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Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Women Spies of the Civil War

Hundreds of women served as spies during the Civil War. Here’s a look at six who risked their lives in daring and unexpected ways

Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy

Rose ONeal Greenhow
(The Granger Collection, NYC)

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a popular Washington socialite, a widow in her 40s and an impassioned secessionist when she began spying for the Confederacy in 1861. Using her powerful social connections, Greenhow obtained information about Union military activity and passed coded messages to the Confederates. One of her most important messages, hidden in her female courier’s hair, helped Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard gather enough forces to win the First Battle of Bull Run.

Suspicious of Greenhow’s activities, Allan Pinkerton, head of the federal government’s newly formed Secret Service, gathered enough evidence to place her under house arrest. But Greenhow continued to get information to her contacts. In January 1862, she was transferred, along with her 8-year-old daughter, to Old Capitol Prison. Several months later she was deported to Baltimore, Maryland, where the Confederates welcomed her as a hero.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent Greenhow on her next mission to Britain and France to help gain support for the Confederacy. While in Europe she published her memoir, My Imprisonment, and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington.

In September1864, Greenhow returned to the South aboard the Condor, a British blockade-runner, carrying $2,000 in gold. A Union gunboat pursued the ship as it neared the North Carolina shore, and it ran aground on a sandbar. Against the captain’s advice, Greenhow tried to escape in a rowboat with two other passengers. The boat capsized and she drowned, presumably weighed down by the gold she carried around her neck. Her body washed ashore the next day and was buried by the Confederates with full military honors.

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