Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Every Rose has its Thorn

At Right: Rose Greenhow and her daughter "Little Rose" at the Old Capitol Prison.

From her home on 16th Street near St. John’s Episcopal Church, Rose O’Neale Greenhow was perfectly situated as a spy for the Confederacy. Known as the Wild Rose, the widow was both socialite and seductress, playing host to a variety of politicians including President James Buchanan and William Seward.

After South Carolina’s succession in 1861 Greenhow was contacted by a U.S. Army captain who intended to switch sides and fight for his native Virginia. Realizing what great influence Rose Greenhow held in Washington society, the captain taught her simple code and established a means of communicating with her through a network of Southern sympathizers.

The Wild Rose found an informative paramour in abolitionist Henry D. Wilson*, a Senator from Massachusetts and Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee. A married man, Senator Wilson would sign his love letters to Greenhow as “H” (the letters would say such scandalous things as, “If fate is not against you, I will be with you this night…My love is all”). Through “H” Greenhow gleaned intelligence on Union troop movements.

As Union and Confederate troops prepared for war, Greenhow sent a message to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, in which she passed along Union battle plans for the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. The message was delivered just days before the battle on July 9th, via another female spy who tucked the message into the bun of her hair and warned Beauregard that “McDowell has certainly been ordered to advance on the sixteenth. ROG.” For her service, Confederate President Jefferson Davis credited Greenhow with the victory at Bull Run.

Greenhow continued to send coded messages, but unfortunately the downside of being well-known is being well-known. She was soon suspected of espionage and was arrested by the Secret Service in August 1831. Ever determined, Greenhow continued to send her messages from the Old Capitol Prison (at the site of the present day Supreme Court) and later in her home under house arrest, through candles in the windows.

In May 1862, the Federals released Greenhow and deported her to Richmond, Virginia, where she was hailed as a heroine. Jefferson Davis soon dispatched Greenhow to Britain to drum up support for the Southern Cause. Returning to North Carolina in 1864, Rose Greenhow met a tragic end. The ship she had been travelling on had run aground near Cape Fear during a storm. Despite the raging storm, Greenhow demanded to be taken ashore in a rowboat. The boat capsized, and Greenhow drowned. Upon her body, recovered having been washed ashore, was a cipher used for one of her many correspondences. Wow, she was persistent!

*Some historians debate whether or not “H” stood for Henry Wilson or his secretary Horace White.

Sources: Ann Blackman, Wild Rose.

Ishbel Ross,
Rebel Rose.

1 comment:

  1. "its better to burn out than to fade away"