Rose O'Neal Greenhow & Marie Antoinette's BosomMonday, September 15, 2014
Rose O’Neal Greenhow, daughter of an aristocratic Maryland family, kin of the Lees, Randolphs and Calverts, was the Washington widow of Dr. Robert Greenhow, a scholarly Virginia lawyer and State Department official. Through him - and her own irresistible charms – she gained many friends, the overwhelming majority of them male and of considerable consequence in the government of the United States. “I am a Southern woman,” she later wrote, “born with revolutionary blood in my veins.” A protégé of John C. Calhoun, she became an astoundingly active Confederate spy during the opening months of the war, exploiting her highly placed friends and seducing government and Army officials, ranging from War Department clerks to a United States senator, extracting from them a wealth of military secrets.
In a published memoir, she claims to have supplied Southern military leaders with nothing less than a steady stream of “verbatim” cabinet reports. Whether this is an exaggeration or not, the information Rose Greenhow communicated on the eve of the First Manassas, which included reports on Federal troop moments and strength, was useful enough to merit a note from Confederate spymaster Thomas Jordan on July 23, 1861: “Our President and our General direct me to thank you. The Confederacy owes you a debt.”
Soon after First Manassas, Rose was apprehended by private detective turned Federal agent, Allan J. Pinkerton. At first she was placed under house arrest, and, in a “most bravely indelicate” letter she sent to friends in South Carolina (which diarist Mary Chesnut read on December 5, 1861), she lavishly detailed the treatment to which she was subjected:
She wants us to know how her delicacy was shocked and outraged [Chesnut wrote in her diary]. That could be done only by most plain-spoken revelations. For eight days she was kept in full sight of men – her rooms wide open – and sleepless sentinels watching by day and night. Soldiers tramping – looking in at her leisurely by way of amusement.
Beautiful as she is, at her time of life few women like all they mysteries of their toilette laid bare to the public eye.
She says she was worse used than Marie Antoinette when they snatched a letter from the poor queen’s bosom.
Later, she was moved, with her youngest daughter, called Little Rose, to Old Capitol Prison, where Mathew B. Brady or an assistant took this daguerreotype. Even after her incarceration, Rose continued to pass messages through her window – until her jailer boarded it up. Rose Greenhow was later “paroled” to the South and traveled to Europe, where she published a best-selling memoir. On her return to the Confederacy, while running a Union blockade, she was drowned at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
My Brother's Face - Portraits of the Civil War
In Photographs, Diaries, and Letters
Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod
Foreward by Brian C. Pohanka
The excerpt and picture above come from one of my favourite books. I have been interested in the American Civil War since sometime around 1951 I saw an American Heritage book at the Lincoln Library in Buenos Aires. The book had photographs by Mathew B. Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner. It struck me that these men, who looked contemporary had long ago died. It was my first awareness of death.