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Rose O’Neal Greenhow (1817–1864) and her daughter Rose

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was the Confederacy’s most celebrated female spy at the start of the Civil War. A popular Washington widow and hostess, Mrs. Greenhow moved easily in the social circles of the nation’s capital. Few were better connected than she when hostilities commenced in the spring of 1861. An ardent Southern sympathizer, she used her ample charms and guile to pass along to Confederate officials information on the defenses of Washington and Union troop movements. She is credited with alerting the rebels of enemy military operations just prior to the Battle of Manassas. The success of her clandestine activities can be gauged by the surveillance she received from the noted detective Allan Pinkerton. Although he put her under house arrest and ultimately had her confined in the Old Capitol Prison, Mrs. Greenhow was always considered a security risk, given her extensive social connections. Finally deported to the South in 1862, she acted as an unofficial Confederate emissary to England, where she wrote her memoirs, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. Her book cemented her exploits in the annals of Civil War lore and legend. On her return to America in 1864, she reached the coast of North Carolina, where her ship ran aground. She insisted upon going ashore in a small boat, which took on water and sank. “Wild Rose” drowned, allegedly weighted down by a leather purse filled with gold sovereigns, representing the royalties from her book. Her body washed ashore, and she was buried with military honors in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.

This photograph of Mrs. Greenhow with her daughter Rose was taken by Mathew Brady, or his operatives, at the Old Capitol Prison.

Mathew Brady Studio (active 1844–1883)
Albumen silver print, 1862
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


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