BookChat: Rose Greenhow’s “My Imprisonment,” edited by Emily Lapisardi

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with a new annotated edition of Rose Greenhow’s famous Civil War diary, Rose Greenhow’s My Imprisonment (Winston Lewis Publishing, 2021). The edition comes courtesy of editor Emily Lapisardi, a living historian who portrays Greenhow. I had the opportunity to chat with Emily about her new edition.

Chris Mackowski: How did you come across Rose Greenhow’s story in the first place?

Emily Lapisardi: In 1997, one of my former teachers commissioned me to develop two Civil War era first-person portrayals to present to her students.  My principal research interests at the time were based in other historical periods, and I’m not sure if I even had home internet access then, so I started by perusing my local library. There, I came across Ishbel Ross’s 1954 biography of Greenhow, as well as sources that presented a few other potential candidates for the portrayals. Ross’s biography painted Greenhow as powerful, alluring, and highly influential—very different from the stereotypical perception of a mid-nineteenth century woman. She fascinated me, and continues to do so.

Two years later, when I was invited to present this portrayal in another venue, I discovered that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had recently digitized Greenhow’s 1863 memoirs and made this very rare volume available online. Greenhow’s own words, as published in My Imprisonment and as recorded in her correspondence and European diary, subsequently became the basis for my presentations. It took years for me to obtain a physical first edition of Greenhow’s book, but I finally tracked one down on eBay and worked directly from it for the annotated edition.

CM: What inspired you to take the step from studying her to portraying her as a living historian?

EL: The portrayal came first, but there was always a heavy dose of research intermingled with it. The most effective living historians are simultaneously scholars, teachers, and actors. I am a musicologist by training and inclination, so have an abiding respect for primary sources and a fascination with piecing together fragmentary evidence. I met Ann Blackman shortly before she published her Greenhow biography in 2005, and we both had uncovered quite a few previously unpublished sources; Ann was surprised and impressed at the depth of my research and invited me to portray Rose at several of her book launch events.

I began annotating Greenhow’s memoir solely for my own use. She was a consummate name-dropper—and a rather poor speller—so footnotes were helpful for me as I continued to deepen my understanding of Greenhow’s world as part of the portrayal. Two or three chapters in, I realized that I had inadvertently begun to create a scholarly edition of My Imprisonment.

CM: Besides the obvious “it gave me a lot of facts and information about her life,” how has Greenhow’s diary helped inform your portrayal of her?

EL: Rose Greenhow was a strikingly well-read and politically astute woman  She was also witty and sometimes even a bit catty. My Imprisonment has helped me find Greenhow’s voice. Some fifteen years ago, I recorded an audio book version of it in collaboration with the O’Neal Genealogy Association. Speaking every portion of her memoir aloud—and often more than once until we had a clean take—allowed me to feel the cadence of her language. I’d already studied her for nearly twenty years when I began work on the annotated edition, but that process gave me fresh insights into how knowledgeable, well-connected, and clever she was. I fell down quite a few research “rabbit holes” along the way and discovered that references I’d previously glossed over were entry points into fascinating incidents and individuals. She really does seem to have crossed paths with nearly every influential figure in pre-war Washington, D.C., and her connection with Dan Sickles’s shooting of Philip Barton Key, previously overlooked by biographers, especially intrigued me.

CM: You’ve described Greenhow’s book as “rather unfocused and meandering in structure,” but you’ve also said you have read it “countless times.” What strengths do you see in the book that overcome those defects you’ve mentioned?

EL: Rose Greenhow was a consummate political insider in prewar Washington. She’d spent nearly all of her adult life there and had friends (and enemies) of all parties and persuasions. She was also highly observant and quite witty, although her humor could be a bit caustic at times. My Imprisonment affords a glimpse into the radicality of the transition between the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations from the perspective of a once-powerful woman who found her influence slipping away with the change of political tides. Given her long residence in the nation’s capital and her connections with eminent figures of prior generations—especially John C. Calhoun and the Madisons—her perception of the rise of the Republican party and the chain of events which led to the Civil War is especially intriguing and, I think, undervalued. The reader who hopes to find a thrilling espionage “tell-all” within the covers might be a bit disappointed, but Greenhow’s socio-political insights are fascinating.

CM: What made you decide to annotate her diary for publication?

EL: Greenhow has in many ways become the victim of her own legend. Allan Pinkerton claimed that she had “almost irresistible seductive powers,” and she has typically been viewed as an alluring but essentially ineffective southern temptress. However, her own narrative reveals a somewhat different character: a middle-aged widow and mother who used her lifelong connections to become a dangerous insider threat. Although she had no formal education that we know of, she was impressively knowledgeable about literature, history, and politics and must have been a brilliant conversationalist. Greenhow claims that, whatever privileged knowledge she was privy to from high-ranking military officials and politicians, those sources had revealed it willingly to her. In modern espionage parlance, she must have been a master of elicitation techniques. My Imprisonment gives us a glimpse of the power of her intellect, as well as the breadth and depth of her social connections. It also provides a very detailed description of life inside the Old Capitol prison from the perspective of a female prisoner. Greenhow was also highly cognizant of societal perceptions of a woman’s sphere and seems to have quite consciously exploited this as a defensive shield.

