Civil War Spy Drowns off Federal Point

Rose O'Neil Greenhow

Rose O’Neil Greenhow

During President Buchanan’s administration (1857-1861), Mrs. Rose O‘Neal Greenhow, a Southern lady – destined to become the most famous spy of the Civil War – was one of the leaders of Washington society.

Her unavoidable death will be forever associated with the demise of the Condor – its derelict to be found off Fort Fisher mound.

Allen Pinkerton, head of the Federal secret service, had the following to say about Mrs. Greenhow:

“It was a fact too notorious to need reciting here that for months … Mrs. Greenhow was actively and to a great extent openly, engaged in giving aid and comfort, sympathy and information … where they were furnished with every possible information to be obtained by the untiring energies of this remarkable woman, from her long residence at the capital, her superior education, her uncommon social powers, her very extensive acquaintance among, and her active association with the leading politicians of this nation, has possessed, almost destroyed the government.

She has made use of whoever and whatever she could as mediums to carry into effect her unholy purposes. She has not used her powers in vain among the officers of the army, not a few of whom
she has robbed of patriotic hearts and transformed them into sympathizers with the enemies of this country.”

Thus, Mrs. Greenhow was employed throughout the opening days of the war. When the press and public began crying “On to Richmond!”, the Confederates wanted to know when and where they would strike. The Southern campaign hinged on those two questions. It was Mrs. Greenhow who gave that information to General Beauregard.

Her cipher message, written on wrapping paper, set in motion the reinforcements which enabled Beauregard to concentrate his scattered forces in time to meet McDowell on the field of Manassas.

But to recite her brilliant espionage service, stay in a Federal prison (closely guarded, yet she still communicated with her country!), visit to Paris and Napoleon, and the tremendous following she created for the South in foreign countries, would take columns.

She had important information for Col. Lamb at Fort Fisher, information no one has ever discovered. In August, 1864, she left England. At Nassau she boarded the Condor, a newly built three funneled steamer. It was making its first trip as a blockade runner. On the wild night of September 30th, the Condor arrived off the Cape Fear River and in the darkness stole swiftly through the blockade.

A ship loomed up ahead. The pilot, thinking it was a Federal cruiser, swerved the wheel sharply and drove her hard aground. The ship, which had been sighted, was the Night Hawk. She had been run aground the night before. A mountainous sea was running. As dawn broke, the Yankee fleet sighted the foundered ship and moved in.

Mrs. Greenhow demanded to be put ashore. She was warned that the sea was too rough. There might be an accident. But she was adamant.

Rose O'Neil GreenhowOakdale Cemetery, Wilmington

Rose O’Neil Greenhow
Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington

The boat was lowered, but scarcely was it clear of the tackles ere a fatal wave caught it … Mrs. Greenhow sank at once. Her heavy, black dress and a bag full of gold fastened to her waist prevented her from the struggling chance due any drowning human. The following day her body was washed ashore.

The simple inscription cared on a marble cross at her grave in the Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington reads: “Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow. A bearer of dispatches to the Confederacy”.


[Editor’s Note: This article was published in ‘The Evening Post’, Wilmington, NC, Wednesday; June 6, 1945 and comes from the collection of William Reaves.

It was later published in the March 1997 – FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)]

Rose O’Neal Greenhow – Wikipedia

Greenhow’s Funeral in WilmingtonWilmington Sentinel, October 1, 1864:

Original documents related to Rose O’Neal GreenhowSpecial Collections Library  Duke University

The Condor, Greenhow & NC Underwater Archaeology