Rose O’Neal Greenhow was born in Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1817, and moved to Washington, D.C., where, from early womanhood, she cast a powerful spell on men. She married a State Department official, through whom she met a circle of highly influential Washingtonians, including James Buchanan. Widowed in 1854, Greenhow became particularly intimate with the bachelor president. Although this relationship was probably platonic, Greenhow had many others that were anything but. Among her “gentleman callers” was a host of military and government officials, perhaps including a U.S. Senator.
Greenhow was a highly intelligent woman who had nursed John C. Calhoun through his final illness when he was a resident at her aunt’s fashionable Capitol Hill boardinghouse. She imbibed Calhoun’s states’ rights theories and became a passionate partisan of the South. When the Civil War broke out, Greenhow was recruited by Confederate spy master Thomas Jordan to obtain Union military secrets. Using her many charms, she procured information that proved highly valuable to the Confederacy at First Bull Run.
Arrested on August 23, 1861, by Alan J. Pinkerton, the man who virtually invented the profession of private detective, Greenhow was later paroled to the South, and on August 5, 1863, sailed to Europe on a mission to revive French and British support for the Confederate cause. There she met Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, and she published a best-selling memoir.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow drowned in 1864 when the blockade-runner on which she was returning from abroad ran aground off Wilmington, North Carolina.