UK Heritage

"A Popular Place With Rebels" A Footnote in Confederate History

By John Bennett

 

During the American Civil War, the genteel 'watering hole' of Royal Leamington Spa in the county of Warwickshire, England became a discreet nest of confederate operatives and their families. some of them found it hard to leave...

 

(This article appeared under the same title in 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) no. 76 - April 2005. Reproduced here with additional picture)

 

 


During and immediately after the American Civil War a number of Confederate families came to live in Royal Leamington Spa. It is not difficult to see why this Warwickshire town of some 20,000 people proved so attractive to Southern expatriates. In addition to its social amenities - the pump rooms, public gardens, comfortable hotels and well-stocked shops - it had many apartments and houses to let at moderate rents, as the number of visitors was then in decline, with the growing popularity of seaside and continental resorts. In addition, it was served by both the Great Western and the London & North Western Railways, making it readily accessible to both London and Liverpool, the main centres of Confederate activity.

 

Lists of visitors to the town were published in the weekly Leamington Advertiser and from these it is clear that Confederates had begun to arrive by the middle of 1863. The Advertiser also included the addresses where they were staying, making it possible to determine where the main Confederate community was located. Most Confederate families lived in what is still a pleasant residential area, to the north-west of the town centre, comprising Portland Street, Dale Street and Grove Street, with one or two more in Lansdowne Crescent, to the north-east.

 

One of these visitors was Mrs. Georgiana Walker, the wife of Major Norman Walker, CSA, the Confederate agent in Bermuda. Mrs. Walker arrived in England with her four children in early July 1864 and after a few days in London, set off from Paddington station for Leamington Spa. Here they found accommodation, first at 22 Dale Street, then at 60 Portland Street, and had scarcely had time to unpack and settle in before other Confederates began to arrive and pay their respects.

 

Georgiana Walker's visitors consisted of Mr. and Mrs. N. Clements, Mr. and Mrs. T S. Dugan, Captain Flinn, Mr. and Mrs. C. M. Fry, Mrs. M. T Hanna, Mrs. B. W. Leigh and her daughters, Miss C. G. Reynolds, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, and Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and their daughters. Included in Mrs. Walker's circle were also Mr. and Mrs. G. Westfeldt, though they were out of town when she first arrived. Most of these names have not been identified, other than Nelson Clements, a Texas state purchasing agent, and Mrs. Benjamin Watkins Leigh, the widow of a Richmond lawyer. These, as well as various others who were there, on and off, Mrs. Walker noted in her journal, comprised "the little nest of Confederates in Leamington".

 

Many of these people, though not all, feature in the lists published in the Advertiser. Some probably did not bother to notify the paper of their arrival, others perhaps chose not to do so, not wishing to advertise their presence in the town; it would not have taken Federal spies long to discover that Confederates were congregating there.

 

Another of Mrs. Walker's visitors at the end of July was James M. Mason, the former Confederate Commissioner in London, who was now living in Paris. He was on his way to Scotland and was accompanied by Judge James M. Buchanan of Maryland. When Mason stopped off again, on his way back to Paris in mid-September, he remarked on the "large circle of Confederates in this retired town", in a letter to Secretary of State Judah P Benjamin.

 

Georgiana Walker was a friend of Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and did some shopping for her in Leamington, sending her a box which she hoped would please her.

 

There was an anxious wait for mail and papers from across the Atlantic, but most of the news came from "Yankee land", and any from the South was always more than a month old. There were reports of the siege of Petersburg and the battle of the Crater, as well as "gloomy accounts" of the engagement in Mobile Bay.

 

On a lighter note, there was a Confederate wedding at the parish church of All Saints on 2 August, when Captain Joseph Pembroke Thom, who had been "wounded in the cause", married Miss Catherine Grosch Reynolds of Kentucky. The wedding was attended by "all the Southerners" and the ceremony was performed by the vicar, the Rev. John Craig. There had been several recent additions to the Confederate community in the town, "this being a popular place with Rebels".

 

One of them, at the end of August, was Mrs. Walker's husband, who sent a telegram from Liverpool announcing his imminent arrival by train at Leamington. After a day or two, Major and Mrs. Walker departed for London and Paris on Confederate business, leaving their children in the care of a family friend, but returned in the second half of September. When they reached Leamington station, they found "the little folks" waiting for them, anxious to see what they had brought back from Paris.

