Rose Greenhow was a socialite and a well-known political hostess in Washington D.C. during the 1850s. Due to her southern ties she eventually, became a Confederate spy and used her social connections to gather information and pass it on to Confederate generals. Her intelligence-gathering skills were valuable to the Confederacy, and she became one of their most successful spies.
In 1861, Rose Greenhow sent a message to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, warning him of Union troops’ movements before the First Battle of Bull Run. This information helped the Confederacy win the battle and kick off the American Civil War.
Join us as we talk about one of the most famous female spies of all time.
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Ep56 – Rose Greenhow
Jenn: The Allen Pinkerton of the Pinkerton detective agency because they’re actually working at the time for President Lincoln.
So he hires him. Why don’t you watch her house? First Battle Bull Run happens in July. In August. Pinkerton’s hired to look at Rose Greenhow House
Scott: and he’s literally just like peeking in the windows.
Jenn: He’s peeking, like he’s standing on someone’s shoulders looking in the windows,
Scott: welcome to Talk with History. I’m your host Scott here with my wife and historian Jen. Hello. On this podcast, we give you insights into our history inspired Travels YouTube channel journey, and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious the explorers and the history lovers out there.
[00:00:51] Hashtag Historic Newsletter
Scott: Now, this week I wanna tell folks about the, our hashtag historic newsletter. We’ve actually seen some solid growth recently, and we’re excited this is starting to gain some traction because there’s a lot of history we can share through the newsletter that might not ever make it to the podcast or a video.
So if you’re curious to check out that newsletter, it’s. Doesn’t cost a single thing, all you gotta do is go to history newsletter.com. and you can sign up for free. So that’s history newsletter.com.
History newsletter.com. Check it out. It’s a lot of fun. You can feel free to, to email us back when you get the kind of welcome aboard initial email. . And actually, with that, I wanna call out someone who’s been listening both to the podcast and subscribing to the newsletter. It’s a monthly newsletter and she actually responded to one of our newsletter posts recently.
[00:01:41] Listener Question
Scott: Her name is, . So she said, hello. I’ve been listening to your podcast for a bit now. Currently I’m sitting, drinking coffee and reading. You never forget your first. It’s a book about gw. Anyway, it got me thinking the book references that many of Washington’s letters were never found or saved. My question is, when did preserving presidential PA papers become an official act?
So I know, Jen, you actually already knew something a little bit about
Jenn: this. So I knew I had worked at the James Garfield house. I had done an internship there. and basically inventoried all of their, not artifacts, but all of their artifact holding material, everything that it encloses the artifacts. I inventoried all of that for the National Park Service.
The James Garfield house in Mentor Ohio is considered the first presidential library because his wife Lucretia after he’s assassinated, thought people might want to read his paper someday. People might want to read what he wrote. People might want to read his letters, his journal. So I’m going to save everything.
Now, that wasn’t official. She did it because she just had some forethought. So Tina George. Washington’s papers were destroyed. And. Purposely. So what happened with George Washington is before, and I’ll get to the date, it is really in the 1970s, before the 1970s presidential papers and vice presidential papers belong to the person.
Yeah. Belong to that person, the president or vice president, and they could take them home and they can disseminate them. How they decided, and with George Washington, he had planned. To build like a library, like a vault with his papers. But unfortunately he died before he could do that, and he gives his his aid.
Get my papers in order, get my accounts in order. Those are like his dying words on his deathbed, but never save my papers. Now, his papers were given to some people at the time who wanted to write a Washington biography and they kept them and used them for biography, but then they just stored them and.
There is one letter that said I had Washington’s papers, but they’ve become so damp and overcome by rats. Wow. So you can imagine some George Washington’s papers were just destroyed from someone just being careless and storing his papers and not realizing that they would be of importance. Now you do get Martha Washington destroyed a lot of letters.
Arthur Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln destroys his father’s letters. Arthur’s son will destroy his letters. Harding’s wife destroys his letters, she says, cuz she doesn’t want anything. Embarrassing remembered about him. I will say a lot of people destroyed letters at this time, and I talk about this a lot with Jane Austin and her sister destroying her letters is because correspondence is very personal.
