Thursday, January 6, 2011

A British Soldier of Fortune in the American Civil War

In my research for The Enemy Within, I have run across quite a number of interesting characters. Lately I have been reading up on John Hunt Morgan, a dashing Confederate Calvary officer who was famous (or rather infamous) for his raids through Union territory. In reading some accounts, I stumbled across a mention of a British soldier named George St. Leger Grenfell. As you might imagine from the name, he was quite the personality. Born in Cornwall, England into a wealthy, aristocratic family, he was a bit of globe trotter. He participated in numerous wars as a mercenary or soldier of fortune. He apparently said, "If England is not at war, I will go find one..."

And so he did. Grenfell ran the Federal blockade and made his way to Richmond where he met with General Robert E. Lee. After presenting letters of introduction and asking to join the Confederate Army, Lee sent him to John Hunt Morgan's regiment in Kentucky. Lee told Morgan that Grenfell should, "be given every opportunity to gratify his rather extraordinary appetite for hazardous adventure.”

Grenfell served with Morgan for eight months before disappearing. Some say that he wanted command of one of Morgan's regiments, while others say that he was tired of the undisciplined soldiers that he had to interact with. When Grenfell resurfaced in Richmond, he briefly served under J.E.B. Stuart before being recruited into espionage. Together with other Confederate spies, Grenfell was in charge of fermenting a rebellion in the Midwestern states, which were teeming with Union democrats who contested the war.
Grenfell was eventually captured (along with another 150 men) after an aborted attempt to take over Chicago. He was initially sentenced to hang but the war ended, and President Johnson had his sentence reduced to imprisonment. Grenfell was sent to the Dry Tortugas to Fort Johnson, where he was jailed with Dr. Samuel Mudd (the physician who tended John Wilkes Booth's broken leg following Lincoln's assassination). In March of 1868, Grenfell and three other prisoners attempted to escape the fort. According to reports, their destination was Cuba, however a storm at sea capsized their boat. All four men were reported lost.

An article later appeared in the New York Times stating that Grenfell had reached his destination, but most historians believe this story was fabricated. The only certainty was that Grenfell was never heard from again.

I was certainly intrigued by this larger than life mercenary turned spy. It has set my creative juices into percolation, and I am now contemplating some serious revisions to The Enemy Within. After all, Alex doesn't have to be a detective...

We shall see what becomes of these machinations.

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