By Kristi Waterworth
The American Civil War was the bloodiest conflict that The United States of America has ever known; no one was left untouched as the battles, both moral and military, raged throughout the land. The Civil War was the first total war Americans experienced -- every man, woman and child was forced to take a side. Although today it’s hard to fully understand why anyone would defend the South, at the time the people of the South believed their way of life was being threatened and would be irrevocably changed. Fear of industrial collapse and abject poverty pushed average people to take extraordinary risks in order to defend their families and property.
One such woman was Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a widow and mother of four by the beginning of
Rose wasn’t a trained spy, but she had enough connections in Washington that information about troop movements and vital shipments fell into her lap easily. Captain Thomas Jordan, a Southern sympathizer, taught her the basics of cryptography before leaving the U.S. Army for the Confederacy. Armed with this knowledge, Rose re-entered the Washington social scene, often entertaining valuable Union officers in her home and probing them for information.
The First Battle of Bull Run might have been the end of the Confederacy, had Rose not intervened. The Confederate army was still very green and not ready for a full battle, but they had little choice as the Union army drew near. Information gathered by Rose allowed General Beauregard to call for reinforcements in time to turn the tide of that battle and set the tone of the war.
The Union had expected to easily defeat the Confederates, but the First Battle of Bull Run would prove to be the biggest, bloodiest skirmish to that point in American history. For the South, it was a huge victory that finally lent credence to their cause. No longer would the Union consider the rebels to be merely inconvenient and annoying, the armies of the South were now a major threat to the future of the United States.
A month after Bull Run, in August 1861, Rose would be arrested for her part in the Confederate victory. After several months in a filthy Union prison, Rose was brought in front of a panel who would decide what to do with her. Technically, she was guilty of treason, a hanging offense, but President Lincoln was afraid if he hung this woman, she would become a martyr for the Southern cause. Instead, he allowed her to choose to remain in the Union after swearing an oath of allegiance or be sent to the South. In May 1862, she was finally sent to Richmond, Virginia.
Once there, Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, welcomed Rose like a native daughter and appointed her as an emissary to Europe. In 1863, Rose left for London, where she published memoirs of her Union imprisonment, entitled My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule. The book was a huge success in Europe, opening social and political doors for her in both England and France. Although these European socialites were sympathetic to the Southern cause, they refused to get involved in what they believed to be a wholly internal affair of the United States.
In 1864, Rose headed back to Richmond on the blockade runner CSS Condor. The ship ran aground in stormy weather, prompting Rose to man a lifeboat and flee. Sadly, her little boat capsized in the storm and she drowned. When her body was recovered, it became evident why – she had sewn the gold she had managed to raise for the Confederacy in Europe into her clothing. The sheer weight of the $2,000 in coins she so carefully protected had dragged her below the choppy water to her death.
Rose was buried with full Confederate military honors in October 1864 at Oakdale Cemetery near Wilmington, North Carolina. Every year, she’s honored with a ceremony that remembers her relentless dedication to the Southern cause.