By Jann Malone
August 7, 2005
Copyright Richmond Newspapers Inc.
Ann Blackman's skills as a news reporter won her lots of scoops when she worked in Washington for The Associated Press and Time magazine.
Scoops? Well, here's one:
"I broke the story that Ronald Reagan had been hit by a bullet and was in surgery after the assassination attempt," she said recently. "I've had my share of some good stories."
Still, she says, finding the diary of a Confederate spy ranks right up there with all of them.
That spy, Rose Greenhow, is the subject of her new book, "Wild Rose." Blackman was in town recently to speak at the Virginia Historical Society and the Museum of the Confederacy.
Blackman, who left Time in 2001 to focus on her books, has written two others, one on former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the other on double agent Robert Hanssen.
She approached Greenhow the same way she did Albright. "I have been a news reporter all my life, and I find that writing about history is not all that different. We build on each other's stories and try not to repeat each other's mistakes."
There were some obvious differences, though. "In doing interviews with people in Washington, live people, you generally go from one person to another to corroborate material. This was the first time that I actually was spending hours and hours in the archives."
Sounds a lot dustier to me.
"Yes, but less political. When you interview politicians, particularly when they talk about each other, there's always a motive involved."
Ah, motive. What made Blackman shift from the present to the distant past? "I was looking for a new challenge," she said.
There was something else. An article she'd read about Greenhow left her with this question: "How could one woman change the course of the Civil War? It's impossible."
Curious, she started looking into Greenhow's life. You already know what happened to Blackman after that, but you may not know what she found out.
Greenhow was a spy who picked up information at dinner parties she gave in her home just a few blocks from the White House. "She got the information to General Beauregard that his troops were going to be attacked by the Union army in a week. This gave Beauregard time to call in more troops and win the Battle of Bull Run."
Never mind that Beauregard himself credited her with providing information crucial to his victory. "Military historians have long disregarded Rose," Blackman said. "She wasn't important; she didn't do much; she exaggerated."
Blackman found otherwise, and this is where the diary comes into play. After spending time in prison for spying, Greenhow moved to Richmond. Then, in 1863, Jefferson Davis decided to send her to Europe as his emissary in hopes she could convince the British and French to recognize the Confederate government.
Nobody knew much about what she did there because she drowned coming home. Nobody knew she kept a diary until 1967, when it turned up in North Carolina's archives. An archivist, who spent years deciphering Greenhow's handwriting but who never published the diary, lent his transcript to Blackman.
What a scoop for her: The diary shows that Greenhow negotiated with Napoleon III and the British prime minister and considered asking the Pope for an audience.
"It shows she was much more important to our country's history, particularly Confederate history, than anyone knew.
"The diary proves that Rose Greenhow was almost certainly the first American woman to negotiate for her government, in this case the Confederate government, on foreign soil."
Gosh. If you'd asked me who was the first woman to do that, I'd have guessed Madeleine Albright.
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