UK Heritage

Stephen Winthrop - Rebel Without A Cause

(The original text of this article appeared in Crossfire, the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No. 48)

 

The stormy but distinguished career of one ex-British officer on the Confederate staff went unremarked in his tragic obituary notice that opened: "Captain Winthrop... destroyed himself by shooting himself with a gun".

 

 


Stephen Winthrop was born on 5 May 1839 at Snitterfield, Warwickshire (close to Shakespeare's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon). He was the second son of the Reverend Benjamin Winthrop and Anne Thursby.

 

He purchased a commission as Ensign in the 22nd Regiment of Foot on 9 November 1855. His choice of regiment may have been influenced by the reputation which the 22nd secured during a tour of duty in India -from early 1841 until the spring of 1855 - which has been described by the regimental historian as "an epoch of almost continuous active service in which the regiment established for itself the highest reputation not only as a fighting unit but also as one of great and individual character". When the 22nd arrived back in England it found itself one of only a few large and important units available for ceremonial duties. It was sent to Windsor the month before Winthrop joined and embarked upon "a strong dose of guards and ceremonial" - often escorting Queen Victoria when she went to welcome veterans returning from the Crimea.

 

Winthrop was promoted Lieutenant on 2 October 1857. The First Battalion, of which he was part, followed several months in camp at Aldershot with visits to Sheffield, Aberdare and Cardiff to help suppress civil unrest "due to fears of unemployment". They were also required to send detachments to Bury, Ashton-under-Lyne and Castletown, Isle of Man. In early 1859 they were sent to "restore tranquility" in the Coventry area: there had been disturbances at the collieries and it was alleged that weavers at Hart's factory were being intimidated on their way to work. In August the First Battalion were sent to Dublin but only stayed there until May 1860, when they were transferred to Malta. The regimental history reveals that life on the latter consisted of a constant succession of inspections by general officers: the Battalion were "trapped on a small island and quite unable to evade their superiors." To their credit, however, they were adjudged the best shooting battalion in the Army according to the Returns of Rifle Practice for 1860-61. Documents in the Public Record Office tell us that Winthrop served in Malta from May to September 1860, and again from November 1861 to April 1862. He retired from the service by selling his commission on 10 June 1862. Whether he left the army with the express purpose of going to America is unknown: it was to be 6 months before he arrived in America and, as we shall see, evidence exists to indicate that he was not in any way ideologically committed to the cause he espoused.

 

According to Ella Lonn's "Foreigners In The Confederacy", Winthrop arrived in Charleston, S.C., in January 1863. His first active service was in the Gettysburg campaign. E.P.Alexander wrote after the war that the Englishman "brought excellent letters to Richmond…He did not give a pin for any other issue of the war, than which were the best fighters, & our side had the best general reputation abroad. So the Richmond people gave him a commission in the Inspector-General's Department, & sent him up to Longstreet to be assigned to duty. He arrived about the beginning of the battle, & was assigned to duty with Col. Walton."

 

He could hardly have had a less auspicious debut. During the battle Captain Charles W. Squires sent him back to bring up the Washington Artillery. He got lost, the guns arrived at about midnight, and Squires promptly placed the Englishman under arrest - Colonel Walton ordering him released the next morning. (Squires later wrote, with a hint of petulance, that the release offended him.) Winthrop was unhappy with his assignment and, during the retreat from Gettysburg, negotiated with Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet's adjutant, to be transferred to E.PAlexander's staff. (Alexander himself, in his memoirs, pleaded ignorance to the cause of Winthrop's dissatisfaction but there is some evidence that Longstreet's headquarters were not the most welcoming place for a foreigner. Francis Dawson, another English staff-officer who served under Longstreet, wrote that the staff had no time for him and that he was on no better terms with them in 1864 than he had been in 1862. He also described an argument, just a few months after Gettysburg, with a member of the staff who spoke disparagingly to Dawson's face about the role of foreigners in the war-effort: heated words led to an exchange of blows, and a duel was only averted by the American's apology.)

 

Winthrop joined Alexander's staff as Captain & A.I.G. on 6 July. The Georgian was to pen a most revealing and colourful description of his new subordinate:-

 

"He was well built, stout & very muscular, good grey-blue eyes, a full, oval face, with a British mouth & nose, good natured, jolly, & brave. He was an excellent and admirable representation of his country, & proved in every way an agreeable accesion to our mess..His strongest personal peculiarity was his fondness for killing things. It was not cruelty - that is he did not go out to kill things unnecessarily - but destructiveness! If anything had to be killed he loved to do it. That very afternoon (6 July 1863) he got a chance to show the stuff he was made of. As we approached Hagerstown, we heard some fighting ahead, between our cavalry & a cavalry force of the enemy. I rode ahead to see if any artillery was needed, &, meeting Gen. Stuart, I accompanied him into and through the town, & out beyond, where the skirmishing we had had before developed into some severe fighting, as he came upon larger forces; which, however, he drove off entirely. It happened that Winthrop's horse had become lame, & he had gone back to one of the batteries for a fresh horse, at the moment when I rode ahead to the sound of the fighting. When W. with his fresh horse came back he rode on to find me, but, in going through the streets he missed me, but came upon a regiment of cavalry, drawn up to charge down a pike, upon a Federal battery. Winthrop rode up, introduced himself, & asked permission to ride with them in the charge, & carry their colors, which in compliment to his country, they granted. He & the adjutant led the charge, & Winthrop's horse was killed by canister quite close to the guns, but the charge was repulsed. He got another horse, & went in a second charge - this time with only his sabre - & got into the melee, in which he ran one of the enemy through, coming out with his sabre bent & bloody all over."

