Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy

By Ann Blackman

Random House. 377 pp. $25.95

The most important battle of the Civil War? For obvious reasons, many historians and Civil War buffs will point to Gettysburg. Others say it was Antietam; they include James M. McPherson, who insists that battle was a "pivotal moment" because it blunted the rebels' charge into the North, scared foreign powers from allying with the Confederacy and freed Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Probably McPherson is right, but a case can be made that the first serious battle of the war was also, if not its most important, certainly one of them. It took place July 21, 1861, at Manassas in Northern Virginia, around and about a stream called Bull Run. Union forces under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell were so confident of routing Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's forces and ending the rebellion almost as soon as it began that they marched eagerly, almost giddily, into battle. In Washington, as Ann Blackman writes, there was "almost a holiday spirit," and the ladies and gentlemen of the capital rode out to witness the slaughter for themselves.

Instead they saw the Confederates rout the Yanks, producing unanticipated casualties and leaving Washington desperately afraid that it would be captured. What neither the celebrators nor the Union command knew was that Johnston and his aides had had advance word of Union plans and had time to position their forces most advantageously and call in reinforcements. On July 16, Rose O'Neale Greenhow, a resident of Washington and passionate Confederate sympathizer, had sent a note to her contact in the rebel forces that read: "Order issued for McDowell to march upon Manassas tonight."

The note was delivered to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, who quickly acted on it. The South won the engagement and the war lasted four more dreadful years. Did Rose Greenhow save the Confederacy to fight another day? Blackman argues that she may well have done just that: "Had she not warned [Beauregard] in time to prepare and strengthen his forces, the North would have won the First Battle of Bull Run and Lincoln might have clipped the insurrection in its bud." Mary Boykin Chesnut, who knew absolutely everybody who was anybody in the Confederate government, apparently agreed, as she wrote in her famous diary: "She sent us the enemy's plans. Everything she said proved true, numbers, route and all."

That was Rose Greenhow's moment of glory. She continued to spy for the South, but none of the information she supplied was equally momentous, and indeed more than a few historians have argued that her Bull Run message was merely one of a number of ways in which Beauregard was tipped off. Whatever the truth about her usefulness to Jeff Davis & Co., it remains that she was one of the most interesting characters in Washington during the Civil War, a time when the city had an abundance of strange and sometimes suspicious people.

Readers familiar with Margaret Leech's definitive book about the capital during the Civil War, "Reveille in Washington," will have met Greenhow already, but the part she plays in Leech's large canvas is very small. She has been the subject of a handful of earlier biographies, but Blackman is the first biographer to have access to her diary, and she has made thorough use of papers that other writers have overlooked. The result is probably as close to a definitive biography as we'll get. "Wild Rose" is not very well written (unless you have a taste for cliches) and Blackman's penchant for foreshadowing becomes exceedingly irritating, but her research is solid and her judgments about her subject appear to be sound.

At the time the war began, Greenhow was in her late forties, widowed with three daughters, well connected in what passed (then as now) for Washington "society" and Confederate loyalist to the core. She "had a passion for politics and many friends, both Democrats and Republicans"; she "had an almost reckless disregard for danger and a fiercely independent streak"; she "could be manipulative and headstrong"; she "radiated sensuality" and was rumored to have had many affairs. She was, into the bargain, outspoken on political matters at a time when women could not vote and were expected to keep polite silence on matters of state.

One of the many oddities about Washington was that although it was the capital of the Union and was deeply fearful of invasion and/or sabotage by Confederate loyalists, it tolerated the presence of many of those loyalists, not merely in the city but in the drawing rooms and parlors of society. A great many people suspected that Greenhow was a rebel spy, yet more than a month went by after Bull Run before the famous detective Allan Pinkerton, who was running intelligence for the Union, appeared at her door on 16th Street and arrested her.

More than arrested, she was humiliated. For five months she was kept under house arrest while detectives ransacked her belongings, searching for evidence of treason. In her book, "My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington" (1863), Greenhow complained that "my beds even were upturned many times as some new idea would seize them." In January 1862 she was moved to the Old Capital Prison, "a dingy brick building on 1st St., where the United States Supreme Court stands today." She stayed there for more than four miserable months:

"This was the gloomiest period of my life. Time dragged most heavily. I had absolutely nothing to occupy myself with. I had no books, and often no paper to write on, and those who approached me appeared entirely oblivious of the mental as well as physical wants of a prisoner. . . . [I was] chafing against my prison bars, with the iron of the despot eating into my soul."

Finally, in late spring, the Union exiled her to Richmond, which even then was beginning to feel the effects of war and deprivation. Jefferson Davis, who seems to have liked her, sent her abroad "as his emissary to woo the French and British elite" -- "it was highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for a president to send a woman to represent her country in a foreign land, even in an unofficial capacity" -- and she worked hard at it; she "met with the highest officials in the British and French governments, dined with top leaders of European society and buttonholed anyone who would listen to her arguments for recognition and her defense of slavery."

The mission was "impossible," Blackman writes, but that isn't true. Had the military situation gone the South's way, England and France almost certainly would have jumped onto the bandwagon. Rose was charming and articulate, but she couldn't prevent Antietam or Gettysburg, so in the fall of 1864 she headed back to the Confederacy. Near Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina she riskily left her ship aboard a lifeboat because she feared capture by the Yankees. The boat capsized and she drowned. She was buried nearby and praised in the local newspaper as "the Confederate heroine," yet another reminder of how quick we humans are to grant heroic status to those who self-evidently do not deserve it.