Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers

Letter to the Hon. Wm. H. Seward, November 17, 1861

Washington, D.C. From Rose Greenhow to William H. Seward, Secretary of the State. Newsclipping of a letter to Seward, obtained by the Richmond Whig, and subsequently published in the newspaper as a true copy of the origin al. The letter details her imprisonment and offers an impassioned protest of the current state of government. (M.J. Solomon Scrapbook, Special Collections Library, Duke University)

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Letter from a Southern Lady In Prison to Seward:

The Richmond Whig obtained, through the instrumentality of one of Seward's confidential agents, 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 visable effect upon the crafty Secretary. The twitchings of the musles, and his agitated manner betrayed, not perhaps any compunction, but a sense of personal insecurity at the hands of the avenging nemesis. This letter of Mrs. Greenhow is the most graphic sketch yet given to the world, of the cruel and dastardly tyranny which the Yankee Government has established at Washington. The incarceration and torture of helpless women, and the outrages heaped upon them, as detailed in this letter, will shock many 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:

Washington, Nov. 17th, 1861,

398 Sixteenth Street.

To the Hon. Wm. H. Seward,

Secretary of State:

Sir - For nearly three months I have been confined, a close prisoner, shut out from air and exercise, and denied all communication with family and friends.

"Patience is said to be a great virture," and I have practised 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 my papers of a life time, were read and examined by them; that every law of decency was violated in the search of my house and person, and the surveilance 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 was practiced toward me, I was indebted to the detective called Capt. 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 perogative, 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 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, as 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 Capitol where the proud statesmen of our land have sung their paeans to the blessings of our free institutions. Comment is idle. 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 contemn 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 State 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 man's accountability, and I thereore claim the right to speak on subjects usually considered beyound 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 periods of my imprisonment I have sufferend greatly for want of proper and sufficient food. Also, I have to complain that, more recently, a woman of bad character, recognized 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 your 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 impossible 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 la crime qui fait la honte, et non pas l'echafaud." 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 Phillippe when his hour had come.

In conclusion, I respectfully ask your attention to this protest, and have the honor to be, &c., (Signed)

Rose O. N. Greenhow

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