Rose O'Neal Greenhow - Confederate Spy, with daughter "Little Rose" at Old Capitol Prison

November 05, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

We are remembering the October 1, 1864 drowning death of Confederate spy and unofficial diplomat, Rose Greenhow. When asked about this unusual appointment, civil war historian James McPherson replied, "Not only would Davis not have worried about sending a woman to Europe on a diplomatic mission, Davis would have been convinced that this particular woman was the best person for the job because her imprisonment in a Union 'Bastille' had evoked indignation and sympathy abroad, especially among the upper classes in Britain and France , where it was seen as an example of Yankee oppression and vulgarity. Sending Greenhow was a stroke of genius by Davis."

Rose O'Neal Greenhow - Confederate Spy, with Daughter 'Little Rose', at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862 -04849Rose O'Neal Greenhow - Confederate Spy, with Daughter 'Little Rose', at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862 -04849Rose O'Neale Greenhow - leader of Washington Society, passionate secessionist and renowned Confederate spy. Her secret messages to General Beauregard was the basis of his victory at the 1st Battle of Bull Run. Beauregard used the information to send for General Joseph E. Johnston's army guarding the Shenandoah Valley sixty miles away. Johnston loaded his army onto trains, marking the first use of trains to rush troops to a battlefield during the Civil War, to support Beauregard. As the result, General McDowell had two armies to face at Manassas and lost.


How did Greenhow become a dedicated fighter for the South? As a child, a family slave was hanged for causing Greenhow's father's death. A few years later, the teenager and her sister moved to Washington D.C. to live at the home of her aunt, the proprietor of the Hill's Boarding House. The residence was favored by Southern Supreme Court Justices, power brokers and Congressmen, including John C. Calhoun. Greenhow considered Calhoun a second father and became an astute political strategist due to his tutelage. She demonstrated her skill by encouraging her friend, James Buchanan, to run for President and formulated the strategy that enabled him to win the office. Years later, Greenhow spent weeks nursing Calhoun on his deathbed at the Boarding House.


Greenhow used her political connections not only to acquire information for the Confederacy, put to petition Secretary of State Seward for promotions for her son-in-law in the Union Army. When it became clear that Greenhow was a spy, the Union hoped to quietly arrest her and capture any possible conspirators who visited her home. The plan was foiled when "Little Rose" climbed a backyard tree to yell to the neighbors, "Mother has been arrested. Mother has been arrested."


Under house arrest, Greenhow's home became a tourist attraction. While raising a fuss over being under constant guard, Rose still managed to send information to the Confederates. Lincoln, himself, ordered her moved to her former home, Hill's Boarding House, which had been turned into the Old Capitol Prison.


On arrival, eight year old "Little Rose" told the prison superintendent, "You have one of the hardest little rebels her you ever saw. But if you get along with me as well as Lieutenant Sheldon (commander of the Greenhow house guard), you will have no trouble."


After months imprisoned, Greenhow was exiled to the Confederate States. In Richmond, Jefferson Davis asked Greenhow to travel to Europe to woo the elite to recognize the Confederacy. There, Greenhow published her memoir, My imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which became a best seller. She was granted an audience with Napoleon III and met with highest British and French government officials.


After a year abroad, Greenhow boarded the Condor, a British blockade runner to return home. It was run aground by a US gunboat. Greenhow, fearing a return to prison, fled in a rowboat which capsized. She was drowned by the weight of gold from the royalties for her book. To honor her, the Confederacy gave her a military funeral in Wilmington, North Carolina. The Ladies Memorial Association, in 1888, marked her grave with a cross that read "Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow. A Bearer of Dispatches to the Confederate Government."


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