I had a right to my own political opinions. I am a Southern woman, born with Revolutionary blood in my veins. Freedom of speech and of thought were my birthright, guaranteed, signed, and sealed by the blood of our fathers. ~ Rose O’Neal Greenhow
On the way home from a usual night of frolicking, John O’Neale fell off his horse. That’s what his drinking buddy said, but upon further examination, too many wounds for one fall. Drinking buddy hanged. John left gambling debts. Maryland plantation lost. Children disbursed, daughters Maria Rosetta and Ellen Elizabeth O’Neal, were sent to live with an aunt who owned a boarding house in sight of the Whitehouse, more importantly, within firing range of the Whitehouse.
The D.C. atmosphere taught Rose the ways of politics and high society. She was a snob who was clever and outspoken. Among her friends: John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Stephen A. Douglas, Pathfinder John Fremont and his wife, writer Jessie Benton Fremont, diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Polk, and James Buchanan. Also: correspondents Jefferson Davis and General Pierre Beauregard, and mentor, Dolley Madison. Rose had a run in with Abe Lincoln. But before that run in, she married prominent Dr. Robert Greenhow. In 1854, Dr. Greenhow died leaving Rose to raise four daughters. She got by as a widow; it’s the correspondents that got her in trouble.
Rose sent a cryptic message to General Beauregard, information that changed the outcome of First Battle of Bull Run (also called Battle of Manassas). What should’ve been a skirmish became a war. Arrested by Allan Pinkerton (himself!) she was imprisoned within the walls of the boarding house with eight-year-old daughter, Little Rose. Lincoln released them and demanded Rose stay in Confederate territory until the war was over. That Southern sympathizing boarding house was taken over by the Union Army. It was John C. Calhoun who taught Rose the art of cryptic messaging.
South of the Mason Dixon, Rose was received with open arms. Jeff Davis sent her to Europe seeking financial backing where she was entertained by Napoleon III and Queen Victoria – got engaged to the Earl of Granville while there. Returning home, a U.S. gunner boat ran her blockade buster aground near North Carolina. Uncertain of which side of the Mason Dixon she was on, she jumped into a rowboat and paddled south where a large wave capsized her little boat. She drowned, because $2000 in gold was sewn into her underwear, along with a copy of her cryptic code, and manuscript, My Imprisonment.
I like to think of my distant cousin as an author, but in death Rose was thoroughly exposed. She’s been called many names: Wild Rose, Rebel Rose, Blushing Rose, Confederate Rose, and others (some not so good). Writers and Hollywood producers have had a field day with her adventurous life. NBC-TV series The Americans, The Rebellious Rose, The Rose and the Jackal, The Pinkertons, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Books, Wild Rose by Ann Blackman, The Rebel Rose by Ishbel Ross, Rose and Blockade Runners by George Johnson, Jr., Spy For The Confederacy by J.C. Nolan, Genteel Rebel by Sheila R. Phipps, RG, Confederate Secret Agent by Dorothy Fremont Grant, more including, My Imprisonment by Rose O’Neal Greenhow.
Inscription at Find a Grave in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington, North Carolina, Tombstone: Rose O’Neal Greenhow 1814-1864 A Bearer of Dispatches for the Confederate Government
Historical Marker: Rose Greenhow, Confederate spy and Washington society woman. Drowned near Fort Fisher in 1864, while running Federal blockade. Grave 1 m. N.E.
Notes: Wild Rose by Ann Blackman, source.
Genealogy of Maria Rosetta O’Neal Greenhow: Parents were John O’Neale (1770-1817) and Eliza Henrietta Hamilton. Grandfather was Laurence O’Neale born about 1733 Fredrick County, Maryland. Great Grandfather was William O’Neale born about 1695, Frederick County, Maryland, died 1759 in Fredrick County, Maryland (his wife was Eleanor Ball). Great Great Grandfather was Joseph Owneill born about 1670, died 1747 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
Descendants of John O’Neale Prepared by the O’Neal Genealogical Association: John O’Neal, born about 1770, died on April 23,1817, in St. Paul’s Parish, Prince George Parish, Maryland, about age 47. John married Eliza Henrietta Hamilton on January 1, 1810, in Prince George’s County, Maryland. John O’Neal’s father: Laurence O’Neal. Footnote #21: Rebel Rose, Life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate Spy by Ishbel Ross, Page 1.
Rose’s sister, Ellen Elizabeth O’Neal (1813-1897) married James Madison Cutts, nephew of James and Dolley Madison; Dolley referred to Ellen as My Pet. Ellen died at eighty-four, buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.