Born in 1817 in County, Maryland, Rose O’Neal married the wealthy Virginian Dr. Robert Greenhow and, living in Washington, DC, rose to prominence as a leading socialite. Known as “Wild Rose”, she had eight children, only to be widowed in 1850.
Born in 1817 in In her role as popular hostess, Mrs. Greenhow developed many political and military contacts, and when the American Civil War erupted, she was uniquely positioned to serve either North or South as a spy. Rose chose the Confederacy, and began supplying her southern contacts with important obtained from her friends allied with the Union.
Among her greatest accomplishments was the ten-word secret message she sent to General Pierre G.T. Beauregard which ultimately gave him the crucial information needed to win the initial battle of the war, First Bull Run (Manassas). Jefferson Davis himself credited her with the victory.
Allan Pinkerton, head of the detective agency and of the federal government’s new secret service, became suspicious of Greenhow, and had her arrested and her home searched in August. Enough evidence was found to warrant placing her under house arrest. Even under guard and confinement she still managed to gather and pass information to the Confederate espionage network, using such techniques as secreting messages within the hair of her visitors. Rose was then imprisoned with her young daughter, also named Rose, at the Old Capital Prison.
Nevertheless, her success at espionage continued. Finally, she was exiled to the Confederate states where she was received warmly by President Davis and given an official mission, to tour England and France as a propagandist for the Confederate cause. While in London, Mrs Greenhow published her memoirs, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which became a best seller.
During the course of her travels was received by many members of the nobility, including Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, and even became engaged to the Second Earl Granville.
In 1864, after a year abroad, she boarded the Condor, a British blockade-runner, to sail back home. Just before reaching her destination, the vessel foundered during a storm near Wilmington, North Carolina. In order to avoid the Union gunboat that pursued her ship, Rose fled in rowboat, but the little boat capsized and, dragged under by the weight of the gold she received in royalties for her book, she drowned.
In October 1864, Rose was buried with full military honors in the Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington. Her coffin was wrapped in the Confederate flag and carried by Confederate troops. The marker for her grave, a marble cross, bears the epitaph, “Mrs. Rose O’N. Greenhow, a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government.