Rose O’Neal Greenhow

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During the Civil War time period, there were many prominent figures who played a key part in the outcome of the war.  Many are highlighted in our history books for their acts of heroism, leadership, and defining the history of the United States.  One person who had a significant role during the Civil War was a woman named Rose O’Neal Greenhow.  She is most famously known for being a spy for the Confederate Army.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was born in Maryland during the early 1800’s (historians believe either 1813 or 1814).  Her parents both died when she was young, and Rose went to live with her aunt in Washington, DC.  Rose and her sisters adjusted well to life in Washington, and became acquainted with many prominent people. 

In 1835, Rose was married to Dr. Robert Greenhow, Jr.  Robert worked for the U.S. Department of State.  As a young couple, they enjoyed the social life that Washington, DC offered.  Eventually, they had four daughters.  Due to Robert’s work with the State Department, the family moved around a few times.  They first moved to Mexico City, Mexico then to San Francisco, California.  In 1854, Robert died while in San Francisco, and Rose moved back to the Washington, DC area.

As tension grew among the states, Rose became very sympathetic with the Confederates and their causes.  She agreed with the thoughts of secession, slavery, and the Southern states’ ability to preserve their way of life.  Furthermore, she was close friends with the South Carolina Senator, John C. Calhoun, who helped to formulate her ideas of the South’s independence. 

Eventually, she was recruited as a Confederate spy by a man named Thomas Jordan, who was a U.S. Army captain.  He had arranged a group of spies for the South that would be located in the Washington, DC region.  Rose was equipped with various spy and intelligence-monitoring materials.  Thomas Jordan continued to be Rose’s connection for the Confederate Secret Service after the start of the Civil War.  Rose was credited, in part, for the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, in Manassas, Virginia in 1861.  In fact, Confederate President Jefferson Davis recognized her personally for her assistance at that time.

Rose was quite successful during her time acting as a spy for the Confederate Army.  She developed the nickname “Rebel Rose”.  Rose was caught by the new Secret Service director, Allan Pinkerton in 1861.  She was placed under house arrest initially.  In 1862, she was transferred to the Old Capital Prison in Washington, DC.  Her youngest daughter, little Rose, was allowed to stay with her.  Later that year, she was freed and sent south to the Confederate states. 

President Davis welcomed her and enlisted her to become a courier between the Southern states and Europe.  From 1863-1864, Rose traveled between France and London, increasing awareness of the Confederates’ cause and helping to build their support.  During this time, she also wrote her memoir, which sold quite well throughout Britain.  Her book was called, “My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington”.

Eventually, she decided to leave Europe and return to the Southern states.  On October 1, 1864, Rose perished as the British blockade runner that she was on, the Condor, ran aground as it was being chased by a Union gunboat.  She was able to escape the Condor on a rowboat, which capsized and led to her drowning.  She died just off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina.