Rebel Rose,' A Spy of Grande Dame
By Michael Farquhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2000; Page A01
Allan Pinkerton found himself in an awkward position outside the home
of Rose O'Neal Greenhow, one of Washington's most prominent hostesses.
The head of the famed detective agency--imported from Chicago by the
Union to track and
capture rebel subversives operating around the capital--stood barefoot
in the pouring rain, balancing himself on the shoulders of two
associates, trying to see and
hear what he could through a second-story parlor window.
American counterespionage was in its infancy in 1861, but Pinkerton's
quarry was no beginner. From her home on 16th Street NW, noted by
Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard as being "within easy rifle-range of
the White House," Greenhow was running a spy ring meant to undermine
the Union war effort. "To this end," she later wrote, "I employed every
capacity with which
God had endowed me, and the result was far more successful than my
hopes could have flattered me to expect."
While she may have overestimated her achievements, her efforts on
behalf of the South were relentless. "She did a better job than most in
infiltrating the political and military elite of Washington," says
Tyler Anbinder, associate professor
of history at George Washington University. "She flattered men into
Washington has seen plenty of covert operatives, as well as highly
connected grand dames, but "The Rebel Rose," as Greenhow was sometimes
called, managed to unite the two professions in herself, and, in the
process, added a unique chapter to the city's long history of deeply
held Southern sympathies.
She came to town as a young girl, sent from Rockville to live at the
Old Capitol with an aunt who ran an inn there. The building, on the
site now occupied by the Supreme Court, was constructed as a temporary
home for Congress after the original Capitol was burned during the War
of 1812. Years later, after the Old Capitol was converted to a prison
during the Civil War, Greenhowwould reside there again--this time as
one of the Union's more celebrated captives.
With her charm, intellect and ambition, as well as through her husband,
Robert, a State Department official whom she married in 1835, Rose
Greenhow came to know virtually everyone of importance in Washington.
Dolley Madison, Daniel
Webster and President James Buchanan were among her many friends and
intimates. No one was closer, however, than John C. Calhoun, the
powerful statesman from South Carolina who variously served as senator,
secretary of state and vice president. As one of the great intellectual
progenitors of the Southern Confederacy, he won Greenhow's eternal
admiration and devotion.
"I am a Southern woman," she wrote, "born with revolutionary blood in
my veins, and my first crude ideas on State and Federal matters
received consistency and shape from the best and wisest man of this
As her idol suffered through his final illness at the Old Capitol in
1850, Greenhow was in constant attendance. Calhoun's memory remained
sacred to her, and fueled her increasingly fanatic devotion to the
Southern cause as Civil War approached.
An uncomfortable chill swept through one of her dinner parties in the
winter of 1859 when Abigail Adams, wife of presidential scion Charles
Francis Adams, professed sympathy and admiration for the radical
abolitionist John Brown, who had recently been hanged. With sectional
feeling festering just below the surface, polite society in Washington
assiduously avoided the topic of John Brown as simply too hot for
discussion. Greenhow, however, had no hesitation in challenging Adams.
"I have no sympathy for John Brown," she snapped. "He was a traitor,
and met a traitor's doom." While Greenhow later professed to have
regretted this breach of gracious hostessing, she would never temper or
compromise her fierce Southern loyalties.
It was this fervor--along with her many intimate connections in the
capital--that made Greenhow, now a 44-year-old widow, a prime rebel
recruit when the Civil War finally broke out in April 1861. She proved
her worth as a spy in a
very short time, supplying to Gen. Beauregard the information that
Federal troops would be advancing on Manassas in mid-July.
Her courier, a young woman named Betty Duvall, rode out of Washington
by way of the Chain Bridge dressed as a country girl. Meeting Gen.
Milledge L. Bonham at the Fairfax County Courthouse, Duvall advised him
that she had an urgent message for Gen. Beauregard. "Upon my announcing
that I would have it faithfully forwarded at once," Bonham later
recalled, "she took out her tucking comb and let fall the longest and
most beautiful roll of hair I have ever seen. She took then from the
back of her head, where it had been safely tied, a small package, not
larger than a silver dollar, sewed up in silk." As author Ishbel Ross
noted in the book "Rebel Rose," "Greenhow had ciphered the message.
Greenhow had sewn it in silk. Greenhow had obtained the information."
Though historians debate the ultimate impact of her messages on the
First Battle of Bull Run, both Beauregard and Confederate President
Jefferson Davis honored her for her contribution to the rout of the
Northern army in this opening
conflict of the Civil War. "Had she not leaked word [of the Northern
advance], I don't think anything would have happened differently," says
explaining that Beauregard had a number of sources of information, "but
it served to embarrass the
North that a woman could obtain such sensitive information."
