Rose Greenhow’s My Imprisonment: An Annotated Edition. Edited by Emily Lapisardi. Illustrated, photos, notes, index, 398 pp., 2021.Winston Lewis Publishing, Matamoras, PA, 2021. www.winstonlewis.com. Hardcover. $45.00.
Reviewed by Juanita Leisch Jensen
Since the Civil War, historians have studied the arms & equipment and the hardtack & coffee minutiae of soldier life, but it is by highlighting the battles & leaders that most people come to understand the bigger picture and overall chronology of this primarily military event. As such, the subject of women’s roles and involvement in the Civil War sometimes encounters a big “so what”?
It’s widely acknowledged and easily proven that women provided logistical, moral, medical, monetary, mourning, memorial, social, spiritual, and psychological support for the war effort. So what? In evaluating the importance or impact of women’s roles the most legitimate criteria seems to be whether the soldiers themselves credited the women with making a positive impact on their ability to fight. Fortunately, thousands of contemporary accounts describe the importance and impact of women’s role on soldiers and on units. Historians have found it much more challenging to find similar contemporary accounts documenting roles in which women made a significant difference in a battle, much less an entire campaign.
In an effort to write women back into Civil War history, some modern historians celebrate the spouses of military and civilian leaders, but are unable to show many, or any, would have made a similar impact in the absence of their having a personal relationship with the leader. Other historians highlight individual women who served as soldiers, lauding them as prescient supporters and promoters of modern views of feminism. Still others think it remarkable that a few identifiable women in that period might have understood political situations to the point of making insightful, if caustic, comments about personalities and events. Even the most fervent of these historians struggle to find incidents where any of these women made a greater difference to battles or campaigns than to the women themselves.
Finally, when historians have found evidence that a woman provided advice that was later followed by military leaders, they struggle to find evidence that the military or political leaders of the time appreciated, much less implemented, advice from a woman. There is, however, one woman who is a notable exception.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a southern sympathizer and a self-identified spy. She admitted that she ‘used every gift God gave me’ to befriend and charm military and civilian sources in Washington, D.C. Starting in 1861, she arranged to pass valuable and actionable intelligence about planned military and political actions to southern contacts. The efficacy of her clandestine operation was acknowledged during the war, and by the civilian and military leadership of both sides. Rose O’Neal Greenhow made a difference to battles, leaders, and campaigns, and did so as a completely independent woman.
Some have asserted that General P.G.T. Beauregard, President Jefferson Davis, and members of his cabinet, including Judah Benjamin and Stephen Mallory, were simply being polite when they praised her efforts as a Southern spy. The same cannot be said of civilian and military leaders on the Union side, including General McClellan, Alan Pinkerton, William H. Seward, and Edwin M. Stanton, all of whom considered her a most dangerous person, and testified to her effectiveness.
In 1861 General George B. McClellan complained that her treachery forced him to several times change his plans for the campaign that ultimately resulted in the Battle of Manassas. Officials in the Lincoln cabinet, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and command structure, such as General McClellan, feared she would continue her espionage even if exiled to the South, so they instead took the extraordinary action of imprisoning her in Washington, D.C., for nine months.
When she was eventually released, Jefferson Davis personally thanked her for her efforts, and endorsed her selection as a semi-official emissary to undertake a diplomatic mission to Europe on behalf of the Confederate government. During her overseas mission, she met with high-ranking officials in England and France. As noted in the Introduction to Rose Greenhow’s My Imprisonment: An Annotated Edition, Greenhow’s biographer, Ann Blackman, argues that her mission as a female governmental emissary on foreign soil was unprecedented. In France, Emperor Napoleon III granted her a private audience. In England, Edward Smith-Stanley, three times prime minister of the UK, declared her the best diplomatist he had ever seen. While in Europe, Rose published an account of her imprisonment as part of her efforts to encourage England and France to support the Confederacy.
Rose drowned during her 1864 return trip to America and was given a funeral with full military honors.
Why, you may ask, does she not top every list of the most important /most significant /most honored women of the Confederacy? In large measure it is Rose’ own fault.
Hundreds of women wrote diaries, journals, and memoirs focused on their lives and accomplishments; they are rightly lauded for their war-time activities. A small number even gave presentations after the war publicizing their activities. If Rose had named names, she might have had a best seller, but instead she wrote and published an account focused on exposing the wrongs of the Federal government. Her published work was an extension of her mission to generate support in Europe for the south.
Rose published her account in England, directing it to a European rather than American audience. Far from being widely read in the U.S., it was a very rare book until digitized and published online by the University of North Carolina. Even then, any juicy and informative bits were virtually inaccessible as Rose peppered her account with so many biblical and classical references, foreign phrases, and allusions to political and military events that the document is extremely difficult to read, much less fully understand.
Enter Emily Lapisardi. Emily has studied Rose Greenhow for twenty-four years, immersing herself in Rose’s life through reading, research, and travel. She has also portrayed Rose Greenhow for museums, historical societies, round tables, and educational institutions throughout the U.S., including the International Spy Museum, several National Park Service sites, the Surratt Society and book launching events for Ann Blackman’s biography, Wild Rose. Emily is currently serving as the Director of Musical Activities for the Catholic Chapel at the United States Military Academy.
After spending two decades studying Rose Greenhow’s life, Emily spent three years editing and annotating Rose’s account of her Imprisonment. Emily has made Rose’s account not only readable but also understandable. She uses clear and concise footnotes to explain each of hundreds of references to biblical, classical, and foreign words and phrases. In addition, she identifies people Rose has mis-named, mis-identified, or failed to identify by name at all. Emily’s encyclopedic knowledge of Rose’s world, neighborhood, and personality enabled her to provide backstories of people, places, and events that would be entirely lost to most modern readers.
In so doing, she reinforces the story of Rose as someone who not only observed, analyzed, and made caustic comments about political and military events, but also took actions supporting her beloved Confederacy. Her espionage network was so effective she was considered an ongoing threat by the highest-ranking general in the Union Army. The Confederacy considered her services so valuable she was compensated considerably more than other spies, the equivalent of about $65,000. Far more than a temptress and amateur spy; she was a valued and respected Confederate asset. The military and civilian leaders of the US government considered her so dangerous that they arrested her on August 23, 1861, and put her under house arrest. Since she continued her espionage while under house arrest, in January 1862, they moved her to the Old Capitol Prison, a building where she spent part of her childhood. They kept her imprisoned there for an additional five months until she was released and “exiled to Dixie” May 31, 1862.
Perhaps they expected her to follow their order to remain in Dixie. She did not. In 1863, Rose embarked on the semi-official diplomatic mission to Europe where she tried to generate support for and public recognition of the Confederacy and published My Imprisonment. On her return voyage, the blockade-running Condor ran aground a few hundred yards off the North Carolina coast. Rose drowned when she tried to escape capture.
She is the only woman granted a funeral with full military honors during the war by the Confederacy.
In the study of women’s roles in the Civil War, Rose Greenhow stands alone as an independent woman whose successful espionage efforts were acknowledged by the civilian and military leaders of both sides and as the first independent woman sent on a diplomatic mission by an American president.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Emily Lapisardi for making Rose Greenhow’s account of her wartime activities both readable and understandable. Emily’s book and Rose’s account give us, at long last, an example of an independent woman who made a significant difference to the ‘battles and leaders’ of the Civil War.
This book is a must-have and must-read for anyone interested in women and their roles in the Civil War.
Reviewer Juanita Leisch Jensen is a Fellow and former Governor of the Company of Military Historians, and a past president of the Society for Women and the Civil War. She is the author of Who Wore What and An Introduction to Civil War Civilians.