Scott: was it. Like pillow talk type stuff.
Jenn: It’s not really pillow, it’s more like health talk. Oh. Because, yeah. It’s the time where people are getting sick pretty consistently. So how often are you going to the bathroom? Yeah. Things like that. What’s it like? What’s, its consistency. Those are, and it’s very personal and, people like, like phlegm kind of type because.
Sickness is a way of life then. Yeah. And overcoming sickness is a way of life. And people don’t want those kind of personal affairs Yeah. To be brought into the public.
Scott: So when did like people really start saving more intentionally? Or did it start with Garfield then became like official policy and law later.
Jenn: It really starts with Garfield in 1939. Our f d. Donates his papers and books for an official library, Uhhuh , and that’s when the official library system, presidential system really starts. Presidents can still destroy their papers. Yeah. So if you don’t like something you wrote or someone wrote or a correspondence that was a little, you could just burn it.
But it’s not really, and this is really interesting. It’s not until the Presidential Records Act of 1978 that those official records of every president and vice president are the property of the United States of America. You can no longer destroy them. And this was brought on because Nixon. Sought to destroy his records relating to his indiscretion.
Sure. And and everything he had about resigning in 1974. So he tried to destroy all of that the official records of it, and to stop the national archives to stop him. Past this act. It really fell under the Reagan administration. All of his papers were now official records of the United States government.
They did go back and retroactively get Nixon’s papers, but this is when it now becomes an issue. And even today we’re getting into like President Trump’s papers and Vice President Pence’s papers and President Biden’s papers. People are taking these things home. People are putting them in storage and.
They don’t belong to them personally. Yeah. And that goes for everybody who’s a president or vice president. They all get to go to the national archives and the archive can decide, okay what is important and not
Scott: important. Yeah. No and I just really appreciated, Tina, it’s an interesting question submitting the question.
That was a great question. So thank you so much, Tina for anybody else that subscribes to the hashtag historic newsletter at the at history newsletter.com. We have another monthly one coming up here in the next couple weeks. I’ve got some articles I’m putting together. So there should be interesting stuff.
So if you’re ever curious, we’ve got podcast recommendations, video recommendations. , things like that. . But Tina, that was a great question. Great question. Thank
Jenn: you so much, .
[00:07:28] Who is Rose Greenhow?
Scott: Now onto kind of our main topic. , we’re obviously, we’re talking about the video. Yes. So video that posted yesterday was about Rose Greenhow she’s a Confederate spy during the Civil War.
During the war. So tell us a little bit about the background of Rose Greenhow
Jenn: okay. So we have Rose O’Neil Green. How, and O’Neil is important because this is her background and to learn more about her. She is born, they, I’m not sure, eighteen thirteen, eighteen fourteen in a small rural farm in Maryland.
It’s a tobacco farm, and her family is a they produce tobacco. They have enslaved people who work the tobacco farm. So of course they’re a proponent of enslavement. And then when she’s about 13, 14 years old, her father is murdered. And when he’s murdered, he leaves behind a lot of debt and.
The children have to be disseminated to members of the family because his her mother the widow can’t take care of all these children. Yeah. And Rose O’Neill goes to an aunt in Washington, DC at 13, 14 years old. Her aunt runs a boarding house in Washington, dc which is a very common thing. Mary Surat is running a boarding house in Washington DC so they have these boarding houses at the time.
It’s a it’s what women did if they were widowed or single. It was a very acceptable job for women at that age and level. And because a lot of people are in and out of DC having. Government meetings or official meetings, a boarding house is a great business because people aren’t really buying
Scott: property there.
And I thought it was interesting cuz we were trying to, we were trying to find out when we were putting the video together. Exactly where this boarding house might have been, or, later on the, like some places got turned into prisons or in Civil War. And this, that, and the other.
. So we were trying to search out where these things were, but we found out there was like 80 different boarding houses in the Washington DC area. And you, if you know back then, like DC it’s still small even for
Jenn: that, that time period. Sure. So when you think about it, people who.
Representing government or in the government didn’t do what they do today, right? They don’t have two houses, right? They don’t have a house where you live and a house in DC They had a house where they lived and they came to DC to do their job, to do their meetings, and they stayed at a boarding house. So the boarding houses were very common and they were or hotels.
