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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Morris Greenwall, Confederate Secret Detective

"Lieutenant Greenwall" by Matthew Brady
Library of Congress ca 1865

Born on January 3rd, 1838, in New Orleans, Morris Greenwall was the son of German Jewish immigrants who arrived in America the previous year. Little is known of his life before 1860, when he was listed on the census as a twenty year-old store clerk. Morris and his two brothers, Henry and Phillip, enlisted in Louisiana Confederate regiments in 1861, Morris serving in Virginia as a lieutenant in the 10th Louisiana Infantry. After the war, the brothers went into the brokerage business in Galveston. In 1867, they had the opportunity to invest in a theater, remaining partners until Morris emigrated to Australia around 1880. Undistinguished soldiers, Henry and Phillip left very little in the way of Civil War records, but Morris was the kind of officer novelists invent. We are not talking about his gallantry in action, but rather his undercover work. In that role, as a secret and special detective, he chased down deserters and murderers, only to become a deserter himself from the Army of Northern Virginia. From there he sojourned in Texas and even traveled to New York City. A month after his arrival there, Confederate agents set parts of the city on fire in the wake of the November 1864 elections. After that, we have no more word of him until the end of the war. In 1865, as if caught in the act of some new escapade, he posed for photographer Matthew Brady. Wearing his Confederate uniform, complete with kid gloves, Greenwall looks a bit anxious. Brady identified him as "Lieutenant Greenwall," but the bars on his collar are those of a captain. He carries no sidearms, while his wrinkled uniform, possibly just taken out of a steamer trunk, is said to be consistent with Louisiana Confederate service. Though he looks much older, Greenwall was only twenty-five.

How does a store clerk from New Orleans become a secret detective at such a young age? The opportunities to learn such detective skills in the army would seem to be limited. Perhaps those skills were honed in hundreds of bargaining sessions in the shops and warehouses along the waterfronts of the Crescent City. While Greenwall's move from the army to detective work might simply involve no more than a routine transfer, it could have involved something more. In this light, an interesting fact about 1860 New Orleans ought to be considered. A closer look at the census shows that Greenwall had a very well-connected neighbor, none other than United States Senator Judah P. Benjamin. Choosing to side with the Confederacy, Benjamin held a series of cabinet posts in the Jefferson Davis administration, including secretary of war and secretary of state. That certainly raises the possibility that Benjamin knew Greenwall and took him under his wing.

From newspaper accounts of the time, we know that after resigning his commission in February 1862, the young Greenwall became a detective for the provost marshal of Richmond. A little over a year later, he was appointed to a unique position, one he would hold until January 1864.

Between the time of his resignation in 1862 until he turned up in Texas in April 1864, Greenwall managed to cram a lifetime of adventures into a very short space. After New Orleans fell to the Federals, one would expect Greenwall to have no business being there since he was still in the Confederate service. Yet his name appears on the passenger list of the steamer Marion, plying the waters between New Orleans and New York in September 1862. The ship made regular runs back and forth, often stopping in the West Indies, where Greenwall might have boarded her. Since he was at the time in the pay of the Richmond provost marshal (head of the military police in modern terms) we have to consider whether Detective Greenwall may well have been on a secret mission. Perhaps he was pretending to be a deserter. Otherwise, his use of his own name is hard to explain. Whatever business he was about, it must have gone well, for the next we hear of him, Greenwall was up for a very substantial promotion.

In June 1863, Secretary of War Seddon wrote a letter accepting Greenwall for a position as a "secret and special detective" for the Bureau of Conscription. His mission was to hunt down deserters and investigate fraud, graft and corruption, not only in the bureau, but in similar matters for the entire Confederacy east of the Mississippi. Seddon urged that Greenwall not be limited to the bureau, but should answer to "higher authority," presumably meaning that he would answer to no one but a cabinet-level official, such as Seddon himself. This was quite a move up from gum-shoeing the beats of the Eastern District of Richmond. Of all the cases he may have been involved in over the next year, we only know of one for certain. Still, we have some very interesting gossip about another possible case. Both were quite routine.