Indeed Greenhow's covert activities did attract unfavorable attention
in Washington, and soon enough Allan Pinkerton was peeping into her
windows. "She has made use of whoever and whatever she could as mediums
to carry out her unholy purposes," the detective reported with just a
hint of hyperbole. "She has not used her powers in vain among the
officers of the Army, not a few of whom she has robbed of patriotic
hearts and transformed them into sympathizers with the enemies of the
country which made them all they were. . . . With her as with other
traitors she has been most unscrupulous in the use of means. Nothing
has been too sacred for her appropriation so as by its use she might
hope to accomplish her treasonable ends."
Despite the fact that she was being watched, and well knew it, Greenhow
continued to operate with bold defiance. She soon found herself under
arrest. "I have no power to resist you," she declared grandly after
challenging Pinkerton's authority to seize her, "but had I been inside
of my house, I would have killed one of you before I had submitted to
this illegal process." The dramatic flair she demonstrated when
captured would characterize much of her time in captivity.
Under house arrest, she grew indignant that her home was being
ransacked in the search for incriminating evidence, and that she was
subject to constant surveillance. "She wants us to know how her
delicacy was shocked and outraged," Civil
War diarist Mary Chestnut recorded. "That could be done only by most
plainspoken revelations. For eight days she was kept in full sight of
rooms wide open--and sleepless sentinels watching by day and by night.
Soldiers tramping--looking in at her leisurely by way of amusement. . .
. She says she was worse used than Marie Antoinette when they snatched
a letter from the poor queen's bosom."
Other female prisoners were sent to Fort Greenhow, as Rose's home came
to be known--most of them "of the lowest class," as she called them.
During her home confinement, Greenhow managed to continue her secret
with the South. A letter she had sent to Secretary of State William H.
Seward complaining of her mistreatment, in fact, was published in a
Because of all the leaks, Fort Greenhow was closed in early 1862, and
Rose was transferred to the Old Capitol Prison, along with her
8-year-old daughter, Little Rose. Ironically enough, they were confined
in the very same room in which Greenhow had comforted her dying hero,
Sen. Calhoun, more than a decade earlier. It was with this
imprisonment that Rose was of greatest service to the
South, according to Princeton University's James McPherson, far more
than the information she secretly provided. "They made her a martyr in
the eyes of the
Southern people," McPherson says. "The brutal Yankees who would
imprison a mother and child provided ammunition for the Confederate
propaganda mills." In the
squalid--yet hardly brutal--confines of the Old Capitol, Greenhow
played the role of martyr for all it was worth. Mary Chestnut commented
sardonically on this in her
diary, while a fellow prisoner named Augusta Morris wrote, "Greenhow
enjoys herself amazingly."
In March 1862, Greenhow was given a hearing on the charges of
espionage. The prisoner was defiant throughout. "If I gave the
information you say I have," she taunted, "I must have got it from
sources that were in the confidence
of the government. . . . If Mr. Lincoln's friends will pour into my ear
such important information, am I to be held responsible for all
that?" With the hearing clearly not accomplishing anything--and a
thought to be too incendiary--the judge decided it would be best to
exile the prisoner from Washington, sending her south with the pledge
not to return during the
course of the war. She left the Old Capitol Prison draped in a
Confederate flag, and was greeted as a hero by the elite in Richmond
when she later arrived there.
"Had Madame Greenhow been sent South immediately after her arrest,"
opined the New York Times, "we should have heard no more of the deeds
of Secesh women which she has made the fashion."
After a brief stay in Richmond, Greenhow was sent to Europe to generate
vitally needed support for the Confederacy. Napoleon III and Queen
Victoria both received her, and her book, "My Imprisonment and the
First Year of Abolition
Rule at Washington," was published in Britain and became a bestseller
Tragedy struck, however, as Greenhow returned home in 1864. Her ship
ran aground along the North Carolina coast, and Rose, fearing capture
by Union ships blockading the area, demanded that she be taken ashore
in a smaller boat. The ship's captain reluctantly agreed to let her go,
despite a raging
storm, and she carried with her several small mailbags, presumed to be
secret dispatches from Europe, as well as a large quantity of gold. The
little boat capsized
in the darkness and rough surf, though, and Rose Greenhow was lost. Her
body subsequently washed ashore and was found by a Confederate soldier,
the gold and snatched it before pushing the body back into the water.
When the corpse was rediscovered and identified, the soldier was
reportedly overwhelmed by
guilt and returned the gold.
Rose O'Neal Greenhow was buried with full Confederate military honors
in Wilmington, N.C. The inscription on her tomb reads in part: "A
bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government." "Her death," wrote
Ishbel Ross, "had
the epic touch in which she herself would have gloried."
By Michael Farquhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2000; Page A01