career, and in time he also gained eminence as a naturalist. As a member of Sir George Nares’ polar expedition of 1875-1876, Feilden documented the geology of 300 miles of the coast of Smith Sound, an arctic sea passage, and made extensive and valuable zoological observations and collections. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, the Zoological Society of London, and other learned societies.

In his later years, Feilden settled at Burwash, Sussex, where he became good friends with another resident of the area, Rudyard Kipling. The famous author admired Feilden, and wrote of him in his autobiography, “I was honoured till he died by the friendship of a Colonel Wemyss Feilden…He was in soul and spirit Colonel Newcome, in manner as diffident and retiring as an old maid…and up to his eighty-second year could fairly walk me off my feet, and pull down pheasants from high heaven…Mrs. Feilden at seventy-five was in herself fair explanation of all the steps he had taken—and forfeited.”

In addition to his Civil War correspondence, A Confederate Englishman features a selection of Feilden’s letters from the early 20th century which include his reflections on his extraordinary life, his service to the Confederacy, and his beloved wife of fifty-six years.

Karen Stokes is an archivist with the South Carolina Historical Society, and the co-editor of A Confederate Englishman.

To learn more about the English in South Carolina, and Charleston in particular, have a look at our latest video English Migrants and their Legacies in Charleston, South Carolina.