The Willard is a big hotel in DC that is known. Famous people staying there. And so that’s what people did. They didn’t really own homes in DC and. So her, so Rose O’Neill goes to live in this boarding house, and it’s a congressional boarding house. So it’s a, it’s clientele is government.
Higher, higher end people. Yeah. And,
Scott: and I think too, right? So if Rose was the daughter of, her father before he got was a property owner. Sure. So she was probably decently educated, decently
Jenn: educated. So lower class, but not the lowest class. Yes.
. So this is how she gets first introduced to this new level of society, right?
And so it’s in her aunt’s boarding house that she’s starting to meet congressional people. And this is how she meets Dr. Greenhow and Dr. Greenhow is. He’s a federal librarian. He has a medical degree, he has a law degree, and. hit it off and they started dating
Scott: And she was actually, we didn’t, this didn’t make it into the video, but she was actually introduced to him.
Met him through the, the social circles, through what’s her face? Dolly Madison. Dolly
Jenn: Madison. Yes. So she’s, yes. Moving in those circles, right? She’s moving in the Madison Circle. Former p. Madison circle Dolly is of course older at the time, so she meets Dr. Greenhow, and when you think about it, Greenhow’s marrying kind of below his status.
, but he must but
Scott: her, if I remember right now, historical USA was with us on this video. , but I if it was either you or her that said that Rose’s sister actually married like a congressman or, or someone related to some well-known politician type. Yes. Yes. And. , she was, the doctor was marrying below, but he was also marrying the sister of someone who just got married to someone a little bit more famous.
Yes. So there’s that balance
Jenn: there that’s balances. They’re moving up. You could say that they’re they’re,
Scott: and that’s how families did it back then. Sure. They like, Hey, I’m gonna educate my daughter as best as I can. I’m gonna send her somewhere. And if she gets in high society circles and start, mar starts marrying up.
That’s how families
Jenn: raised their status. Absolutely. And there were people who definitely sought that out. Yeah. And that, so she marries Dr. Greenhow. They have, I think it’s five, they have four children. He goes out west, she goes out west with him. Before she has her fourth child, she comes back to DC to have her fourth child.
He stays behind and he actually dies. Yeah. He falls off like an elevated. Sidewalk and is killed. This was in DC or out west? No, out
Scott: west. Okay. California West
Jenn: or out? California west. Oh, wow. And so she becomes a widow with a pension and moving in these high. Echelon political circles, and this is about the onset of the Civil War.
We got Buchanan. We got Davis. She believes in her southern allegiances. Yep. When the Civil War does break out, she is already embedded. And she doesn’t leave DC cuz she’s only her when she moves back.
To have her child and her husband stays out west. She buys that boarding house four blocks to the north of dc. Okay. So she didn’t take
Scott: over the one from her aunt, she
Jenn: gets a new one? No, she gets her own. Okay. And that home is now where the Hayes Adams hotel is. But if you see our video, it’s such a prominent spot in Washington DC
Scott: It’s like you could literally, maybe.
Patrick Mahomes could throw a football from that hotel
Jenn: to the White House. I know. And if you can imagine, 1860 without Lafayette Square, without the White House lawn. Without, yeah. The gate. You could walk from there in 10 minutes. It’s not even 10
Scott: minutes, five minutes. It’s literally a. Stones throw.
So that’s one of the fun things. I
Jenn: mean, you could see, you could say, you could say, I wanna see you walk to the White House and wave to me when you get to the porch. So I know you made it . ,
Scott: That’s literally, as a parent, you could do that. Be like, Hey go take this to the president.
Jenn: made him some cookies. Yeah. So that’s how close she is to the White House. So again, people who are meeting with Lincoln and having discussions, and you got Sea Word’s House is right beside Lafayette Square. So you have a block away, like a block away. Yeah. He’s Secretary of State. So you have all of these people in close proximity.
[00:14:09] War Breaks Out
Jenn: So when war breaks out and she’s already running in these circles, she’s able to start to gather information and gather secrets
Scott: And Lisa had mentioned that she was actually kind a big fan of Jefferson Davis.
