During the American Civil War, many women served as spies for both North and South. A few of the more notorious ones include Pauline Cushman, Harriet Tubman, and Mary Jane Richards for the Union, as well as Antonia Ford, Belle Boyd (nicknamed “La Belle Rebelle” by the French), and, the main subject of this post, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, for the Confederacy.
Maria Rosetta O’Neal was born in 1816 Maryland and around 1830 came to live with an aunt in Washington, D.C. In 1835 she married Dr. Robert Greenhow, a prominent doctor-lawyer working in the U.S. State Department there, and her marriage to the good doctor enabled her to establish relationships within lofty social and government circles. Dr. Greenhow died in 1854.
During the period leading up to the Civil War, Greenhow developed strong Southern sympathies. After the death of her husband she was recruited as a spy in Washington for the Confederate States, during which she was able to use her powerful social connections in Washington to gather valuable military information. She is reputed to have provided intelligence to General P. T. Beauregard prior to the first Battle of Bull Run which contributed to the Confederate victory. She was put under surveillance by the head of Union General George McClellan’s secret service, Allen Pinkerton, eventually captured and imprisoned.
Released from prison in 1862, she resumed engaging in espionage for the South, and in 1863 she was entrusted with a mission by Confederate president Jefferson Davis to carry important dispatches to England and France. She enjoyed great popularity on the continent, and she is said to have received audiences with both Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III.
While in England, Rose was an associate of the Rev. Dr. William Tremlett, the founder of St. Peter’s Church in Belsize Park and the leading Confederate collaborator in London. The vicarage at St. Peter’s, known as “Rebels’ Roost”, was a safe home and meeting place for diplomats, agents and spies, mostly though not exclusively for the purpose of acquiring warships. However as 1863 waned, and the war was turning in favor of the Union, a new effort began at St. Peter’s to bring about an end to the war. To that end, Rose, Reverend Tremlett and Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury formed the London Society for the Cessation of Hostilities in America (LSCHA). The LSCHA sent a petition to the United States government was rejected out of hand by U.S. Secretary of State William Seward because it had not been approved by the British government. The response from English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was sympathetic but promised little hope of British intervention, and in the end the efforts of the LSCHA had no effect in changing the course of the war.
In 1864, Rose boarded the blockade runner Condor with dispatches for the Confederacy and $2000.00 in gold (1864 dollars) which she kept on her person at all times. Unfortunately the Condor ran aground at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina while being pursued by the Union gunboat USS Niphon. Fearing capture and imprisonment, Greenhow fled the grounded ship in a small boat, but a wave capsized it and Greenhow drowned, weighed down by the gold sewn into her underclothes and hung around her neck.
Rose was buried with full military honors in the Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag and carried by Confederate troops. The marker for her grave, a marble cross, bears the epitaph, “Mrs. Rose O’N. Greenhow, a bearer of dispatchs [sic] to the Confederate Government.”
Rose’s story is part of my book, The Colonel and the Vicar, available on Amazon.com.