Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Women at Sea: Rebel Rose

On Monday, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon tweeted about the death of today's angel in the home turned intelligencer. Elizabeth's blog, Scandalous Women, deals with ladies just like Rose O'Neal Greenhow and is well worth checking into. The experience was serendipitous for me as I was just finishing Ann Blackman's excellent book on the same subject Wild Rose: Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Civil War Spy. Though the lady was no seaman, she did cross the Atlantic in the service of her beloved Confederacy and she died - much like Margaret Fuller had a decade before - in the arms of the briny deep.

Rose O'Neal was born in Port Tobacco, Maryland just after the War of 1812, probably in 1817. Her given name was Maria Rosetta and her mother, Eliza, became a widow the same year little Rose was born. It is possible that Rose was orphaned or that her mother simply could not keep the family in tact after the death of John O'Neal. Either way, Rose was sent to Washington D.C. to lodge with and probably work for an aunt who ran an upscale inn at the Old Capitol building.

The Old Capitol had been a temporary home for Congress after the British burned most of Washington down. It was spacious, well appointed, and apparently a hub for the glitterati of Washington even after Congress moved on to their new digs.Growing up, Rose would meet Dolley Madison, the charming widow of one of the United States' greatest presidents, James Madison. She became particularly enamored of John C. Calhoun, the secessionist from South Caroline who was once Andrew Jackson's Vice President.

Though Jackson once regretted not shooting Calhoun, Rose fell under the old man's spell. She caught every word that dripped from his lips and picked up a deep and abiding hatred for the politics of the north. Rose O'Neal helped nurse Calhoun on his deathbed in 1850 and this seemed to seal her resolve to see the south as an independent nation "free of Puritan tyranny".

In 1835 Rose, who had by then become known around town as "Wild Rose" (Blackman says more for her complexion than any questionable behavior) married Robert Greenhow. A minor player in D.C. politics, Greenhow shared his young bride's southern sympathies. He also, apparently, was an ardent lover; the Greenhows would produce eight children in total. Their last child, and Rose's namesake, was born in 1854. Shortly thereafter, Robert Greenhow died.

Now thoroughly convinced that secession was necessary, Greenhow manipulated anyone in power who would listen to her into thinking her way. Attractive, charming and accomplished, Wild Rose Greenhow made her home a center of gracious entertaining in Washington. More and more secessionists were welcome there and it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Wild Rose easily converted from sparkling hostess to "Rebel Rose" the Confederate spy.

When war was finally declared, it was Rose who had a hand in the South's first major victory. General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard - the Little Creole - would later credit Rebel Rose with supplying him the information he needed for his decisive win at First Manassas in July of 1861.

Rose continued her covert activities in Washington but could not escape the prying eyes of none other than Alan Pinkerton. She was arrested for espionage and placed under house arrest. She complained bitterly to anyone who would listen, particularly when she was moved to the now squalid Old Capitol building which the Union had converted into a prison. Nontheless her espionage continued; her youngest daughter was allowed to stay with her and Mrs. Greenhow hung a Confederate flag from her cell window. Mary Chestnut, the famous diarist, wrote snidely that "Mrs. Greenhow is not as put upon as she would have the people of Washington believe."

Though the appearance of a trial was staged by the Union, Rose was considered more of a liability as a martyr. She was released and sent to Richmond with the stipulation that she never return to Washington. She emerged from the Old Capitol with her Confederate flag worn as a shawl and her daughter, Little Rose, by her side.

Lauded as a hero, Rose was approached by the Confederate government to act as an ambassador to Europe. She was supplied with various contacts on the continent and in Britain. Rose shipped out in September of 1864 and made good use of the passage writing a memoir of sorts. My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule in Washington was published in Britain, where it became a bestseller.

Curiously, European states that were vehemently anti-slavery welcomed Rose with open arms. She met Queen Victoria and was received by Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. When she packed up to return to the South aboard the Confederate merchant ship Condor, she apparently carried agreements of concord from both England and France. She also carried a large amount of gold in bar form. Though this is sometimes said to be her royalties from My Imprisonment... it was more likely covert funding for the Confederate cause from European governments.

Condor had a rough crossing that only got worse when she reached the coast of North Carolina. Spotted and chased by USS Niphon, Condor ran aground near Cape Fear. Alarmed at the prospect of being captured, Rose packed up her papers and her gold and demanded that Condor's captain send her ashore in one of the ship's boats. Unable to resist Rebel Rose, the captain sent her out into a raging storm in what probably amounted to no more than a dinghy. The boat was quickly swamped and overturned within sight of the beach. Weighed down by her gold, Wild Rose O'Neal Greenhow drown in the cold Atlantic Ocean.

Her body was recovered not long after the tragedy in October of 1864. An apocryphal story is told of a rebel soldier finding the body, taking the gold bars and heaving Rose back into the sea. When he learned whose body he had defiled, he returned the gold and hanged himself. Even so, it does not appear that the European gold was ever found.

Rose was buried with full military honors. Her tomb's inscription proclaims her as "a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government." As Michael Farquhar noted in his September, 2000 article on Rose, "Her death had the epic touch in which she herself would have glorified."

Header: Rose Greenhow via House Divided via Library of Congress


Timmy! said...

Interesting story, Pauline. I'm not surprised that the gold, if it ever truly existed, was never found, as it would have sunk to the bottom and probably been scattered...

Pauline said...

That's some precious stuff, though, and I can't help wondering if modern "wrackers" didn't abscond with it at some point. Who can say...

Charles L. Wallace said...

What an excellent story, Pauline! Thank you for sharing.

Pauline said...

Thanks, Wally. Rose was a curious person and very passionate in her beliefs. I always admire a person like that, regardless of whether I agree with them or not.