Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a widowed Washington socialite turned Confederate spy. While well known for her pro-states’ rights and slavery expansionist views, she also maintained friendly relationships with leaders from the North.
When war broke out, Col. Thomas Jordan and General Pierre G.T. Beauregard recruited Greenhow to lead a Confederate espionage ring. In July 1861, she provided Beauregard with details concerning the strength and route of Union forces headed towards Richmond. The information helped Beauregard secure a victory at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
Allan Pinkerton, the head of the Federal Secret Service, caught onto Greenhow’s activities and placed her under house arrest. This only forced her to get more creative in her system of communication. In January, 1862, she and her daughter were transferred to the Old Capitol Prison. During her time there, she still managed to relay messages to the South. In June 1862 the Federal government tried her and sent her to the South where she was welcomed as a hero and awarded $2,500 by President Jefferson Davis.
Davis sent her to Great Britain and France in 1863 to raise support for the Confederacy. Her return trip a year later was aboard the blockade-runner Condor, which ran aground near Fort Fisher. Greenhow was carrying dispatches for the Confederacy and $2,000 in coins, secured in a heavy purse worn around her neck. Fearing imprisonment, and contrary to the captain’s advice that the ship would rise with the tide, she fled in a lifeboat with five crew members to escort her ashore. The lifeboat capsized and she drowned, pulled under by the weight of the purse. Everyone else from the Condor escaped capture. Greenhow was buried with full military honors in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.
Fort Fisher state Historic Site is hosting a special 2nd Saturdays program on August 11. “Spies, Signals, and Secrets: Civil War Communication” includes a presentation about Rose Greenhow, plus coding activities, signal flag demonstrations, and tours by costumed interpreters. The visitor center includes Greenhow in their interpretive panels. The state archives houses Greenhow’s European diary and a cipher code that were among her possessions aboard the blockade runner.