Oh, yeah. She
Scott: Jefferson Davis. And Lisa had said that in, in her research, That it was, she started some of this kind of spy or getting information right. They probably didn’t call it spying right up front. , Hey, go spy for me. It’s like, like, Hey, how many troops do they have? Do they talk about that in your boarding house?
Yeah. At the behest of Jefferson Davis. Jefferson
Jenn: Davis had asked her to do it. Yeah. And she felt very loyal to him. She loved him. Yeah. She really had like. When she, and I’ll talk about when she goes to the prison. He, she is iconic to her. Yeah. And she believes in him and she believes in, like I said, the southern allegiance and what they’re fighting for and what they believe in and state’s rights.
She she’s very bought into that. So having the boarding house and having these. Single men or un single men, but men of higher status come visit her. She’s able to get information and one of those men is of course, general Irving McDowell. He’s in charge of the Union Army in the beginning of the Civil War.
Yep. And he comes and visits her and asks, Very undermined questions like, I see you’re getting troops ready. How many troops should I pray for? Should I pray for 3000 troops? And of course, he wants to boast. Yeah. So he is no more like 30,000 troops. And she’s oh. And then she’s able to get that information back to Beauregard.
Who is gonna be in charge of the Confederate army On the other side, it’s gonna be 30,000 troops. They’re thinking of a place south of Manassas and in the July timeframe, yeah, they’re gonna march the troops. They think it’s gonna be a quick and easy decisive battle. The railroad line is there and that’s why they’re gonna go there.
And so he’s able to, Enough Confederates there to meet that level of union troops, 30,000 to put up a good defense, to put up a good fight, to actually push them back and it’s enough to scare them. That it’s not gonna be easy. And that’s why she’s so regarded. She gets a lot of credit.
Beauregard gives her credit. She gets a lot of credit. Th this is probably her biggest claim to fame. Yeah. First Battle Bull run. But she gets a lot of credit for this because of all the information she was able to get to Beauregard and he was able to use it. And then the Confederates were able to put up a good defense.
And this really is the. When Lincoln realizes, and that could be a quick war. He also realizes that McDowell is an incompetent leader. So you’re gonna get a lot of us and you’re gonna get a lot of stuff that comes out of this battle. Next week we’ll be bull run. We’ll talk about the things that come out of this.
But you’re gonna get the union very much falling back on reputation. Yeah. You’re gonna lose a lot of reputation and you’re gonna get the south really exploding their reputation and you’re gonna get some famous. Names and monikers that are gonna come outta the first Battle of Bull Run. So you’re gonna see the morale kind of switch a little.
Scott: Yep. It’s kinda like a big rally for,
Jenn: for the south, big rally for the south. And it’s a big hardship for the
[00:17:14] How BOTH sides Underestimated Women
Scott: One of the reasons that we did this video this month, right? Was obviously Women’s History Month, but also ties into our video from last week, which was, A Union.
, civil War spy, but also another female. Yes. And so we talk a little bit about in this video, how no one really suspected Rose Greenhow because she
Jenn: was a woman. Because she was a woman and, yeah. And that so the same way that the Union female spy is operating under this pretense that women. Are not at the level to be privy to this information.
They don’t understand this information. It’s just too much for them to comprehend war, and they, so they can slide under the radar. Same thing. Rose Greenhow using the same thing to herd advantage. I’m a southern bell. Yeah. All I care about is entertaining. I’m not interested in your war talk, but I’ll listen to it because that’s what you seem to wanna talk about when really that’s all she really wants to talk about.
Yep. But she’ll pretend like it’s not. And I wanted to do women focused Cuz of Women’s History Month. And I wanted to do a union spy who was pivotal in the Battle of the Ironclads and then a Confederate spy who’s pivotal in the first Battle bull run. And they both happen to
Scott: be women. So we go to bull run. And Do that kind through the lens of of women, of the women that serve there. , which is, I think, different. But again, one of the things I just, it just was so interesting to me that last week’s video.
