Little Rose Greenhow: The Famous Spy’s Daughter

You’ve likely heard of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the famous (or infamous) Southern spy in Washington D.C. You might have see the photograph of her which was taken while she was in prison. And, if you’ve seen that photograph, you’ve noticed someone else in the picture. That’s right: a little girl, looking wearily stubborn and clinging close to Mrs. Greenhow.

Little Rose Greenhow and her mother, Rose O’Neal Greenhow

The girl is Little Rose. Perhaps a more innocent and less intriguing spy than her mother, but a little rebel spy nonetheless. Her story is intertwined with her mother’s tale, of course, but it seems right to pull her from the shadows when uncovering the mother/daughter spy team operating in Washington and Europe.

Living In Washington D.C.

Little Rose was born 1853, the fourth and last child of Robert and Rose Greenhow. Her father died when she was still an infant. Little Rose grew up in Washington City, surrounded by influential political men because of her mother’s acquaintanceship/friendship/relationships. She lived in a nice home at Sixteenth and K Streets, not far from Lafayette Square and the White House. While her mother worked to maintain social position and influence in the capital city, Little Rose likely spent her days in the nursery, playing with dolls, learning to read, and acquiring the social skills of a little lady.

Outside the Greenhow Home, the country and lawmakers debated slavery, states rights, and secession. Technically, Little Rose lived at the center of the drama, but she would’ve had limited knowledge and understanding of her changing world. She was smart though, surrounded by adults, and easily influenced so what she did know would’ve been the pro-Southern views expressed by her mother and visitors.

Little Rose Greenhow

A Little Rebel Girl

The Civil War began in April 1861 when Little Rose was about seven or eight. Her older sister Florence (who had married and lived in a different part of the country) sent a letter to their mother, saying, “I am so worried about the latest news from Washington. They say some ladies have been taken up as spies… Dear Mamma, do keep as clear of all Secessionist as you possibly can. I so much fear everything for you all alone there.” The advice came a little too late. Rose Greenhow was already establishing a network of spies and managed to send crucial information out of the Federal capital to General Beauregard, possibly influencing the outcome of the Battle of First Bull Run (Manassas.)

For Little Rose, home life changed. Visitors continued calling, but they spoke in hushed voices with her mother. Her middle sister was packed up from the Maryland school not far away and sent to stay with Florence until everything was “safe.” Little Rose, too young to leave home without raising questions, would stay with her mother.

The girl seemed to take an interest in the political and military happenings of the day, quickly learning a pro-Confederate song called “Old Abe’s Lament.” Before her bedtime, she sang for her mother’s guests, delighting these Southern sympathizers and spies with mockery of the U.S. President and praise for Jeff Davis. Surrounded by intriguers and civilians aligning with the Confederacy, Little Rose became a rebel girl, and her trust and love for her mother would lead her into a more active role. She often talked about how much she hated “Yankees.”

A note in Rose Greenhow cipher

The “Innocent” Messenger

Mama was in trouble, but it’s not clear how much Little Rose knew about it. Still, children can sense tension, and the girl must have wondered what troubled her mother who had started burning scraps of paper and spending long hours at her sewing machine doing something secretive.

On August 1861, Allan Pinkerton searched the Greenhow home. Little Rose had been playing in the garden when the agents arrived and started screaming, “Mother has been arrested!” She perched in a tree, kicking at the two agents who tried to pull her down and stop her cries. The Greenhows were placed under house-arrest; they couldn’t leave home and guards stayed.

One night Mama told Rose about some special friends who wanted to visit but who couldn’t come inside. And she told the girl what she’d have to do before praising her and calling her “Little Bird,” – after-all, she would be carrying news like messenger birds.

In the following days, Little Rose played in the garden. Visitors arrived. She greeted them girlishly and took the paper wrapped candy, saying “thank you” politely. She handed them a slip of paper hidden in her dress, then ran off to find her mother and show her the candy from the nice friends. The candy was wrapped in a secret message or the reply message was tucked somewhere in the girl’s clothing.

During the autumn months, life became more challenging. Counter-spies lived in the household. Guards remained. Boards were nailed across the windows to block out the sunlight and prevent window communications. The food sent to the house-prisoners was reduced to cheese and crackers, causing Little Rose to endure hunger pangs and cry herself to sleep. There were days when Little Rose could go outside, and the friends, hearing about her hunger, started bringing her portions of food. However, the girl became ill as the days dragged by, and the guards questioned and re-questioned Mama, sometimes for endless hours.

Old Capital Prison

Little Rose, Imprisoned

January 18, 1862. Little Rose was with her mother when the guards arrived with the message. They had two hours to pack; they were being moved to Old Capital Prison. Little Rose would go with her mother.

When they arrived at the prison, Little Rose announced sweetly to one of the officers, “You have got one of the hardest little rebels here that you ever saw.” That little rebel suffered again from hunger and illness during the imprisonment. However, mother and daughter still found ways to communicate with their spies in the outside world, and, once hung a Confederate flag outside their prison window. Mama even worked to help other Confederate prisoners escape.

Eventually, the Greenhows were released and exiled to the Confederacy since the Federal government didn’t seem to know what else to do with them. They arrived in Richmond, Virginia, in June, and met Jefferson Davis a short time later. In the Confederate capital, Little Rose went with her mother to visit soldiers in the hospitals and probably overheard her mother talking secretively about a new mission, one that would take them overseas.

Europe & Fates

In summer 1863, the Greenhows left the Confederacy by blockade runner, heading for Europe. Little Rose enrolled at Sacred Hearts Convent in Paris, beginning her official education while her mother represented the Confederacy and its cause to diplomats and rulers of Europe.

In August 1864, Little Rose unhappily said farewell to her mother, not particularly pleased to stay in Paris while Mama returned to the Confederacy. It was the last time she saw her mother. On August 19, the ship ran aground on the Southern coast and Union vessels closed in; afraid of capture, Rose Greenhow abandoned the ship, trying to get ashore in a rowboat, but drowning in the attempt.

Little Rose remained in Paris, mourning her mother’s death and completing her education. She eventually returned to American in 1871, married a U.S. army officer, later divorced, and returned to France.

No, Little Rose wasn’t an influential spy like her mother, but she is an important part of Rose Greenhow’s story. Little Rose’s presence allowed her mother to appeal to Union authorities as a mother. She was part of the spy network communication, by playing in the yard and just being friendly. Though she was certainly influenced by her mother and older “friends,” Little Rose determined to be “the hardest little rebel,” and she survived the war and a devastating loss.

After her mother’s death, searchers found a note in Rose Greenhow’s effects. Full of Southern sentiment, it also disclosed how Rose viewed her daughter and youngest accomplice:

You have shared the hardships and indignity of my prison life, my darling; and suffered all that evil which a vulgar despotism could inflict. Let the memory of that period never pass from your mind; Else you may be inclined to forget how merciful Providence has been in seizing us from such a people. Rose O’N Greenhow

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. This concludes our June 2017 Civil War Spy series. Do you have a favorite Civil War spy that wasn’t included this month?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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