City Cast

From the Archives: Confederate Spy Rose O’Neal

Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Posted on October 10
Rose O'Neal Greenhow and her daughter Rose, photographed at Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. in 1862.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow and her daughter Rose, photographed at Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. in 1862.  [Mathew Brady Studio/Library of Congress]

Rose O’Neal was born on a rural farm in Montgomery County and became one of Washington’s most powerful women and notorious spies.

As a young girl, she joined the ranks of D.C.’s socialite scene, with many famous Washingtonians like First Lady Dolley Madison and high-ranking military officers. When the Civil War broke out, she quickly aligned herself with the Confederacy and used her connections to pass key information to Southern generals. She even ran a pro-Southern spy network in D.C.

When she heard of the Union Army’s plan to advance on Manassas, she hid a coded message in the hair of a conspirator, who then warned Confederate troops. This information secured the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run.

“She was known to be very beguiling, and she was seductive and attractive,” local author JoAnn Hill told us. “She used her looks as an asset and would do whatever she needed to do to get information.”

The Old Capitol prison on Capitol Hill.

The Old Capitol prison on Capitol Hill. (Photograph by William Redish/Library of Congress).

Despite her ability to solicit information, O’Neal wasn’t very good at hiding it. Incriminating documents were found in her home, and  O’Neal and her daughter were thrown into the Old Capitol Prison (where the Supreme Court now stands).

But she kept spying. O’Neal sent messages out by waving handkerchiefs and burning candles in her window. After she was released, she went on international missions for the Confederacy, until she died trying to escape a Union gunboat with $2,000 in gold sewn into her dress. Absolutely iconic.

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