Several years after the war, an article of interest to our story ran in a Southern magazine. The author had been held prisoner in Richmond's notorious Castle Thunder, a jail where suspected spies ended up, including Dr. Mary Walker. A female surgeon, the only one in fact, the Confederate authorities held her there under suspicion of military espionage in 1864. The author of the piece made her acquaintance, and described her perfectly, lending credence to his recollection of another character unlucky enough to do time there. In 1863, before Walker was captured in Georgia, Castle Thunder was temporary home to an "Englishman" named Captain Greenwall. The story he told was that he had been an English officer who sailed for Charleston, South Carolina, earlier in the year, intending to volunteer for Confederate military service. Like so many other talented officers from Europe, Captain Greenwall was readily accepted, in his case into the Confederate Corps of Engineers. For whatever reason, the captain had come under suspicion and been arrested, finding himself a prisoner at Castle Thunder. Even though he was never able to prove his British service, for no apparent reason he was eventually released. Unwilling to rejoin an army that had so badly mistreated him, so the story went, he soon disappeared, never to be heard from again. It would be no stretch to conclude that this was none other than Secret Detective Morris Greenwall, engaged in spying on the prison inmates. (Planting a snitch in military prisons was a common practice on both sides during the Civil War.) The "Englishman" was remembered as a cultured and handsome young man, something a contemporary Richmond paper also said about Detective Greenewall, even to the point of using the word "urbane."

As previously mentioned, there was one well-documented case involving our detective. It stemmed from the sort of crime that might have been written up in the pulp fiction magazines of later decades. Two Confederate deserters in the Charleston area had drugged a landlady and beat her senseless, making off with her considerable stash of coins. The victim died of her wounds, and Detective Greenwall was put on the case. Getting their descriptions from the druggist who sold them the chloroform, Greenwall tracked the perps to Alabama and brought them back in irons. A short newspaper article from 1864 relates that one of them was hanged for the crime. The fate of his partner was no doubt the same, but their use of aliases makes this difficult to follow up.

Following Greenwall after the Charleston murder is even harder because of the strong possibility that he did not always use his own name. We do know that his commission with the Bureau of Conscription expired in January 1864. At that point he became liable to conscription himself. Though still being carried on the rolls of the 10th Louisiana, his records show that he was almost immediately conscripted into the Louisiana Zouaves in front of Petersburg, Virginia, in early March. Apparently, this was too much for the slippery sleuth, for he deserted (officially listed as AWOL on June 29, 1864) and turned up in Texas in April. We know this because a lieutenant in charge of conscription in one Texas county relayed orders by letter to another county conscript officer. Those orders were to investigate Morris Greenwall as to his status under the draft laws because his commission as a special detective had expired. Slippery as ever, Greenwall disappeared again. Where he turned up next is so outrageous as to invite disbelief.

On the 25th of October, 1864, Morris Greenwall applied for a passport in New York City. A local citizen even vouched for his loyalty to the United States. Greenwall gave his complete date of birth and the place as New Orleans, which is the only reason why we know it. This was not some random event or the doings of an impostor. The signature on the passport exactly matches Greenwall's signature on his pay vouchers from his days as a detective in Richmond. Exactly one month later, Confederate agents set fire to a hotel in New York, along with several other locations. The fire spread, killing some people, and even P.T. Barnum's Museum was not exempt. (Some believed the museum was targeted deliberately because Barnum had hired Union spy Pauline Cushman to give lectures on her exploits behind the lines.) Lieutenant Robert Cobb Kennedy, one of the Confederate agents, was later captured while returning to America from Canada at Detroit. Kennedy claimed that his gang never intended to cause loss of life, but to no avail. He was the last Confederate to be executed during the war, and in fact, his role in the arson was very badly caricatured in a BBC America series called "Copper." To allege that Greenwall played any role in this would be pure speculation, but he was certainly there in October, posing as a loyal citizen and using his own name.

Greenwall then disappeared again, and the best evidence for how he ended his Confederate service is his photograph. Matthew Brady took three shots of him in uniform, and the original plates are now in the Library of Congress. The lieutenant's lack of sidearms almost certainly proves that he was a prisoner of war. Judging by the look on his face, he seems worried, but he need not have been. A blanket amnesty was offered to any Confederates willing to come in by a date certain and take an ironclad loyalty oath to the United States. This amnesty applied to virtually all soldiers, no matter what they might have done during the war. Greenwall may have taken the oath and been paroled as a prisoner of war, but no record of this has surfaced. We have his passport application from a place he had no legal right to be, yet we have no record of his surrender, parole or oath to the United States. If he was actually a double agent, then everything falls neatly into place. When the previously mentioned Lieutenant Kennedy was caught trying to slip back into the United States, the detectives knew he was coming and were waiting for him. According to the abstracts of Kennedy's trial, someone had tipped them off. Could that someone have been Morris Greenwall?