 

Though she admitted she was sorry to give up her "charming house in Leamington", Georgiana decided to go back with her husband. When at the end. of September the Walker family boarded the train for Liverpool, a number of their Confederate friends, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Clark, their landlord and landlady, were at the "depot" to see them off.

 

Their eventual destination was Halifax, NS, a yellow fever outbreak in Bermuda having caused Major Walker to transfer his operations there, though they were able to move back to Bermuda in January 1865.

 

As well as visitors living in apartments and rented houses, the Leamington Advertiser was also notified of guests in the town's principal hotels, and where they were from. Judging by the weekly lists, the Regent Hotel in the town centre seems to have been particularly popular with Americans. Most of these were actually from the North, though there was the occasional Southerner among them. Both Union and Confederate purchasing agents are believed to have stayed in this hotel while visiting gun manufacturers in Birmingham.

 

In May 1865, James Mason made another visit to Leamington. "I have been in this quiet inland town for the last two or three weeks, to get away from the crowd and distraction of London, and, too, for economy. I may change my quarters <28 Grove St> but the Gilliats will always have my address", he wrote to his wife in early June.

 

In another letter to Judah Benjamin, written a week later, which the Secretary of State probably never received, James Mason observed that there were still "several agreeable Confederate families here, amongst them Mrs. Watkins Leigh of Richmond and two daughters. Her son, Chapman Leigh, arrived a few days since; as he left Richmond after you did , was in the army, and was at Danville after the surrender, he has given me much interesting but sad detail". This seems to have been Mason's last visit to the town; he left England in 1866 to join his family in Canada and returned to America two years later, dying in 1871.

 

Two other Confederates who were also in Leamington in 1865 were M. Hildreth Bloodgood, who had been sent to England to help audit the accounts of army purchasing agents (particularly those of Major Caleb Huse) and Lieutenant William H. Murdaugh, CSN, whose mission had been to inspect and arrange for the transportation of ordnance supplies.

 

While James Mason was still in Leamington, Major and Mrs. Walker and their family, having left Bermuda for the last time, also arrived there, their return being noted in the Advertiser on 1 June 1865. They rented a house called Pelham Villa, which Mrs. Walker thought was rather larger than they needed, "but my husband knows best about that". Though Leamington was "a quiet, healthy spot", and one where their children had the advantages of good schools "at a moderate cost", this time, things felt very different. Being a tourist or visitor was one thing, but being an exile was quite another; an exile, moreover, in a country which, she felt, had stood by "with folded arms" while the Southern people were "swept away from the face of the earth".

 

Nevertheless, life in Leamington was pleasant enough. They were joined by Norman Walker's cousins, Mr. and Mrs. John Stewart, and Georgiana Walker's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gholson, and her sister and they also had a number of visitors. Among them was George W. Randolph, a former Confederate brigadier general under whom Major Walker had served briefly as an aide-de-camp. Randolph, who had also been Secretary of War for eight months in 1862, suffered from tuberculosis and had been in Europe for several years for his health. Another visitor was former Confederate journalist John R. Thompson, who had worked in London with Henry Hotze on the propaganda newspaper, the Index.

 

There was also a sightseeing trip to London, which Georgiana Walker enjoyed, and dinner parties, which she found boring. At one of them, in December 1865, she was mistaken for a Yankee by one of the English guests. When she pointed out his mistake, he hastened to say that he had always sympathized with the South, causing her to observe bitterly that this "sympathy" had only ever existed in the imagination of the people. Another guest was puzzled as to her nationality. She had, she said, no country and therefore no nationality: "I am a Virginian. . . ".

 

In February 1866 the Walkers left Leamington and moved to London and from there to Liverpool, where Norman Walker started a cotton importing business with his father-in-law, Thomas Gholson. Accounts differ as to whether it was a success, but in any event the Walkers returned to America in 1878, living first in Richmond, Virginia, then at Staten Island, New York. Georgiana Walker died there in 1904 and Norman Walker in 1913.

 

How long the other Confederates remained in Leamington is uncertain, but most had probably gone back to America by or before 1868, when a general amnesty removed any remaining obstacles for those abroad wanting to return home.

 

Picture Credit: All Saints' Church Leamington from Warwick Web Design Studio http://bobjay99.cjb.net/