 

Word of Winthrop's exploit spread quickly through the 1st Corps. The much-feted English visitor to Longstreet's HQ, Colonel Fremantle, wrote in his diary about his fellow-countryman: "I heard his conduct on this occasion highly spoken of by all."

 

We next hear of Winthrop in the ill-starred Knoxville campaign. The historian of Parker's Battery recounts an incident of 16 November 1863:-

 

"During the night, one of the unfortunate victims of the exploded caisson in front of the battery was suffering severely in his death agonies... Captain Stephen Winthrop ... crawled forward to the moaning hulk and saw that he was beyond mortal help. Winthrop made his way back to Dr. Parker and asked for an opiate to relieve the pain of the sufferer. Parker insisted on going out to the wounded man himself despite Winthrop's protestations that he, a single man, was better fitted for the dangerous task. Both men finally went back to the dying canoneer and administered a pain killing drug to soothe the soldier's few remaining moments of life."

 

Two days after this, elements of Kershaw's Brigade were engaged in an assault on Federal breastworks before Knoxville. Francis Dawson described what followed:-

 

"We wore taking a hasty lunch in the breastworks under fire as the assault began, and Winthrop rode off to see what was going on. Finding that the troops were advancing he rode out in front of the line and right up to the enemy's works, striking with his sword at the soldiers who held them. In less time than it takes to tell he was lying on the ground with a big hole in his collar bone."

 

The Englishman was able to make his own way back to the Confederate lines and seek the attentions of the artillerist\doctor, Parker. Not everyone, however, was impressed with his bravado: part of Kershaw's brigade had been stalled under enemy fire at the time that the Englishman came galloping up, and one of the South Carolinian colonels was so enraged that someone had - as he saw it - presumed to rally his men that he threatened to shoot Winthrop. The historian of Kershaw's Brigade was more generous, describing the Englishman's charge as a "gallant act". Longstreet also acknowledged Winthrop in his report on the campaign: "The gallantry of this officer on the occasion referred to was most conspicuous and had the happiest effect in leading the troops over the enemy's cover, at which they had faltered." Alexander described the incident as follows:

 

"Our men advanced handsomely until they were within 40 yards of the breast work, when, to my surprise & disgust, they halted, laid down in the line of battle & began firing. We had just had to stop firing our guns on account of their proximity. When I saw them stop I stamped & exclaimed, "My Lord! What did they do that for? They had it if they had gone on". Just then I heard an Irish gunner at the nearest gun say, "Faith! & there goes the captain" Then I saw that Captain Winthrop, who was sitting on his horse near by, had immediately stuck in his spurs & was already nearly half way to the infantry. I can see him now, in a short, black, velveteen, shooting coat & corduroy trousers, with his rather short stout legs & high English seat in his saddle - his elbows square out & his sabre drawn - urging his horse almost into a run. But the officers of the infantry had already raised their men up, & the line was moving forward before Winthrop reached it. We could see some musketry from the rails, & some fugitives being brought back from the rear. Then Winthrop dashed through a little gap in our line & right up at the breast work. As he did so we could see several carbines, to the right and left, spit smoke obliquely up at him & he suddenly fell forward on his horse's neck, & the horse turned about in a curve & came back with him. He had gotten a bullet through the base of his neck tearing up the collarbone so that some inches of it had to be amputated.."

 

If we know quite a lot about the first 6 months of Winthrop's service, we know frustratingly little about the rest of it. His convalescence from the Knoxville wound does not appear to have been lengthy, and he was certainly with Alexander for the opening of the 1864 campaign in Virginia. We know that, impressed by his commander's marksmanship, he presented him with an English revolver which Alexander then used to acquire supplementary rations in the form of squirrels and game-birds. Beyond that, all that is known to this writer is that Winthrop left the army at some point in the last winter of the war. Maury Klein, Alexander's biographer, claims that the Englishman left after quarrelling with fellow staff-officers. Alexander's memoirs merely state that Winthrop went on leave in March 1865 and that he was unable to return before Appomattox, after which he "left the country, going to South America, where he married a pretty English girl in Buenos Aires, whom he took home to England."

 

The rest of Winthrop's life appears to have been spent in retirement, since his death certificate lists his occupation as "formerly Captain in the Army, 22nd Regiment." He died at his home, 'Woodville', near Painswick in Gloucestershire, on 13 March 1879. The tragic story was told in the Gloucester Journal of 15 March under the headline "Distressing Suicide At Painsmick":-

 

"On Thursday morning Captain Winthrop, of Woodville, Painswick, destroyed himself by shooting himself with a gun. Capt. Winthrop, who had retired from the 22nd regiment and was generally respected, got up on Thursday morning about seven o'clock, and let in a charwoman, wishing her 'good morning'. He returned to his bedroom, and shortly afterwards left it for the sleeping room of two of his boys, who thereupon went into the nursery. Directly after the nurse heard the report of the gun, but took no notice as her master had before fired at birds through the window. Soon after, however, one of the boys entered the room and found his father dead on the floor..the gun at his side. He had latterly complained of pains in the head and been under medical treatment."

 

The Journal returned to the story the next week and reported on the inquest:-

 

"He had latterly been very depressed, and had been under the advice of Mr Gregory, surgeon, for severe pains in the head...Mr Gregory proved the nervous mental condition of the deceased, and said he did not think it improbable that he had been the sudden victim of abberation. The Coroner addressed the jury as to the probable state of the deceased's mind, but, after a consultation, they returned a verdict 'That deceased was found dead from a gunshot wound, but whether it was self-inflicted or accidental there was no evidence to show' ".

 

 

© ACWRT(UK) 1993 & 2001

 

Note: The original text of this article appeared in 'Crossfire' the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) No. 45 (April 1993) under the title 'Britons in the Civil War (2)'

 

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