In this week, video doesn’t matter what side of the union, what side of the war you were on, whether you were black or white because you were a woman. people just didn’t assume that you weren’t
Jenn: doing anything. Yeah. They now, they just didn’t assume you were at that level of intelligence or importance.
Yes. Like you were good enough to wash dishes. You were definitely good enough to men wounds. Good enough to stitch clothes and, but you’re not good. Have to know anything about strategic, maneuvers and what, military Tactics, right?
Scott: That’s not now. Now there was one person, yeah, , that suspect, that suspected rose Greenhow.
And this name’s actually pretty well known.
[00:19:13] Pinkerton Detective Agency is called in
Jenn: Yes. So what happens is, People are like he knew Bogar knew. Yeah. And the union realizes that he knew. And so it’s actually s seaward seaward who first suspects because he sees so many people. Cuz again, he could probably see her porch from his porch.
Sure. He’s just looking across the, he’s probably looking across the way going, look at all the union
Scott: guys. Just went in there. And
Jenn: And she loves Jefferson Davis. Yeah. And he buy, and so he’s. Pinkerton. Yeah, the, like
The Allen Pinkerton. The Allen Pinkerton of the Pinkerton detective agency because they’re actually working at the time for President Lincoln.
Yeah. And they’re actually working intel for President Lincoln. So he hires him. He goes, why don’t you watch her house? So in August so first Battle Bull Run happens in July. In August. Pinkerton’s hired to look at Rose Greenhow House again. Four blocks. From the White House,
Scott: and he’s literally just like peeking in the windows.
Jenn: He’s peeking, like he’s standing on someone’s shoulders looking in the windows, like really? If you’re walking by and you’re like, look at them. That guy doing over there, shoulders looking, and he sees her. Entertaining union soldiers. He sees her pulling out maps with union soldiers and they’re pointing at things and you see her again.
She’s very good at pretending like she doesn’t care. Oh my gosh, I’m just entertaining you and listening to what you have to say. But really, that’s all she cares about cuz that’s, those are the things she will bring is ciphered maps and ciphered intelligence. Pinkerton sees that and he knows, and I say that Pinkerton is really like the true feminist because he believes that Ro Rore Rose Greenhow capable of this, right?
Like he’s giving her a lot of agency that. Other men at the time probably would not, or are not basically
Scott: nobody else except Seaward who had gotten into some arguments with her in the past and kinda lived across the street from her,
Jenn: essentially. Yeah. And so Pinkerton is giving her a lot of credit, which is totally due because she did it.
And so he tries to accost her on the street. Right after this happens, and again, you’re having this scenario of a Southern. Elite woman being accosted on the street by a working class gentleman. So Pink Pinkerton gets arrested? Yeah, because people go like, why are you harassing this woman? Why are you looking in her windows?
Yeah. Why Young men are on the street. So he gets arrested. Take it to prison. And when he’s questioned, he says, I’m here for a bigger cause. I’m here for a bigger purpose. And so then he’s allowed to go to Rose Greenhow home. And when he searches her home, he finds the ciphers right and the maps. And she gets arrested.
And she gets arrested and she’s put on house,
Jenn: arrested first in her home, which she doesn’t stop spying. .
Scott: She keeps getting information. This is what I thought was so interesting for her. She believes in her side of the cause so deeply that she continues to get information through her network. She had built up like network of 48
Jenn: women, 40 to 50 women and two men.
Yeah. And she uses like colored curtains and she uses colored handkerchiefs and candles in the windows and candles. In the windows. Yeah. And p they can’t stop her, so they’re like, okay, we’re gonna put you in prison. And she. Okay, do it. And so she’s taken to the old Capitol prison in January of 1862.
So things are moving relatively quickly when you think about it. The old Capitol Prison is located directly behind the US Capitol. It’s where the United States Supreme Court stands today. Right. But this was a prison in DC that used to hold con congressional hearings and meetings and Rose Greenhow when she went there.
She writes this whole biography of herself after then, I’ll tell you when she writes this, so you get a lot of this first source account of what happened from her. She sits in the prison and all she can think about is Jefferson Davis giving a talk in one of the rooms and she hopes to see that room again because that talk was so inspiring for her about him and so she can’t even get Jefferson Davis off the mind in prison.
