My wife and I spent Saturday morning hiking around Manassas National Battlefield and had lunch in Old Towne Manassas. In downtown Manassas, I noted that a Civil War Trails sign credits Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's July 21, 1861 victory in the Civil War's first major land engagement to Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow of Washington for providing him information concerning an imminent Union attack. While there are numerous stories of daring southern belles providing intelligence to grateful Confederate generals, many of these stories seem to be just that, stories that cannot be supported by historical facts. Can we separate fact from fiction with the story of Rose Greenhow and did the fledgling Confederacy really owe its first victory to this widower in her late 40s?
A social gadfly, Greenhow was a pillar of antebellum Washington befriending both northern and southern movers and shakers including Senator John C. Calhoun, President Buchanan, and even William Seward. Despite her strong Southern sympathies, she continued to entertain Union officers and Republican politicians at her small home on the west side of 16th Street across from St. John's Church in an effort to discern any information that she could provide the South (The approximate site of her home, just across Lafayette Square from the White House, is now occupied by the Hay-Adams Hotel. Ironically the hotel is partially named after Lincoln's private secretary John Hay who lived on the premises when he later served as Secretary of State.)
Greenhow's many male admirers reportedly included Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and a strong abolitionist. From the loose lips of such powerful men, Greenhow claimed that she obtained valuable strategic intelligence regarding Union military intentions, which she dispatched in ciphered messages via courier to Confederate leaders.
Edward C. Fishel, the foremost historian of Civil War intelligence dismissed the value of any information that Greenhow may have provided Beauregard as greatly overblown. In his landmark The Secret War for the Union, Fishel makes a persuasive argument that Greenhow's report to Beauregard consisted of general and stale information that probably was derived from common gossip amongst Washington society. In her own account of her exploits, she even stated that "On the morning of the 16th of July, the ... papers at Washington announced that the 'grand army' was in motion, and I had heard from a reliable source that the order for a forward movement had gone forth." Greenhow dispatched two messages to Beauregard, one on July 9th and the second on July 16th, warning him of McDowell's planned advance.
However, there is no hard evidence that she had specific details regarding the Union plan, which had been decided on in late June, or that her sources had access to any information beyond that which was already freely available in the newspapers and parlors of Washington or to any casual observer watching regiments march across the Potomac River bridges. Most accounts of Greenhow's exploits claim that the dispatch of Joseph Johnson's army from the Shenandoah to Manassas, which made the key difference in the battle, was a result of the intelligence provided by Greenhow, but this claim may be dubious as Beauregard did not immediately request reinforcements upon receiving Greenhow's report.
After being deported to Confederate lines, Greenhow traveled to Europe on behalf of Jefferson Davis. While in England, she published he memoir, which was entitled "My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington."
Ultimately, Rose Greenhow drowned in 1864 near Fort Fisher, North Carolina while trying to run the Federal blockade. 150 years later, her self-promoted story of wartime espionage remains legendary, although almost certainly greatly exaggerated. But, no one who has read contemporary accounts including her 1863 autobiography, can doubt her spunk.