Even though I had studied Greenhow for nearly twenty years when I began the process of annotation, I was struck anew by these aspects of her work as I methodically worked through scores of allusions. I believed it was finally time for Greenhow’s own words to receive a scholarly, rather than sensationalist, examination.

CM: As you worked on the annotations, was there something about that process that unlocked additional insights into Greenhow that, say, just reading the diary hadn’t?

EL: It’s easy for a modern reader to gloss over, or even just glaze over at, the sheer quantity of names and historical/political references in Greenhow’s narrative. As I attempted to work my way through that labyrinth, I realized that she really did seem to be one of the most well-connected American women of her time. One can very easily play a sort of nineteenth-century version of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” with Rose Greenhow’s world, but she sometimes just assumed that the reader would recognize the panoply of influential Senator So-and-So’s who parade through her account, often with very little context. This clearly wasn’t mere boasting because she was able to move in the highest levels of European society during her diplomatic/propaganda mission in 1863-1864. By identifying these individuals and verifying some of her claims, such as the closeness of her connection to James Buchanan, I believe I was better able to realize why Greenhow was taken more seriously by her contemporaries than by many modern historians.

Additionally, as a mother of young children, I find Rose Greenhow’s descriptions of her daughter’s imprisonment particularly haunting. She had already outlived five of her eight children by 1861. Little Rose was the youngest, and the only one still living at home; she nearly died of measles during her mother’s incarceration and was left an eleven-year-old orphan when her mother died running the blockade. It is natural for a mother to be fiercely protective of her children, and I think it must have been agonizing for Greenhow, who had been accustomed to wielding social power, to feel utterly unable to shield her daughter from the hardships of prison life.

CM: You mention in your acknowledgements that this was the last piece of your writing your mother, a former English teacher, proofread for you before she passed away. That’s an interesting connection for a book in which you talk about the relationship between Greenhow and her own daughter, Little Rose. What’s the impact your mother has had on you and this book?

EL: My mother was almost certainly the single-most significant influence on the person I have become. Although I have paternal half-siblings, I was her only child and she cultivated my particular interests and abilities from toddlerhood.  She was involved in my portrayal of Greenhow from the very beginning. Having been trained as a theatrical costumer, she made the first (not very authentic) dress I wore and then learned historical dressmaking techniques over the years so that her last creations were truly museum-quality reproduction garments. She was also my sounding board for my research throughout the years and was an absolutely brilliant, if rather ruthless, proofreader.  If she had not passed away two years ago, I would certainly have sent her these responses to review prior to submitting them, and she would probably have removed most of the dashes and semicolons!

When I finally finished the annotations, my mother had a stage 4 cancer diagnosis, yet she went through my manuscript page by page and then mailed me a printed copy with her handwritten corrections and a note that she was so proud of my work. I wish she had lived to hold a copy of the book itself in her hands.

CM: I was intrigued by the extra research you did on Greenhow’s relationship with Sec. of State William Seward (and his relationship with her daughter). How did you approach that research, and why was it so important to Greenhow’s larger story?

EL: Prior researchers have tended to focus on Greenhow’s connection to Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson. However, in working through her narrative, it became strikingly clear that Seward was one of the most dominant figures in this story. It’s peppered with references to him that are both deeply bitter and reflective of a lengthy and close prior friendship. She seems to have viewed her arrest as a personal betrayal by Seward and then makes the astonishing claim that her network of spies was still able to extract crucial information from him during her imprisonment!

I set out to investigate their prewar relationship and also hoped to find Seward’s copy of the famous letter Greenhow sent him in November 1861, which was widely reprinted by the press. It wasn’t housed in the Seward family papers at the University of Rochester, but my inquiries there led me to the fascinating correspondence between Greenhow’s eldest daughter, Florence Greenhow Moore, and Seward.  That’s how I discovered that Florence, the wife of a West Point classmate of Seward’s eldest son, wrote to the secretary of state while her mother was on a Confederate diplomatic mission in Europe, asking for letters of introduction and reminding him of his “promise to take care” of her. This seemed a remarkably bold request but also provided substantiation of Greenhow’s claims regarding the closeness of the connection between the two families.

