Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Rebel Spy

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Maria Rosetta Greenhow (O'Neale)

Also Known As: "Rose O'Neale", "Rose Greenhow"
Birthplace: Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, United States
Death: September 30, 1864 (46-47)
Cape Fear River off Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina, United States (drowned while attempting escape from Union gunboat with bag of gold around her neck)
Place of Burial: Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of John O'Neal and Eliza Henrietta O'Neal
Wife of Dr. Robert Greenhow
Fiancée of Granville George Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville
Mother of Florence Virginia Moore; Gertrude Livingstone Greenhow; Leila Cravens; Alice Rose Greenhow; Robert Greenhow, Jr. and 3 others
Sister of Susannah Henrietta O'Neale; Eleanor Elizabeth Cutts; Mary Ann O'Neal and John Eliza O'Neale

Occupation: Confederate spy
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Rebel Spy

Rose O'Neal Greenhow (1817–October 1, 1864) was a renowned Confederate spy. As a leader in Washington, D.C. society during the period prior to the American 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 Confederacy at the start of the war.

Life prior to the Civil War

Rose Greenhow was born in 1817 in Port Tobacco, Maryland, as Maria Rosetta O'Neal. Her father, John O'Neal, was supposedly murdered by one of his slaves in 1817. His widow, Eliza O'Neal, was left with four daughters and a cash-poor farm to manage. Orphaned as a child, Greenhow was invited to live with her aunt in Washington, D.C. as a teenager. Her aunt, Maria Ann Hill, ran a stylish boarding house at the Old Capitol building, and Rose was introduced to important figures in the Washington area. When she was a young woman, Rose was considered beautiful, educated, loyal, compassionate, and refined. Her olive skin and rosy complexion earned her the nickname "Wild Rose."

Courtship and Marriage

In the 1830s, she met Dr. Robert Greenhow. Their courtship was well received by the society of Washington, D.C., especially by famed society matron Dolley Madison, who gave her blessing to the couple.. Robert and Rose's courtship lasted 4 years. On a lovely May morning in 1835 he took her to the old family parish church at Rockville and they were married. The officiating minister was Rev. Dr. Matthews, pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Washington.

Robert Greenhow taught Rose history and gave her access to documents of the state through his work in the state department. Through him she was able to cultivate friendships with men highly placed in Washington.

The Greenhows had eight children: First came Florence, Gertrude and Leila. Then came four children who would never make it through infancy, Alice Rose, Robert, Jr.; Morgan Lewis and Hannah. The last child and Rose's constant companion and namesake was named Rose O'Neal Greenhow and given her mother's maiden name as a middle name. She is the little rebel known affectionately as "Little Rose".

Tragedy struck the family when Robert Greenhow died soon after little Rose's birth. After his death, Rose saw her oldest child Florence marry and move west, and later, just before the Civil War,Gertrude, the second daughter, died.

Espionage during the Civil War

Rose'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. Rose's loyalty to the Confederacy 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, Rose passed secret messages to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard containing critical information regarding the First Battle of Manassas and the plans of Union General Irvin McDowell. Assisting in her conspiracy were pro-Confederate members of Congress, Union officers, and her dentist, Aaron Van Camp. Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited Rose Greenhow's information with securing victory at Manassas for the Confederate Army over the Union Army.


Knowing that many in Washington suspected her of spying for the Confederacy, Rose feared for her remaining family's safety and sent her daughter Leila west to live with her other daughter Florence and son-in-law, Seymour Treadwell Moore. Moore was a captain in the Union Army.

On August 23, 1861, Allan Pinkerton, head of the recently-formed Secret Service, apprehended Rose Greenhow and placed her under house arrest. Other leaked information was traced back to her 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, Rose Greenhow was transferred to Old Capitol Prison. Her eight-year-old daughter "Little Rose," was permitted to remain with her. She continued to pass along messages in unusual ways while imprisoned. For example, she was said to have sent one message concealed within a woman visitor's bun of hair. Passers-by could see Rose's window from the street. The position of the blinds and number of candles burning in the window had special meaning to the "little birdies" passing by. Rose also, on one occasion, flew the Confederate Flag from her prison window.

International acclaim

On May 31, 1862, Rose Greenhow and her daughter were released from prison. Deported to Richmond, Virginia, she was hailed as a heroine by Southerners. Jefferson Davis welcomed her home and soon enlisted her as a courier to Europe. From 1863 to 1864, she 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, she was received in the court of Napoleon III at the Tuileries. In Britain, she had an audience with Queen Victoria and became engaged to Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville. Two months after arriving in London, Rose Greenhow wrote her memoirs, titled My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which sold well in Britain. The details of her mission to Europe are recorded in her personal diaries, dated August 5, 1863, to August 10, 1864.


In September 1864, Rose Greenhow left Europe to return to the Confederate States, 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, USS Niphon, had been pursuing the ship. Fearing capture and reimprisonment, Rose fled the grounded Condor by rowboat. The rowboat was capsized by a wave, and Greenhow, weighed down with $2,000 worth of gold in a bag around her neck from her memoir royalties intended for the Confederate treasury, drowned.

When Greenhow's body was recovered from the water near Wilmington, North Carolina, searchers found a copy of her book "Imprisonment" hidden on her person. There was a note inside the book, which was meant for her daughter, Little Rose. The note read:

London, Nov 1st 1863 You have shared the hardships and indignity of my prison life, my darling; And suffered all that evil which a vulgar despotism could inflict. Let the memory of that period never pass from your mind; Else you may be inclined to forget how merciful Providence has been in seizing us from such a people. Rose O'Neal Greenhow.

In October 1864, Rose O'Neale Greenhow received a full military burial in Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag; her epitaph reads: Mrs. Rose O'N. Greenhow, a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government. To this day, annual ceremonies are held graveside to honor Rose and her contributions to the Confederate cause.

References and further reading:

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  • Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Rose O'Neal Greenhow
  • Blackman, Ann, Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-6118-0.
  • Ross, Ishbel, Rebel Rose. St. Simon's Island, Georgia: Mockingbird Books, 1973. ISBN 54-8986. Farquhar, Michael, "'Rebel Rose,' A Spy of Grande Dame Proportions." Washington Post. September 18, 2000.[1]
  • Greenhow, Rose O'Neal, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, London: Richard Bentley, 1863.[2] (full text)
  • Updated from Find A Grave Memorial via Dr Robert Greenhow by SmartCopy: Aug 1 2015, 18:19:39 UTC
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Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Rebel Spy's Timeline

Port Tobacco, Charles County, Maryland, United States
February 29, 1836
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
April 2, 1853
September 30, 1864
Age 47
Cape Fear River off Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina, United States