Whatever Greenwall may have been up to during the last year of the war, he came home to New Orleans and went into the brokerage business with his brothers Henry and Phillip. We might never have heard from them again but for an opportunity that presented itself in 1867. That was the year the brothers became theater managers, leasing one property, and planning to build another. Their first season was hardly successful, but a year later they were booking the likes of Fannie Brice and Belle Boyd. A drama queen if ever there was one, Boyd's role in the Civil War has been discounted by modern historians as exaggerated. While her intelligence gathering in Virginia played a minimal role in Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign of 1862, it nevertheless made her famous. Cashing in on the fame, she wrote her autobiography in 1865 and took to the stage, where she was enormously popular in the South. Ex-Confederate generals the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest and a host of his staff sent her roses when she played Memphis in 1867. Forrest and friends also wrote a letter of admiration which they sent to the local newspapers. It made perfect sense for the Greenwalls to book Belle Boyd, but something went very wrong.

Miss Boyd walked off the stage in Galveston in January 1869, but not before telling the audience she had been deceived by the Brothers Greenwall and their agent/manager/leading man, a Mr. R. D'Orsay Ogden. Morris Greenwall, she said, had reneged on a contract for her to play a long engagement in Galveston. In lieu of that, she had been kept waiting for a month, then offered a limited booking of two or three evenings in Houston. At that point, Greenwall had come to her dressing room, used abusive language, then struck (read slapped?) her. The diva responded by pulling a dagger, using some salty language herself. Mr. Ogden wrote the Greenwall's version of events to the local newspapers the next day, prompting Boyd to write her own letter to the press the day after Ogden's was published. Depending on whom one believed, she had either been fired or quit, or both. Boyd's run-in with the Greewalls would shadow her long after the incident. Written years later, one lurid newspaper account even recalled, perhaps erroneously, that she had pulled a pistol on Ogden, chasing him around the theater. When Morris Greenwall tried to intervene, she took after him as well, and the two men fled in terror to a nearby hotel. The writer, a Texan, went on to dismiss Boyd's talents as an actress, adding that she was an even worse "authoress." The high-strung Boyd would later spend some time in a "lunatic asylum" in California, where she gave birth to a child. About this time, she divorced her English husband (though by some accounts he died) and remarried. This series of events gave newspaper writers the notion that she was a loose cannon, whose acting talents were far less appreciated in other parts of the country. That opinion was especially true of  the acerbic drama critics of New York City. Though much of Boyd's troubles happened after her run-in with the Greenwalls, her bad reviews in the North were already in print. Simply stated, her temper may well have been the deciding factor in why the brothers were determined not to let her play Galveston for more than two nights.

Belle Boyd

The Greenwalls booked acts all through the 1870s, but for some unknown reason, Morris emigrated to Australia after 1880. A ship's passenger list from the time gives his occupation as "actor," as if being a theater owner was somehow less impressive. Yet he continued in his regular business and booked Lily Langry, one of the most famous actresses of her day. She was set to tour the land down under in 1885, but cancelled at the last minute, claiming scheduling conflicts. An outraged Greenwall booked passage on a steamer for San Francisco, intending to sue Langtry for breach of contract. A very sick man at the time, Greenwall even had his attorney draw up papers on the voyage, saying that if he were to die, Miss Langtry was to blame. Once ashore, Greenwall fulfilled his own prophecy by dying within weeks. Ex-Confederate detective, possible turncoat, and longtime theater owner, Morris Greenwall departed this this world on March 13, 1885, in San Francisco. Although the location of his grave is unknown, he was most likely buried locally since his funeral was set for the 15th. 

Lily Langtry

Lieutenant (or was it Captain?) Morris Greenwall is one of those little-known shady characters from the Civil War and Reconstruction Era whose story ought to be told. There surely must be a book in it for anyone willing to do the necessary research. What has been condensed here probably represents one tenth of what could be found in newspaper archives, libraries, and court documents. The unanswered questions about his Civil War career make us suspect that he might have been "turned" in 1864, or even earlier, to work for the Union side. Surely that would not have made his life in Texas an easy one had it been known. When Belle Boyd wrote her stinging letter to the New Orleans Picayune, she slandered Morris by saying that he had "vegetated" in Mexico during the war. We know that to be an outright lie, so Greewall's apparent silence in his own defense is puzzling indeed. As previously mentioned, no postwar record of his ever taking the oath to the United States exists, nor any parole record, nor any record of his having been held as a prisoner of war at the close of hostilities. All of this could be explained if he had indeed gone over to the Union side, allowing him to travel with impunity from New Orleans to New York and back. Who knows what other adventures and cases might come to light from an investigation of as yet undiscovered records?

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