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Rose O'Neal Greenhow

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Rose O'Neal Greenhow (18171864) was born, Maria Rosatta O'Neale and was a renowned Confederate spy. A leader in Washington society during the period prior to the 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 South at the start of the war.

Born in Montgomery, Maryland, Greenhow was orphaned as a child. When she was a teenager, Greenhow was invited to live with her aunt in Washington, DC. Her aunt ran a stylish boarding house at the old capitol building, and Greenhow was introduced to important figures in the Washington area. As a young woman, Greenhow was considered beautiful, educated, loyal, compassionate, and refined. Many were surprised when she accepted the marriage proposal of Dr. Robert Greenhow. Dr. Greenhow served as her mentor during the early part of their marriage.

The Greenhows welcomed four daughters into their family: Florence, Gertrude, Leila, and little Rose. Eventually, tragedy struck the family. Dr. Greenhow died soon after little Rose's birth. After Dr. Greenhow's death, Greenhow saw her oldest child Florence move west, and later, just prior to the Civil War, her daughter 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 Confederate cause 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 on secret messages to Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard containing critical information regarding the 1st Bull Run (known in the South as the Battle of Manassas) campaign of Union General Irvin McDowell. Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited Greenhow's information with securing victory at Manassas for the South.

Knowing that many in Washington suspected her of spying for the Confederacy, Greenhow feared for her remaining family's safety, and she soon sent her daughter Leila to France. Allan Pinkerton, head of the recently-formed Secret Service, was suspicious as well. On August 23, 1861, Pinkerton apprehended Greenhow, placing 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 and her eight-year-old daughter Rose were incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison. While in prison, Greenhow's daughter was permitted to remain with her. Greenhow was said to have continued to pass along messages while in unusual ways. For example, she was said to have sent one message concealed within a woman visitor's bun of hair.

On May 31, 1862, Greenhow and her daughter were released from prison and deported to Richmond, Virginia. Greenhow was hailed as a heroine by Southerners. President Jefferson Davis welcomed Greenhow home, and soon, he enlisted her as a courier to Europe. From 1863 - 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. In Britain, she had an audience with Queen Victoria. Two months after arriving in London, Greenhow wrote her memoirs, entitled My Imprisonment, and the details of her mission to Europe are recorded in her personal diaries, dated August 5, 1863 through August 10, 1864 (State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina).

In September of 1864, Greenhow left Europe to return to the South, 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, Niphon, had been pursuing the ship. Fearing capture and reimprisonment, Greenhow fled the grounded Condor by rowboat. The rowboat did not make it to shore, however; it was capsized by a wave, and Greenhow, weighed down with $2,000.00 worth of gold intended for the Confederate treasury, drowned.

In October of 1864, Greenhow received a full military burial in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag, and she was widely regarded as a soldier and a heroine.

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