Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iconic Tuesday: The Tale of the Lady Spy Who Posed in Prison and Died with Her Gold

Mrs. Greenhow and her daughter, photographed in prison by Alexander Gardner, 1862
She was no Mata Hari.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow used social connections in Washington, D.C,, not sex, to become the Confederacy's most famous spy during the Civil War. Her feats of espionage had already earned her fame when photographer Alexander Gardner took this portrait of her and her daughter in 1862. Gardner's portrait is the plainest kind of document, footnote to history; it is titled simply "Incidents of the War. No. 212, Mrs. Greenhow and Daughter, Imprisoned in the Old Capitol, Washington."

But even the most straight-forward of photographs invite speculation: Who is this person? Why is she there? Is that a smile, and if so what could it mean? As documents, photos often raise more questions than they answer, which is probably why we find them so intriguing. It seems to me that Gardner, who was working for the Mathew Brady studio at the time, captured a woman who was settling into the role of  martyr with not a little satisfaction. But that's just speculation. What we know about this picture is that it has become an icon of conflict that erupted in America almost 150 years ago.

Mrs. Greenhow was born in the South but raised in Washington, and in the 1840s and 1850s the young widow was a bright social fixture in the city, especially among pro-slavery politicians. James Buchanan was a friend of Greenhow, and when he became president she gained social power across the political spectrum. I've seen an account saying that Abraham Lincoln dined with her.

When war broke out her sympathies lay with the Confederacy, and she made little if any attempt to conceal them. One evening in July, 1861, she dined with an army colonel who was about to enlist in the Confederate army at Manassas, Virginia., just south of Washington. The colonel asked her to pass on military intelligence she might overhear and even gave her a code and phony address to do so.

She did just that, providing General P.G.T. Beauregard with the Union army's plans for what would be known as the Battle of Bull Run. It proved helpful: the Union suffered its first major defeat in the fighting there.

Authorities in Washington hired Allan Pinkerton to investigate. He planted spies around her and intercepted messages she was sending to the South. After a period of house arrest she found herself, with her daughter, in the city's Old Capitol Prison.

Four months later she was exiled to Richmond, Virginia, capitol of the Confederacy. She then moved to England, where she wrote a book about her work as a spy, and martyr. Her purpose was to create pro-Confederacy sympathy within Britain, and she gain international celebrity. She also became very rich, and that proved her undoing.

In 1864, she decided to return to Virginia, traveling in a Confederate blockade-runner. The ship ran aground on a sand bar at the mouth of Cape Fear River. Greenhow, worried about being captured by Union soldiers, set off in a lifeboat; the boat swamped and Greenhow, weighed down by a substantial amount of gold she was carrying in a money belt, drowned.

It was an incident of the war.

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