Civil War figure left veiled diary
By ANNE BLYTHE, Staff Writer
Published: Sep 14, 2005
The handwriting and the spelling were so poor in the 19th-century diary that many of the entries had a cryptic quality to them.
Rose O’Neale Greenhow was a spy for the Confederacy whose coded intelligence during the Civil War helped turn the tide in the first Battle of Bull Run. Maybe Greenhow had used a cipher in the 128-page journal chronicling the last year of her life — a trove of information that was tucked away in the state Office of Archives and History in Raleigh for more than century.
Ann Blackman, a writer from Washington, was determined to solve the mystery.
After Random House published Blackman’s biography of Greenhow in June, the author visited the Triangle several times and spoke about how the conundrum was cracked.
With letters, several surviving voice tapes and numerous documents, Blackman had learned a lot about the woman referred to as “Rebel Rose.”
Described as fearless and beautiful, Greenhow was an influential Washington hostess who moved in the same social circles as James Buchanan, Dolley Madison, James C. Calhoun and other presidents, senators and politicians. She was born into a slave-holding family and had illicit love affairs with powerful men. She was imprisoned by Lincoln for espionage and exiled to the South during the Civil War.
Two years ago, Blackman realized the diary existed and sent for a copy. But the handwriting was barely legible. What had Greenhow written? Was it in code?
Finding the answers
Only two living people knew the answer at that time. One was H.G. Jones, a retired state archivist who spends much of his time in the UNC-Chapel Hill Wilson Library stacks.
Jones, curator emeritus of the North Carolina Collection, discovered the diary in the state archives in 1965 buried in the papers of David L. Swain, a former governor and president of the University of North Carolina. It was unsigned and untitled. But the woman’s bold, black script made an impression on the archivist.
“I read the first page and saw that it was a woman leaving Wilmington,” Jones said. “It was 1863, and I thought it was odd that a woman would be leaving Wilmington in the middle of the Civil War.”
One night Jones awoke, certain he had seen the handwriting in a published work. He went to his bookcase, retrieved his copy of Ishbel Ross’s “Rebel Rose” and turned to a photograph of a page from Greenhow’s address book. He compared the two scripts and recorded the following entry in his journal on Nov. 17, 1965: “I found the diary of Rebel Spy Rose O’Neil Greenhow in the archives unidentified. Apparently never used.”
In the academic world of history, it was a good find — one Jones planned to keep to himself for a while. “It was my secret because I wanted to publish it,” Jones said.
But to publish the Greenhow diary would take a lot of work.
Not only would Jones have to go through the laborious process of transcribing the barely legible entries, he would need to do a lot of research for annotations that put into context her comings and goings through the palaces of Great Britain and France. Unknowingly, the last year of her life — from the time she slipped past Union blockade runners at the height of the Civil War until her drowning at sea in 1864 off the Wilmington shore.
At a manual typewriter, Jones deciphered the European journey of Greenhow and her daughter “Little Rose.”
Finally, Jones decided to share his secret with one other person — Haskell Monroe, a Civil War specialist who agreed to provide the annotations for a jointly edited publication. In March 1972, 6 1/2 years after the discovery, Monroe wrote Jones, saying his work would be done by summer’s end.
But the annotations never arrived. Three more decades passed.
Then one day, Blackman, a news reporter with Time magazine who spent many years at the Associated Press, contacted Jones. She had heard he had transcribed the diary, and she wanted to know what was in it.
Jones remained protective of his prized possession. He was worried it would be used for “historical fiction,” a genre he dismisses as “fallacious.”
Blackman, who had written a biography of Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, made several visits to Chapel Hill before Jones finally agreed to lend his work to her. She could not copy his transcription and was to return it when her manuscript was complete. He still planned to publish the diary.
“Finding the diary was really the news story of my book — the news of a woman who was a well-known spy who was actually much more than that,” Blackman said. “She was actually an important diplomat — an important Confederate diplomat.”
In her journal, Greenhow had provided vivid details of her fight to the bitter end for acceptance of the Confederacy. As an emissary for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, she lobbied Emperor Napoleon III in Paris and met with British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and many British aristocrats.
When Greenhow was nearly home from her European campaign, her ship ran aground while running the Union blockade. The spy for the Confederacy drowned trying to get to shore, reportedly weighed down by gold she raised in France and England for her beloved South.
A trunk of her belongings washed ashore and fell into the hands of a man who helped Swain, the former governor and UNC president, find the manuscripts he collected.
Although Blackman’s book, “Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy, A True Story,” reveals the essence of the diary without printing the precise contents, a mystery remains.
When did the former governor acquire the journal and why? A riddle, perhaps, for another time.
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