Rose O'Neal Greenhow

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Rose O'Neal Greenhow

Born 1815 or 1817
Port Tobacco, Maryland
Died October 1, 1864
Wilmington, North Carolina

Washington socialite and Confederate spy

Provided information that allowed Confederate forces to win the First Battle of Bull Run

Spying "was far more successful than my hopes could have flattered me to expect."

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was one of the most successful female Confederate spies of the Civil War. A prominent hostess in Washington society, she learned about Union military plans from her wide circle of important friends and passed that information along to Confederate leaders. In July 1861, she provided key information that helped Confederate forces win the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia. "I employed every capacity with which God has endowed [provided] me," she once said, "and the result was far more successful than my hopes could have flattered me to expect."

Becomes a popular hostess in Washington social circles

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was born to a wealthy slave-holding family in southern Maryland in 1817. When she was a young girl, one of the family's slaves murdered her father. From that point on, Greenhow strongly opposed the movement to abolish (put an end to) slavery and grant equal rights to black Americans.

As a young woman, Greenhow married a wealthy Southern gentleman and moved to Washington, D.C. She loved to entertain, so she and her husband threw frequent dinner parties. The guests at these social events often included members of the U.S. Congress and foreign diplomats. Over time, Greenhow developed a wide circle of friends that included many important political figures, such as former President James Buchanan (1791–1868). She remained a popular hostess even after her husband died in the mid-1800s.

Washington was the site of heated political debate during this time. The Northern and Southern regions of the country had been arguing about a number of issues, including slavery, for many years. By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Greenhow considered herself a Southerner and supported the Confederate states' decision to secede. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. Before long, the two sides went to war.

Leads a spy network

As the Civil War began, Greenhow made no secret of her pro-Southern feelings. One day, Captain Thomas Jordan approached her about serving as a spy for the Confederacy. Jordan was a member of the Union Army and the U.S. War Department, but he secretly recruited spies for the South. Greenhow agreed to act as a spy and also to serve as the center of a Confederate spy ring in Washington. Her spy network included other prominent Washington residents, clerks in several government departments, and a number of female couriers. Greenhow collected information about the Union's war plans from the network, as well as from her friends and admirers in Washington. She then passed the information along to Confederate leaders in Richmond, Virginia.

Helps Confederates win the First Battle of Bull Run

When the war began, people in both the North and the South were confident that it would end quickly in a victory for their side. Spurred by such confidence, Northerners pressured President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) to make an early offensive advance into Confederate territory. After consulting with his advisors, Lincoln decided to attack a large Confederate encampment at Manassas Junction, Virginia. Since this rebel stronghold was located about thirty miles from Washington, Union leaders viewed it as a threat to the Federal capital. It also blocked the path that Union troops would take to reach Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy.

On July 16, 1861, thirty-five thousand Union troops under General Irvin McDowell (1818–1885) marched out of Washington toward Manassas. They intended to fight twenty thousand Confederate troops camped on the banks of nearby Bull Run Creek, under the command of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard (1818–1893; see entry). In the meantime, fifteen thousand Union troops under General Robert Patterson traveled separately. They intended to meet eleven thousand Confederate troops camped at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston (1807–1891; see entry). The idea was for Patterson to keep Johnston busy while McDowell pushed Beauregard out of Manassas.

Unfortunately for the Union, Greenhow obtained a copy of McDowell's orders. She told the Confederate leaders when the Union forces would leave Washington, how many troops would be involved, what route they would take toward Manassas, and what strategy they planned to use in the battle. The First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas) began on July 21. Just as McDowell began to gain ground against Beauregard's outnumbered forces, thousands of Johnston's troops arrived to save the day. Johnston had fooled Patterson into thinking that his Confederate forces were preparing an offensive attack, then snuck his men away to help Beauregard.

The Union forces made a panicky retreat, joined by thousands of spectators who had come down from Washington to watch the battle. People in the North were shocked that the rebels (Confederates) had won the first major battle of the Civil War. But people in the South were thrilled. Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry) thanked Greenhow personally for her part in the victory. "But for you there would have been no Battle of Bull Run," he told her.

Keeps spying after her arrest

This early success encouraged Greenhow to become even bolder in her spying activities. Union authorities finally caught on and arrested her in August 1861. But they made the mistake of arresting her outside of her home, in front of witnesses. Greenhow managed to warn one of her agents of the danger by signaling with a handkerchief. Once the Union officials brought her inside, she faked an attack of heat stroke and was allowed to rest in her room alone. While the unsuspecting authorities waited for her to recover, she had enough time to destroy much of the evidence of her activities.

Union authorities placed Greenhow under house arrest, meaning that she became a prisoner in her own home. But she continued to send messages to Richmond. After awhile, Union detectives broke the code she used for her messages, so at least they knew what information she had leaked to the Confederates.

In January 1862, Greenhow was transferred to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, along with her daughter and her maid. During her five months there under tight security, she still managed to send messages South. Sometimes she involved her daughter in her schemes. The guards often brought the young girl rubber balls to play with. Greenhow would wrap a message around a rubber ball and toss it out the window at a certain time. A fellow Confederate spy would catch the ball and carry the information to Confederate officials.

Tries to gain support of France and England

Greenhow was finally released from prison in May 1862. Unable to keep her from spying, Union officials forced her to leave the North. She traveled to Richmond, where she was greeted warmly by Confederate leaders. In August 1863, President Jefferson Davis sent Greenhow to Europe. Her mission was to convince the leaders of England and France to support the Confederates in their fight for independence.

Greenhow proved to be just as popular in Europe as she had been in Washington. She published a book about her spy activities, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which became a bestseller. She was also entertained by royalty. Although she failed to convince European leaders to provide official support to the Confederacy, she did get some wealthy Europeans to donate money to the cause.

Dies for the Confederate cause

In the summer of 1864, Greenhow decided to return to the United States. She made the final leg of her journey aboard a Confederate ship called the Condor. On October 1, the ship ran aground in a raging storm just off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina. Before long, a Union ship approached. Fearing that she would be arrested, Greenhow asked to be rowed ashore in a small boat. Unfortunately, the boat capsized in the waves. Although the other people on board were saved, Greenhow drowned. It turned out that she had sewn the gold she had received from European supporters into the fabric of her dress. The gold in her clothing was so heavy that it pulled her to the bottom of the ocean.

Confederate officials later recovered both Greenhow's body and the gold she had carried. They recognized her contributions to the cause with a military funeral in Richmond. Every year since then, the Daughters of the Confederacy have honored the anniversary of her death by placing a wreath on her grave.

Where to Learn More

Burger, Nash K. Confederate Spy: Rose O'Neal Greenhow. New York: Franklin Watts, 1967.

Duke University, Special Collections Library. Rose O'Neal Greenhow Papers.An On-line Archival Collection. (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Faber, Doris. Rose Greenhow, Spy for the Confederacy. New York: Putnam, 1967.

Greenhow, Rose O'Neal. My Imprisonment and the First Year of AbolitionRule at Washington. London: Richard Bently, 1863.

Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.

Nolan, Jeannette Covert. Spy for the Confederacy: Rose O'Neal Greenhow. New York: J. Covert, 1960.

Ross, Ishbel. Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy. New York: Harper, 1954.