Incidentally, Seward’s copy of Greenhow’s November 1861 letter came up for auction a few weeks after I submitted final edits. As I suspected, it contained passages that were not in the copy Greenhow sent to the Richmond Whig for publication and which show that she understood his position on the war (and how it differed from Lincoln’s at this point) and sought to play upon it to elicit his sympathy. Seward was under a great deal of stress in 1861; both Greenhow and sources far more favorable to Seward attest that he was drinking rather heavily during this period and that alcohol caused him to speak more freely than was perhaps wise. Greenhow claimed to have had firsthand accounts of Lincoln’s arrival in Washington prior to his inauguration and of cabinet meetings. My research into her connection with Seward strongly seems to point towards him as that source.

CM: Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

EL: Mrs. Greenhow’s allusion to “Stewart, the merchant-prince of New York” led me to the astonishing and colorful life of Ulster-born American entrepreneur Alexander Turney Stewart, who essentially invented the department store, greatly enhanced his fortune through wartime uniform contracts, and was posthumously ransomed for $20,000 as part of a bodysnatching plot in 1878. Another top contender is her spymaster Thomas Jordan, whose postwar life was fascinating.

CM: What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

EL: There were lots of fun ones, but the University of St. Andrews’ database of Mexican pronunciamentos has to top the list for making what I anticipated would be a difficult research task into a remarkably simple one!

CM: Do you have a favorite sentence or passage from the book?

EL: “By way of illustrating theory and practice, here am I—a prisoner in sight of the executive mansion—in  sight of the Capitol, where the proud statesmen of our land have sung their paens to the blessings of our free institutions. Comment is idle. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, every right pertaining to the citizen, has been suspended by what, I suppose, the President calls a ‘military necessity.’”

Or maybe a more light-hearted one: “I went into the shop and there beheld a little woman bargaining for some black cotton lace, very much seemingly to the disgust of the shopwoman, who left her when I entered and came to me. I inquired, ‘Who is that?’ for naturally I was curious to know which member of the royal family stood before me. ‘Only Madam Lincoln.’”

CM: What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

EL: So much of Washington, D. C., as Rose Greenhow knew it is gone now. When Ann Blackman took me on a “Rose tour” just prior to our speaking engagement at the International Spy Museum in 2005, most of it consisted of “this is where the Old Capitol Prison used to be…. This is roughly where Rose’s house stood.”

In June 2022, I was invited to portray Greenhow at her gravesite in Wilmington, N.C., which was a rather surreal experience. I’d hoped to visit the wreck of the Condor, now an underwater museum, during my visit to Wilmington, but I haven’t had a chance to obtain scuba certification yet.

CM: What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

EL: Did Rose Greenhow write the anonymous note that informed Dan Sickles of his wife’s infidelity and led to the murder of Philip Barton Key? This was a widely-circulated rumor at the time of the trial, but none of Greenhow’s biographers mention it!

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7 Responses to BookChat: Rose Greenhow’s “My Imprisonment,” edited by Emily Lapisardi

  1. Louis T. DeMoss says:

    Do you have any information about her interacting with authors George A. Lawrence, George Augustus Sala, Wiltshire Staunton Austin, or William Howard Russell during this same time period ? I am working on a similar project involving them, and I think our subjects crossed paths in Washington.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    It is wonderful that Rose Greenhow’s story has been re-examined because she had a greater impact on the early direction of the Secession Crisis than most realize. Coached in spycraft by West Point graduate and traitor, Thomas Jordan, Greenhow’s pre-war contacts and her ability to seamlessly cultivate new admirers resulted in near disaster for the Union in July 1861 – a role that is under-appreciated merely because her accurate information revealing the state of affairs in Washington D.C., updated in real time, was improperly used by a key commander at First Manassas.
    Another book I will have to add to my Christmas List…

  3. billcapefear says:

    It was a great pleasure to host Emily at our Cape Fear Civil War Round Table meeting, at Oakdale Cemetery, Rose Greenhow’s burial place, and Ft. Fisher. Emily is a fantastic speaker, historical presenter and a dedicated researcher.

  4. John D. Davis says:

    Does anyone have her contact information. I would like to invite her to speak to our Round Table

  5. Douglas Miller says:

    An interesting discussion, but I would have liked to have heard more about her politics and efforts on behalf of the slave holders. Is that discussed critically in the book, or is mainly from her point of view?
    And if you like primary sources so much (as I do) you might want to check out my recent book “The Greatest Escape, a True American Civil War Adventure”. It took me decades to put it together because it heavily features the actual words of over 50 first-person eyewitnesses and participants.
    It also tells the amazing story of Elizabeth Van Lew and her multi-racial spy ring that worked so effectively undermining the Confederacy from right inside the Capital City of Richmond, VA.
    The reviewer for “Emerging Civil War” loved it!
    I look forward to checking out your book.
    Douglas Miller

  6. Matt says:

    I just bought the book. Thanks for highlighting it here.

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