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Washington socialite, Confederate spy
Rose O’Neal Greenhow
“On the morning of the 16th of July, the Government papers at Washington announced that the 'grand army' was in motion,” Rose O’Neal Greenhow recollected of the summer of 1861. Rose O’Neal was a native of Maryland who had become a protégé of Dolley Madison and been introduced by the First Lady to society in Washington, and to Robert Greenhow Jr., a Virginia doctor and lawyer. Rose and Robert were married, and he accepted appointments from the State Department that took the couple and their children to Mexico City and then San Francisco, where Robert was killed in a freak fall from one of the city’s precipitous sidewalks. Rose returned with the children to Washington, arriving as the capital city was careening downhill toward the Civil War.
Rose Greenhow was little invested in the slave economy of Maryland and Virginia but much enamored of the culture of the antebellum South. She resented the election of Abraham Lincoln as akin to a personal affront. “He had been elected President by a strictly sectional majority, not having received one vote in the States south of Mason and Dixon's line,” she observed. The Republicans who sponsored the rude Westerner were enemies of the Constitution and envious of the South. “They openly proclaimed 'the higher law doctrine,”—attributed to William Seward, who declared in a debate over slavery that “there is a higher law than the Constitution”—-“and announced their determination, regardless of constitutional guarantees, to deprive the South of her sovereign equal rights, and to reduce her to a state of vassalage, for a feeling of bitter jealousy had been festering and strengthening in the Northern mind against her, on account of the superior statesmanship and intellect which had always given her preeminence in the councils of the nation, and in the legislative assemblies.”
Most of the South had done what Southerners’ self-respect required, seceding from continued union with the “Abolition party,” Rose Greenhow said. She lamented that Maryland, her own state, had not joined the exodus, but she hoped it would come to its senses and follow suit. Meanwhile she would do her part on behalf of Southern values. She thrilled at the blow South Carolina struck for the South at Fort Sumter, and she watched and listened as Lincoln and General Irvin McDowell gathered an army to invade Virginia and commence war in earnest.
“I learned from a reliable source (having received a copy of the order to McDowell) that the order for a forward movement had gone forth,” Rose Greenhow related. She was writing from a safe distance and after the fact, but she still declined to identify her source. Various parts of the preparations were obvious to anyone in Washington. “Officers and orderlies on horse were seen flying from place to place; the tramp of armed men was heard on every side; martial music filled the air; in short, a mighty host was marshalling, with all the pomp and circumstance of glorious war,” Greenhow said. “‘On to Richmond!’ was the war-cry. The heroes girded on their armor with the enthusiasm of the Crusaders of old, and vowed to flesh their maiden swords in the blood of Beauregard or Lee. And many a knight, inspired by beauty's smiles, swore to lay at the feet of her he loved best the head of Jeff. Davis at least.”
Rose Greenhow stealthily wrote a letter telling what she had learned of the Federal plans. “At twelve o'clock on the morning of the 16th of July, I despatched a messenger to Manassas”—in Virginia—“who arrived there at eight o'clock that night,” she recounted afterward. The information she conveyed was appreciated, as she discovered by reply the following day. “Yours was received at eight o'clock at night. Let them come: we are ready for them. We rely upon you for precise information. Be particular as to description and destination of forces, quantity of artillery, &c.” The reply was signed by Thomas Jordan, the adjutant general of the Confederate Army, and the chief of staff to Confederate commander P. G. T. Beauregard.
Rose Greenhow at once obliged. “On the 17th I despatched another missive to Manassas, for I had learned of the intention of the enemy”—the Federal forces— “to cut the Winchester railroad, so as to intercept Johnson”—Joseph Johnston, commander of a second Confederate army—“and prevent his reinforcing Beauregard, who had comparatively but a small force under his command at Manassas.”
She feared her new message might have arrived too late. “On the night of the 18th, news of a great victory by the Federal troops at Bull Run reached Washington,” she recalled. Bull Run was a creek near Manassas. “The accounts were received with frantic rejoicings, and bets were freely taken in support of Mr. Seward's wise saws—that the rebellion would be crushed out in thirty days.” Seward was now Lincoln’s secretary of state. “My heart told me that the triumph was premature. Yet, O my God! how miserable I was for the fate of my beloved country, which hung trembling in the balance!”
Rose Greenhow was right about the Federal celebration being premature. After early success of the Federals at Bull Run, the Confederates regrouped and counterattacked. The Federals were stunned and soon thrown into retreat and confusion.
“In the world's history such a sight was never witnessed: statesmen, senators, Congressmen, generals, and officers of every grade, soldiers, teamsters—all rushing in frantic flight, as if pursued by countless demons,” Rose Greenhow gloated. “For miles the country was thick with ambulances, accoutrements of war, &c. The actual scene beggars all description; so I must in despair relinquish the effort to portray it.”
She was delighted to have her part in the victory acknowledged. A secret dispatch arrived from Thomas Gordon. “Our President and our General direct me to thank you,” the message said. "The Confederacy owes you a debt.”
Perhaps she wore her pride too openly. Federal agents put her under surveillance, monitoring the comings and goings of Confederate sympathizers. Gradually the counterintelligence men built a case against her; this led to a search of her house. Copies of messages written in cipher gave her away.
But what was her crime? Lincoln’s insistence on the unconstitutionality of secession prevented his recognizing the fight with the Confederate states as a war; hence he couldn’t charge Rose Greenhow with treason, defined in the Constitution as the waging of war against the United States by an American citizen. Arguably she conspired in insurrection, but even that might be hard to prove to a Washington jury liable to include members as sympathetic to the Confederacy as she.
So the president confined himself to packing her off to Virginia on condition that she not return. She took her removal as another sign she was doing good work for the Confederacy. She traveled to Richmond to consult with Jefferson Davis, who appointed her envoy to Britain and France. Davis hoped Greenhow's charm would entice those two European powers into recognizing Confederate independence and furnishing aid in the war against the Union.
She wasn't that charming, but she did spread word of the righteousness of the Confederate cause. She wrote and published a memoir in which she described her espionage efforts on behalf of the Confederacy. The book was a hit, earning ample royalties and winning her acclaim as the daring lady spy.
She sailed back for Virginia, hoping her ship, a British blockade runner, could breach the Union cordon of the Southern coast. It almost did, but ran aground on the Carolina coast. With a Federal vessel closing in, Rose Greenhow climbed into one of the ship’s boats and tried to make her escape. The same rough seas that had driven her ship onto the shore now attacked her boat. It was swamped, and she was pitched into the surf. She struggled briefly but was overwhelmed, and she drowned. Her body washed ashore and was given the honors of a Confederate military funeral.