Sunday, December 11, 2011

150-Years-Ago --- Rose Greenhow's Letter of Defiance from Jail

The Richmond Daily Dispatch
December 11, 1861

The cowardly Despotism at Washington.

[From the Richmond Whig, Dec. 3.]

     Through the instrumentality of one of Seward's confidential agents, we have come in possession of the following letter, addressed by a brave and noble woman, to Lincoln's vizier. We are given to understand, that the perusal of it was not without visible effect upon that impersonation of all human villainy. The twitchings of the muscles, and his agitated manner betrayed, not perhaps, any compunction, but a sense of personal insecurity at the hands of the avenging Nemesis.
     This letter is the most graphic sketch, yet given to the world, of the cruel and dastardly tyranny, which the Yankee Government has established at Washington. Russell, in one of his letters to the London Times, mentions the expedient of " arrest by telegraph," which has been introduced by Seward, as something new and appalling, and outstripping all the ingenious contrivances of all the despotisms that ever existed. But the incarceration and torture of helpless women and the outrages heaped upon them, as detailed in this letter, will more shock manly natures, and stamp the Lincoln dynasty everywhere with undying infamy.
     The letter tells its own tale, and may be relied on as a true copy of the original, in the hands of Wm. H. Seward:

Mrs. Rose Greenhow, Confederate Patriot
(Library of Congress)
Washington, Nov. 17, 1861, 398 16th st.
To the Hon. Wm. H. Seward, secretary of State:

     For nearly three months I have been confined, a close prisoner, shut out from air and exercise, and denied all communion with family and friends
     "Patience is said to be a great virtue," and I have practiced it, to my utmost capacity of endurance.
     I am told, sir, that upon your ipse dixit, the fate of citizens depends, and that the sign manual of the ministers of Louis the Fourteenth and Fifteenth, was not more potential in their day, than that of the Secretary of State in 1861.
     I, therefore, most respectfully submit, that on Friday, August 23d, without warrant or other show of authority, I was arrested by the Detective Police, and my house taken in charge by them: that all my private letters, and papers of a lifetime, were read and examined by them: that every law of decency was violated in the search of my house and person, and by the surveillance over me.
     We read in history, that the poor Maria Antoinette had a paper torn from her bosom by lawless hands, and that even a change of linen had to be effected in sight of her brutal captors. It is my sad experience to record even more revolting outrages than that, for during the first days of my imprisonment, whatever necessity forced me to seek my chamber, a detective stood sentinel at the open door. And thus for a period of seven days I, with my little child, was placed absolutely at the mercy of men without character or responsibility; that during the first evening, a portion of these men became brutally drunk, and boasted in my hearing of the "nice times" they expected to have with the female prisoners; and that rude violence was used towards a colored servant girl during that evening, the extent of which I have not been able to learn. For any show of decorum afterwards practiced towards me, I was indebted to the Detective called Captain Dennis.
     In the careful analysis of my papers I deny the existence of a line I had not a perfect right to have written, or to have received. Freedom of speech and of opinion is the birthright of Americans, guaranteed to us by our Charter of Liberty — the Constitution of the United States. I have exercised my prerogative, and have openly avowed my sentiments. During the political struggle, I opposed your Republican party with every instinct of self-preservation. I believed your success a virtual nullification of the Constitution, and that it would entail upon us all the direful consequences which have ensued. These sentiments have doubtless been found recorded among my papers, and I hold them as rather a proud record of my sagacity.
     I must be permitted to quote from a letter of yours, in regard to Russell, of the London Times, which you conclude with these admirable words: "Individual errors of opinion may be tolerated, so long as good sense is left to combat them." By way of illustrating theory and practice — here am I, a prisoner in sight of the Executive Mansion, in sight of the Capital, where the proud statesmen of our land have sung their pæans 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." A blow has been struck, by this total disregard of all civil rights, against the present system of Government, far greater in its effects than the severance of the Southern States. Our people have been taught to condemn the supremacy of the law, to which all have hitherto bowed, and to look to the military power for protection against its decrees. A military spirit has been developed, which will only be subordinate to a Military Dictatorship. Read history, and you will find that the causes which bring about a revolution rarely predominate at its close, and no people have ever returned to the point from which they started. Even should the Southern States be subdued and forced back into the Union, (which I regard as impossible, with a full knowledge of their resources,) a different form of Government will be found needful to meet the new developments of national character. There is no class of society, no branch of industry, which this change has not reached, and the dull, plodding, methodical habits of the poor can never be resumed.
     You have held me sir, to a man's accountability, and I therefore claim the right to speak on subjects usually considered beyond a woman's ken, and which you may class as "errors of opinion." I offer no excuse for this long digression as a three months imprisonment, without formula of law, gives me authority for occupying even the precious moments of a Secretary of State.
     My object is to call your attention to the fact that, during this long imprisonment, I am yet ignorant of the causes of my arrest; that my house has been seized and converted into a prison by the Government; that the valuable furniture it contained has been abused and destroyed; that during some period of my imprisonment I have suffered greatly for want of proper and sufficient food. Also, I have to complain that, more recently, a woman of bad character, recognised as having been seen on the streets of Chicago as such by several of the guard, calling herself Mrs. Onderdonk, was placed here in my house, in a room adjoining mine.
     In making this exposition, I have no object of appeal to your sympathies. If the justice of my complaint, and a decent regard for the world's opinion do not move you, I should but waste time to claim your attention on any other score.
     I may, however, recall to your mind, that but a little while since, you were quite as much proscribed by public sentiment here for the opinions and principles you held, as I am now for mine.
     I could easily have escaped arrest, having had timely warning. I thought it possible that your statesmanship might present such a proclamation of weakness to the world, as even the fragment of a once great Government turning its arms against the breasts of women and children. You have the power, sir, and may still further abuse it. You may prostrate the physical strength, by confinement in close rooms, and insufficient food-- you may subject me to harsher, ruder treatment than I have already received, but you cannot imprison the soul. Every cause worthy of success has had its martyrs. The words of the heroine Corday are applicable here: "C'est le crime qui fait la houte et non pas l'echafaude." My sufferings will afford a significant lesson to the women of the South, that sex or condition is no bulwark against the surging billows of the "irrepressible conflict."
     The "iron heel of power" may keep down, but it cannot crush out, the spirit of resistance in a people armed for the defence of their rights; and I tell you now, sir, that you are standing over a crater whose smothered fires in a moment may burst forth.
     It is your boast that thirty-three bristling fortifications now surround Washington.--The fortifications of Paris did not protect Louis Philippe when his hour had come.
     In conclusion, I respectfully ask your attention to this my protest, and have the honor to be, &c., &c., &c.
Rose O. N. Greenhow.

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