- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2005


By Ann Blackman

Random House, $29.50, 362 pages

There were spies aplenty on both sides in the Civil War, most of them dedicated amateurs. Only one could claim to have influenced the outcome of an important battle, and that was Maryland-born Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the subject of a fine new biography by Washington writer Ann Blackman.

Greenhow, the widowed mother of four girls, was living in Washington when the war broke out. Having been married to a senior functionary at the State Department, she had strong connections in the Washington political establishment. Greenhow was reputed to be both beautiful and intelligent; she was a close friend of President James Buchanan, among others, and did not hesitate to send him letters filled with political advice.

Even before the war, Greenhow was outspoken to the point of rudeness in her “pronounced rebel proclivities.” When war came, she put herself in the service of the Confederacy. Just before the Battle of First Manassas, she sent a message to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard at Fairfax Court House informing him that the Federal Army intended to advance on July 16. Several days later, she sent a second message, confirming her earlier information and providing additional details.

According to Beauregard, Greenhow’s information led him to ask that his troops at Manassas be reinforced by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army, then some 50 miles away. Johnston’s timely arrival led to a humiliating Federal defeat on July 21, and Greenhow received a written letter of appreciation from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Had Greenhow had the judgment to match her dedication, she would have been unquestionably the most effective spy of the war. She was a friend of Secretary of State William Seward and may have been the mistress of Sen. Henry Wilson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. She had access to scores of homesick Union generals in the nation’s capital.

However, she could not hold her tongue, and she had little guidance from her Confederate contacts. The author points out, “Rose never pretended to be a highly trained spy; she begged her handlers for instruction.”

Greenhow’s outspoken Southern sympathies caused her to come under police scrutiny. After observing strange comings and goings around her home on 16th Street, Alan Pinkerton, head of the government’s ad hoc secret service, placed her under house arrest. Her home, nicknamed “Fort Greenhow,” soon housed other women suspected of spying for the Confederacy.

Even under these conditions, Greenhow managed to send messages to the Confederacy. In January 1862, weary of attempting to isolate her, the Lincoln government ordered her and her 8-year-old daughter, “Little Rose,” to the Old Capitol Prison. Greenhow was not intimidated.

“Even as a prisoner,” the author writes, “Rose guarded her social station. She had no use for the other women, insisting that associating with them was ‘but a shade less obnoxious’ than sharing a bench with the Negro prisoners.”

Greenhow became the most celebrated prisoner in the North. She addressed a dramatic letter to her friend Seward, blasting the Lincoln administration for trampling on her rights and challenging him to “imprison the soul,” if he dared.

Had Greenhow been a man, she probably would have been tried and imprisoned for the duration of the war. However, she was a prominent socialite, and in June 1862, she was exiled to the South, where she found a warm welcome in Richmond.

Shortly thereafter, she and her daughter set out for England, hoping to generate support for the Confederacy. There, Greenhow wrote a memoir with a title that told all: “My Imprisonment, and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington.”

She mingled for a year with England’s social elite, who were largely sympathetic to the Southern cause. However, as the Confederate military situation worsened, the prospect of British intervention vanished.

Greenhow missed her native land. In September 1864, she put her daughter in school, boarded a British blockade runner, the Condor, and headed home. The Condor’s goal was Wilmington, N.C., by then one of the few open ports of the Confederacy. All went well until the final day, when the ship was spotted by a Federal blockader. Maneuvering to escape, the Condor ran aground.

The captain assured Greenhow that his ship would float free with the rising tide and that the Confederate guns of Fort Fisher would keep the Federals at bay. Greenhow would have none of it; having been imprisoned once by the hated Yankees, she insisted on being put ashore. The gig in which she was being rowed ashore capsized in the surf and Greenhow — weighed down by $2,000 in gold sovereigns sewn into her dress — drowned.

Ann Blackman has written an excellent book, one that tells Greenhow’s story without romanticizing a legendary female spy.


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