“Wow! Can’t believe it!
Totes p0wned abolitionist!
Then everyone clapped.”
Once upon a time, I did whole week chronicling punchable faces in history. But of course, there are other historical faces in need of punching, so let’s revisit that today!
Rose O’Neal Greenhow was born in 1813ish in Maryland, the third of five daughters. Her father, a slave owner named John, was killed in 1817. He’d gone drinking one night in the company of his favorite slave, Jacob. Jacob got home without him. When searching for John the next morning, he found him bleeding from the head on the road. Panicking, he took the advice of another slave to make sure John was dead, or he’d blame him for the accident. He did, with a rock. In any case, Jacob was caught out, tried, and hanged.
In 1830, Rose got sent to a boarding school in Washington, where she made friends with a bunch of politicians. She married Dr. Robert Greenhow Jr. five years later and had four daughters with him – the youngest, Little Rose, being born in 1853. Then the doctor died. And as years passed, she grew super pro-South and pro-slavery. Charming.
Then… WAR! The Widow Greenhow promptly became a Confederate spy in Washington, acquiring sweet info from Union officers, senators, and even the goddamned Vice President. This helped the Confederates win the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. How did she pull this off? Because her sources of that info were thinking with the wrong head.
Given how subtle the Mata Hari School of Spycraft is and how very quiet Greenhow expressed her pro-Confederacy sympathies, Allan Pinkerton and his detectives cottoned onto her pretty damned quickly. After a search of her home, he put her under house arrest in August, 1861. (And oh man, did he find a lot of shit in his search. Also, she still didn’t knock it off with the information smuggling and threw a fit whenever the detectives inevitably discovered her latest scheme.) This was, of course, terrible, so she complained to the Secretary of State. The complaint went public, the North was pissed that her treatment was not at all, terrible, so she got sent to Old Capitol Prison in January.
There, she was was subject to horrific tortures and deprivations. She was strip searched (by female detectives, who knew she was in the habit of hiding papers in her clothing.) Her daughter, Little Rose, became ill and she bravely refused to allow the Union doctor to come near her precious one, demanding her own doctor. (She had the option of sending Little Rose to family, but had refused.) And worst of all, she had to share a prison with ESCAPED SLAVES! (They’d been given the extra cells as refuge.) They hired one to CLEAN HER CELL! And they said things like, “Massa Lincoln made me as good as you.” THE NERVE!
Eventually, the Union got sick of her and kicked her ass down south. Had she been a man, she’d been hanged. Yet she had still expected to be allowed to stay in Washington and spy with no consequence.
Naturally, once she was safely in the bosom of the Confederacy, Jeff Davis sent Greenhow off to Europe to plead the rebels’ case to the movers and shakers of Europe. (There did exist quite a bit of sympathy for it over there. Or was it schadenfreude? So hard to tell.) Away she sailed, Little Rose in tow, running Union blockades. (She stuffed the kid in a French convent to be educated a little while after arrival.) How did she do once she was there, you might wonder?
Well! If you go by her own account, she was just, like, so amazing! Like, she totally put Napoleon III in his place when he had the unmitigated gall to question Confederate military strategy. (Keep in mind that she was trying to secure his public support.) If some fool abolitionist dared to challenge her, she made the whole room go silent with her stinging and so clever rebuke. Talk about Lincoln? She’d make an amazing reference to the newfangled Theory of Evolution to call him a baboon! Mention Harriet Beecher Stowe? She’d tut and and call you a candidate for a straight jacket! Lord Derby, who she considered to be 100% ignorant of America, reportedly called her the ‘best diplomatist I have ever seen.’ – I’ve a hunch that if he really did say that to her, it was said with sarcasm that flew over her head.
Also, everyone in France and England were ugly (especially the ladies) and stupid, and also, everything was stupid. “The French people are brutal ignorant and depraved to a degree beyond description and have no appreciation of our struggle.” Etc., etc.
Again, she was trying to secure international support for the Confederacy. Well, she got her memoirs written and published while she was in Britain, so I suppose she accomplished something. She left in October, 1864 on the Condor, having accomplished nothing else.
That ended badly. The Condor was run aground on the shores of North Carolina by a Union gunboat. She decided to get on a boat and row off in the company of a bunch of sailors and a Newfoundland puppy so the Yankees wouldn’t get her again (because she was treated so horribly last time), but waves happened and the boat capsized.
You’ll be happy to know that the puppy – oh, and the sailors, but I know that you were really worried about the puppy – lived. Greenhow sank like a stone because she’d sewn $2000 worth of gold (1864 money) into her underwear.
Today, there still exists those who believe that Greenhow was a Great Romantic Heroine (TM), despite, you know, being an incredibly racist, shallow-minded hypocrite. Because history isn’t written by the winners. History is written by those who shout the loudest.