Today, we meet a Confederate spy. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The first important
Confederate spy was a young widow named Rose O'Neal
Greenhow. Mrs. Greenhow, as everyone called her,
was born in the South but raised in Washington,
D.C. Writer William Beymer tells her story. She was
a bright and influential socialite -- friend to
Lincoln and to Buchanan before him. Both presidents
dined often at her table.
Then Civil War: Despite Mrs. Greenhow's ties to
Washington, her sympathies lay with the South. A
Colonel Thomas Jordan dined with her the night
before he left to become Adjutant-General of the
Confederate Army at Manassas, Virginia, just
southwest of Washington. Jordan gave her a code and
a phony address. He asked her to send him military
intelligence. She was delighted to do so.
So, while the Confederate Army awaited the Union
forces, Mrs. Greenhow laid her hands on the Union
marching orders. On July 10, 1861, she got word to
General Beauregard. She even specified the Union
Army's route. Eleven days later, the Confederates
had brought up 8500 reinforcements, and the Union
suffered its first major defeat around a creek
called Bull Run.
However, Mrs. Greenhow was entirely too visible.
Her Southern sympathies were no secret, and she had
access to key people. The Union planted spies
around her and intercepted her messages. They had
no trouble breaking the amateur code she was using.
By late August, they had her under house arrest. So
she sent up a smokescreen of complaint about the
injustice of her treatment, while she bribed guards
and servants to get messages out. She gave false or
useless information to people trying to gather
evidence against her. She gave what solid
intelligence she could still glean to those she
could trust. But now she was cleverer about
packaging it. One trick was to write a message,
then wind a ball of yarn around it. Another was to
weave it into a woman's hair bun.
After five months, they moved her to the Old
Capital Prison. Four more months later, not knowing
what to do with her, they extracted a promise that
she wouldn't come back and exiled her. When she
reached Richmond, Jefferson Davis received her and
thanked her for giving the Battle of Bull Run to
Mrs. Greenhow went on to England and France, where
she tried to stir up pro-South feeling with a book
about her work as a spy. Then, in 1864, the South
tried to bring her back to America in a Confederate
blockade-runner -- to what purpose, we do not know.
Running in a storm and dodging Yankee ships, the
ship's captain ran aground on a sand bar at the
mouth of Cape Fear River. Mrs. Greenhow feared
she'd be captured and set off toward safety in a
lifeboat. The boat swamped, and she drowned,
probably weighed down by a money belt. So it wasn't
the North that did her in; it was a Southern
captain's piloting. Still, she'd been a true
casualty of that terrible war. And the South buried
her with military honors.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Beymer, W. G., Mrs. Greenhow, Confederate Spy. The
Women's War in the South: Recollections and
Reflections of the American Civil War, (Charles
G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, eds.) Nashville:
Cumberland House, 1999, Chapter 4.
Greenhow, Mrs., My Imprisonment and the First
Year of Abolition Rule at Washington. London:
R. Bentley, l863
For more on Rose O'Neal Greenhow, see the Duke
University library page which includes some of her
The Title page of her book is shown in this website
And here is to be found a brief overview of her
For a Matthew Brady photo of Rose O'Neal Greenhow
and her daughter in the federal prison, see the
Matthew Brady Studio website,
I am grateful to Roger Eichhorn, UH Mechanical
Engineering Department, for providing both the book
and the Web addresses above.
(from Greenhow, 1863, above)
Rose O'Neal Greenhow
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.