"Hardtack and Hard Times":Rose Greenhow

Ned Jilton • Nov 11, 2013 at 12:01 AM

Many blame the Union army loss at the Battle of First Manassas on Gen. Stonewall Jackson. If you really want to know who to blame, blame a woman.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, born Maria Rosetta O’Neal, grew up in Maryland until the age of four when her father was killed by his slaves. After that she was invited to live with her aunt Maria Ann Hill in Washington D.C.

Growing up in her aunt Hill’s boarding house gave her the opportunity to meet important figures in the Washington area including Dr. Robert Greenhow whom she married in the 1830’s.

Unfortunately Dr. Greenhow died a few years later leaving Rose a widow with children. Still she mingled with people in prominent circles of the nation’s capitol.

Baltimore newspaper columnist, Carrol Dulaney, wrote of Greenhow, “During the Buchanan administration, Mrs. Greenhow was one of the social leaders of Washington. A widow, beautiful, accomplished, wealthy and noted for her wit, her home was a rendezvous for those prominent in official life. President Buchanan was a close friend and so was William H. Seward, then Senator from New York and later Lincoln’s Secretary of State. Her niece, a granddaughter of Dolly Madison, was the wife of Stephen A. Douglas.”

It was during this time that Mrs. Greenhow became acquainted with John C. Calhoun. The South Carolina politician fired her passion for the Southern cause. When the war started Greenhow became a Confederate spy.

Through her contacts in Washington, Greenhow was able to get the plans of the Union army advance to Manassas railroad junction and smuggle them through the lines to Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. If it were not for the timely arrival of this information, Stonewall Jackson and his troops would have been in the Shenandoah Valley when the battle was fought and history would be very different. Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself credited Greenhow’s information for the victory.

Greenhow’s activities had not gone unnoticed in Washington and in August of 1862 she was arrested by Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous detective agency, and along with her 8 year-old daughter eventually confined in the old Capitol Prison.

Greenhow’s treatment in prison was not the best as she stated in a letter to the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, part of which reads.

“Sir, For nearly three months I have been confined, a close prisoner, shut out from air and exercise, and denied all communication with family and friends. Patience is said to be a great virtue and I have practiced it to my utmost capacity of endurance.”

“I therefore most respectfully submit, that on Friday, August 23, without warrant or other show of authority, I was arrested by the Detective Police and my house taken in charge by them; that all my private letters, and my papers of a life time, were read and examined by them; that every law of decency was violated in the search of my house and person, and the surveillance over me.”

“It is my sad experience to record even more revolting outrages than that, for during the first days of my imprisonment, whatever necessity forced me to seek my chamber, a detective stood sentinel at the open door. And thus for a period of seven days, I, with my little child, was placed absolutely at the mercy of men without character or responsibility; that during the first evening, a portion of these men became brutally drunk, and boasted in my hearing of the "nice times" they expected to have with the female prisoners.”

Later in her letter Greenhow stated, “You have held me, sir, to a man's accountability, and I therefore claim the right to speak on subjects usually considered beyond a woman's ken, and which you may class as "errors of opinion." I offer no excuse for this long digression, as a three months' imprisonment , without formula of law, gives me authority for occupying even the precious moments of a Secretary of State. My object is to call your attention to the fact: that during this long imprisonment, I am yet ignorant of the causes of my arrest; that my house has been seized and converted into a prison by the Government; that the valuable furniture it contained has been abused and destroyed; that during some periods of my imprisonment I have suffered greatly for want of proper and sufficient food.”

Greenhow was eventually tried for treason and was “exiled” with her daughter to the South where she was greeted as a hero in Richmond, VA. President Davis giving her a personal welcome then sent her on a new mission, this time in Europe.

Greenhow wrote a letter from Charleston, SC, to President Davis just before she boarded the boat to France and England which in part read.

“My Dear Sir: In a few hours I shall be aboard the Phantom, the tide being now favorable. Tonight Captain Porter intends to make the attempt to get out. Of course, I am anxious, the Yankees are reported as being unusually vigilant, a double line of blockaders block the way. Still, I am not daunted and hope, by the blessing of Providence, to get out in safety. I think I should brave any fate rather than remain here two days longer. It is the hottest and most disagreeable place in the world and the very atmosphere seems laden with disease. The better class of the inhabitants have left the city. A great many people are here for the purpose of running the blockade and am surprised to see among the number so many men who ought to be in the army. And now, my dear sir, I must say goodbye. I can never sufficiently thank you for your goodness to me. May He ever guard you, sir, and keep you in health, is my most fervent prayer.”

Greenhow spent a year traveling as an unofficial ambassador of the Southern cause through France and England where she meet with Queen Victoria. During her time in London she wrote her memoirs, “My Imprisonment; or, The First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington” which sold well, garnering needed gold for the Confederate cause.

In September of 1864, Greenhow boarded the blockade runner Condor, a new three-funnel model steamship, and headed back to America with gold for the Confederate treasury and urgent dispatches for President Davis.

On October 1, The USS Niphon intercepted the Condor off the coast of North Carolina and opened fire, driving the Condor aground on New Inlet Bar. While the cannons of Fort Fisher held off the Niphon Greenhow attempted to escape with the dispatches and gold in a rowboat only to have the boat capsize in the heavy surf. Weighted down by the gold for the Confederate treasury, she was unable to make it ashore.

The next day Greenhow’s body was found on shore. Mrs. Daisy Chaffee Lamb, wife of Col. William Lamb commander of Fort Fisher whose guns held off the Niphon, helped prepare her for burial. Greenhow was buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, NC, wrapped in a Confederate flag.

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