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Rose O'Neal Greenhow with her youngest daughter and namesake, "Little" Rose, at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow (1817–October 1, 1864) was a renowned Confederate spy. As a leader in Washington, D.C. society during the period to prior the American Civil War, she traveled in important political circles and cultivated friendships with presidents, generals, senators, and high-ranking military officers, using her connections to pass along key military information to the Confederacy at the start of the war.

Life prior to the Civil War[]

Rose Greenhow was born in 1817 in Port Tobacco, Maryland, as Maria Rosatta O'Neal. Her father, John O'Neal, was supposedly murdered by one of his slaves in 1817. His widow, Eliza O'Neal, was left with four daughters and a cash-poor farm to manage. Orphaned as a child, Greenhow was invited to live with her aunt in Washington, D.C. as a teenager. Her aunt, Maria Ann Hill, ran a stylish boarding house at the Old Capitol building, and Greenhow was introduced to important figures in the Washington area. When she was a young woman, Greenhow was considered beautiful, educated, loyal, compassionate, and refined. Her olive skin and rosy complexion earned her the nickname "Wild Rose." In the 1830s, she met Dr. Robert Greenhow. Their courtship was well received by the society of Washington, especially by famed society matron Dolley Madison. In 1835, they married with Dolley's blessing. Greenhow's husband taught her history and gave her access to documents of the state through his work in the state department

Espionage during the Civil War[]

The Greenhows had eight children: First came Florence, Gertrude and Leila. Then came four children who would never make it through infancy, Alice Rose, Robert, Jr.; Morgan Lewis and Rose. The last child and Rose's constant companion and namesake was named Rose O'Neal Greenhow and given her mother's maiden name as a middle name. She is the little rebel known affectionately as "Little Rose".

Tragedy struck the family when Greenhow's husband died soon after little Rose's birth. After his death, Greenhow saw her oldest child Florence marry and move west, and later, just before the Civil War,Gertrude died. Greenhow's sympathy for the Confederate cause grew after her husband's death. She was strongly influenced in her commitment to the right to secession by her friendship with John C. Calhoun. Greenhow's loyalty to the Confederacy was noted by those with similar sympathies in Washington, and she was soon recruited as a spy.

On July 9, 1861, and July 16, 1861, Greenhow passed secret messages to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard containing critical information regarding the First Battle of Manassas and the plans of Union General Irvin McDowell. Assisting in her conspiracy were pro-Confederate members of Congress, Union officers, and her dentist, Aaron Van Camp. Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited Greenhow's information with securing victory at Manassas for the Confederate Army over the Union Army.


Knowing that many in Washington suspected her of spying for the Confederacy, Greenhow feared for her remaining family's safety and sent her daughter Leila west to live with her other daughter Florence and son-in-law, Seymour Treadwell Moore. Moore was a captain in the Union Army.

On August 23, 1861, Allan Pinkerton, head of the recently-formed Secret Service, apprehended Greenhow and placed her under house arrest. Other leaked information was traced back to Greenhow's home, and upon searching her home for further evidence, Pinkerton and his men found maps of Washington fortifications and notes on military movements.

On January 18, 1862, Greenhow was transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Her eight-year-old daughter "Little" Rose, was permitted to remain with her. Greenhow continued to pass along messages in unusual ways while imprisoned. For example, she was said to have sent one message concealed within a woman visitor's bun of hair. Passers-by could see Rose's window from the street. The position of the blinds and number of candles burning in the window had special meaning to the "little birdies" passing by. Greenhow also on one occasion flew the Confederate Flag from her prison window.

International acclaim[]

On May 31, 1862, Greenhow and her daughter were released from prison. Deported to Richmond, Virginia, Greenhow was hailed as a heroine by Southerners. Jefferson Davis welcomed her home and soon enlisted her as a courier to Europe. From 1863 to 1864, Greenhow traveled through France and Britain on a diplomatic mission for the Confederacy. There was much sympathy for the South among European aristocrats. While in France, Greenhow was received in the court of Napoleon III at the Tuileries. In Britain, she had an audience with Queen Victoria and became engaged to Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville. Two months after arriving in London, Greenhow wrote her memoirs, titled My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which sold well in Britain. The details of her mission to Europe are recorded in her personal diaries, dated August 5, 1863, to August 10, 1864.


In September 1864, Greenhow left Europe to return to the Confederate States, carrying dispatches. She traveled on the Condor, a British blockade runner. On October 1, 1864, the Condor ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina. A Union gunboat, USS Niphon, had been pursuing the ship. Fearing capture and reimprisonment, Greenhow fled the grounded Condor by rowboat. The rowboat was capsized by a wave, and Greenhow, weighed down with $2,000 worth of gold in a bag around her neck from her memoir royalties intended for the Confederate treasury, drowned.

When Greenhow's body was recovered from the water near Wilmington, North Carolina, searchers found a copy of her book "Imprisonment" hidden on her person. There was a note inside the book, which was meant for her daughter, Little Rose. The note read:

London, Nov 1st 1863 You have shared the hardships and indignity of my prison life, my darling; And suffered all that evil which a vulgar despotism could inflict. Let the memory of that period never pass from your mind; Else you may be inclined to forget how merciful Providence has been in seizing us from such a people. Rose O'Neal Greenhow.

In October 1864, Greenhow received a full military burial in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag; her epitaph reads: Mrs. Rose O'N. Greenhow, a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government. To this day, annual ceremonies are held graveside to honor Rose and her contributions to the Confederate cause.

References and further reading[]

  • Blackman, Ann, Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6118-0.
  • Ross, Ishbel, Rebel Rose. St. Simon's Island, Georgia: Mockingbird Books, 1973. ISBN 54-8986.
  • Farquhar, Michael, "'Rebel Rose,' A Spy of Grande Dame Proportions." Washington Post. September 18, 2000.[1]
  • Greenhow, Rose O'Neal, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, London: Richard Bentley, 1863.[2] (full text)

External links[]

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