Now this prison is gonna hold. Confederate officers, it’s gonna execute Confederate conspirators. This is where the Lincoln conspirators will eventually be held before they are executed. So this prison is a pretty renowned prison in Washington DC and she’s held there from January of 1862 to May of 1862, so about four months.
because she still doesn’t stop.
Scott: Yeah she’s still getting messages
Jenn: out. She still, she uses her daughter, like she’s put in prison with her eight year old daughter and she uses her daughter to get messages out. To pass messages. Yeah. Her daughter’s allowed to play in the middle of the grassy field, to get some exercise and her daughter will pass messages to people because sympathizers and So eventually they’re not gonna execute her.
They don’t know what to do with it. This is the time why I say the federal government has not executed a woman in history an American white woman in history yet. So they prison exchange her. So in May of 1862, she’s exchanged for some union prisoners. She’s exchanged to the south. She’s told do not come.
Stay on the Confederate side. So she’s exchanged down to Richmond, Virginia and one of the first things she does is meet with Jefferson Davis .
[00:24:29] Released from Prison
Scott: Yeah, of course. I, you think about it like this, she was like at the point of brainwashed. Yeah. Like to, her loyalty was just so intense.
Jenn: And we’ve been to Davis’s house.
The Confederate White House. Yeah. In Richmond. She probably met him there, probably.
Scott: She probably, and honestly that’s probably when she got most of her, just like in-person recognition. Yes. She’s, she was very revered. She’s a heroin. She’s a heroin of the South. . And then eventually she runs off to, so eventually
Jenn: she goes to overseas, to Europe.
Okay. And she goes to Europe to raise awareness for the Southern cause. And this is where she’s going to. Her autobiography. Okay, this is where she’s gonna write my firsthand account of how terrible the North is and what they did to me, and. She’s giving you basically how she spied and what she did. So it’s very, that’s how we know the stuff she got across and how she did it.
And she raises, she brings her daughter over with her. She raises a lot of funds. She raises $2,000 in gold and she comes back in August of 1860. Four. She comes back and she’s on the HMS Condor, which is a British blockade runner. So a fast ship when you think about it. And she has $2,000 in gold sewn into her dress to hide the gold, get it back to the south, and the.
it’s October 1st, the condor is coming into Wilmington, North Carolina, and it gets grounded. It runs a ground. The captain thinks he sees union ships, so he tries to, be covert and he runs a ground. And so Rose is if the, if they’re coming, I wanna get off the ship, can I get a row?
And so she gets on a rowboat and because she’s carrying all this gold and, it’s, makes it too heavy. Too heavy slim. And the ship sinks and she is pulled down with it because of the gold. And she drowns her body’s found four days later. And then she is given a full military decorated funeral That’s wild in Wilmington, North Carolina.
They drape the Confederate flag across her coffin. It is full regal. And. You can see her grave today, and it still has a plaque there. And it’s decorated. Her daughter will stay in France. She didn’t bring her daughter with her. She didn’t wanna bring her daughter back in the middle of a war, but That is her legacy.
She’s lived on in the South as this martyr, this heroin, this believer of a cause. Again, her big success was Bullen. She never really gets any secret. She really doesn’t get the backing, the financial backing that she was hoping to get from the, from England. People remember her for Bull Run.
Scott: Another fun one for us to explore one, because we just got to walk around Washington DC for the day because
Jenn: it’s a huge walk. It’s from the Capitol Yeah. To the
Scott: Supreme Court. Yeah. It was a hike. . And we got to hang out with Lisa.
Yes. Which is really fun. That was really cool. If you guys are curious, go check her channel out at Historical usa. But that was a blast.
Scott: One of the things that I was thinking about was, bravery. It comes in all shapes and sizes. And during the Civil War, many didn’t think that bravery also came in all genders.
Rose Greenhow may have been fighting for the wrong side of the Civil War, but no one will question that. She had a direct impact on various aspects of the war. Just look at what happened at Manasas. Yes, it took Alan Pinkerton. Himself giving her credit to be suspicious enough to investigate this Civil War, Confederate spy, someone who is now viewed as a traitor to the north, but a heroin to the south.
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