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Portrait of Rose O'Neal Greenhow
Rose O'Neal Greenhow. My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington. London : R. Bentley, 1863.

From Captivity to Capsized: Wild Rose O’Neal Greenhow

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Among many fascinating books related to the Civil War, the Library of Congress also holds a demurely-bound, water-damaged volume inscribed by its author. This volume, the autobiography of Confederate spy and Maryland native Rose O’Neal Greenhow (1815-1864), documents her exploits as a persistent thorn in the side of President Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause.

Portrait of Rose O'Neal Greenhow
Rose O’Neal Greenhow. My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington. London : R. Bentley, 1863. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

Rose first arrived in Washington, D.C. as a young woman. She resided with her aunt, who ran a fashionable boarding house located near the Executive Mansion. Popular with politicians and other government workers, this residence placed Rose in close contact with well-known and respected political movers and shakers of the time. “Wild Rose,” as she was known from an early age, quickly became a favorite amongst the upper crust of Washington society, and, at the age 26, she met and married Dr. Robert Greenhow, librarian and chief translator of the Department of State from 1831-1850. The couple had four daughters and traveled west together, eventually settling in San Francisco. When Robert died in an accident in 1854, Rose and her youngest daughter (also named Rose) moved back to the District of Columbia.

A wealthy, well-connected widow, Rose watched as tensions between North and South inched ever closer to war. Staunchly a Confederate sympathizer (one of her closest confidents and mentors was John C. Calhoun), Rose began to use her privileged access to political information to serve the South, thereby becoming the first Confederate secret agent in Washington. In 1861, she sent information about the movement of Union troops to General Beauregard allowing him to prepare for an attack in Virginia. Later, Jefferson Davis (1808-89) himself sent word that if not for Rose’s actions, the Confederate army would not have won what became known as the Battle of Bull Run.

Rose continued to gather information and send news secretly to the South. By August of 1861 her actions earned her the attention of Allan Pinkerton (1819-84), chief of intelligence for Union army commander George McClellan (1826 – 85). Pinkerton put Rose and her daughter (then just 8 years old) on house arrest, eventually moving other prisoners into the house as well, earning it the nickname “Fort Greenhow.” Though she was closely watched and kept on house arrest, Rose still managed to send news to her Southern friends. It was then that Rose and her daughter, “Little Rose,” were relocated to the Old Capitol Prison, where they remained for several months. The hunter-and-hunted dynamic of Pinkerton and Greenhow, and Greenhow’s persistent clandestine intelligence work, was highly dramatized in the 1990 Christopher Reeve film The Rose and the Jackal.

photograph of Rose Greenhow and her daughter Rose at the Old Capitol jail
Brady, Mathew B., approximately 1823-1896, photographer. Mrs. Greenhow and daughter, imprisoned in the Old Capitol, Washington, D.C. [Washington, D.C.] : [M.B. Brady], [1862]. Prints & Photographs Division.
Even from within the prison, Rose continued to find ways of communicating with her friends outside, mostly through ciphers and codes. In 1862, frustrated by her relentless ability to navigate around the restrictions of her captivity, Abraham Lincoln banished Rose to the South, and prohibited her from returning to Washington for the duration of the war.

Rose and her daughter traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where Rose was received as a hero. Jefferson Davis enlisted her help in winning the support of England and France for the Confederate cause. In the autumn of 1863 the two Roses boarded a ship, ran the blockade at Wilmington, North Carolina, and sailed to England. There, Rose spent a year meeting leaders and members of the upper classes, attempting to persuade them to actively give support to the Confederacy. During this time, Rose also wrote and published her autobiography, My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington.

By 1864, having done her best to manage diplomatic negotiations with England and France, Rose prepared for her return to America. She left Little Rose behind in Paris to continue her education. It was the last time they saw one another. In the fall of that year, her ship ran aground while running the blockade outside the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Union troops moved in to capture those on board. Refusing repeated captivity, Rose requisitioned a rowboat and attempted an escape to shore. The rowboat overturned, and Rose drowned. When her body washed ashore days later, she was buried with full military honors in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.

cover of Rose Greenhow's autobiography
Rose O’Neal Greenhow. My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington. London : R. Bentley, 1863. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 

The reticule (a woman’s handbag) in which Rose carried her valuables on her doomed attempt at escape was also recovered with her body. Among its contents of personal papers, official documents, and a few thousand dollars in gold (earned from the sale of her book and which she intended on donating to the Confederate cause)– a copy of her autobiography, inscribed to her daughter. This water-damaged and highly personal copy was later donated to the Library of Congress, where it is housed today in the the city where Rose first gained notoriety.

Inscription by Rose Greenhow to her daughter
Inscription by Rose Greenhow to her daughter in her work, My imprisonment and the first year of abolition rule at Washington. London : R. Bentley, 1863. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. 


The inscription reads:

Rose O’N Greenhow from her Mother
London Nov. 1st 1863

You have shared the hardships and indignities of my prison life, my darling, and suffered all the evils which a vulgar despotism could inflict. Let the memory of that never pass from your mind, else you may be inclined to forget how merciful Providence has been in severing us from such a people.

Rose O’N. Greenhow

Though this note is often mentioned in articles about Rose, there remains some confusion about what happened to the items in Rose’s reticule, and what happened to Little Rose upon the death of her mother. Luckily, the Rare Book Division’s copy of the autobiography provides some clarity. Inside the book is a typed letter to the Librarian of Congress, explaining this special donation to the Nation’s Library. The letter explains that the items in Rose’s reticule were sent to Little Rose, who was then still in school in Paris, and goes on to illuminate the further travels of the book:

Little Rose married Major General Duval of the United States Army, and on her death in Nice, France, the book came into the possession of her only daughter, Mrs. Louis E. Marie, of Point Loma, California, who very kindly gave it to me.

The donor and author of the letter, David Rankin Barbee (1874-1958), was a journalist and public relations writer for the FDR administration. After retirement, he became a well-known author of American histories. His focus was on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and all events leading-up to the tragedy, and he traced the movements of people associated with those events. Barbee’s papers contain his research on Rose O’Neal Greenhow (including some of her letters), and it is likely this research that put him in touch with Rose’s descendants. Barbee, understanding this significance of this volume, wrote to Rose’s granddaughter promising to donate it to the Library of Congress. For contemporary readers, Greenhow’s My Imprisonment details how North and South waged war not only on battlefields but in the streets and parlors of the nation’s capitol.



David Rankin Barbee Papers, GTM-GAMMS145, Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C..

James Dodson Barbee and David Rankin Barbee papers, 1784-1953. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Kinchen, Oscar A. Women who Spied for the Blue and the Gray. Philadelphia, PA: Dorrance, 1972.

Ross, Ishbel. Rebel Rose: Life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1954.

Seized correspondence of Rose O’Neal Greenhow. National Archives.


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