The Civil War Commemorative – half-dollar, one dollar and five-dollar – coins tell the tale of Rose O’Neal Greenhow and her efforts as a spy for the Confederacy in Washington DC.
Her support began just as the war began, however as a prominent person in Washington DC society, perhaps her work began even earlier.
In his report to the War Department, Allan Pinkerton, head of the Federal Secret Service, wrote:
“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.
“Her house was the rendezvous for the most violent enemies of the government, where they were furnished with every possible information to be obtained by the untiring energies of this very remarkable woman.
“That since the commencement of this rebellion this 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 an almost superhuman power, all of which she has most wickedly used to destroy 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 the country.
“She had her secret and insidious agents in all parts of this city and scattered over a large extent of country.
“She had alphabets, numbers, ciphers, and various other not mentioned ways of holding intercourse.
“Statistical facts were thus obtained and forwarded that could have been found nowhere but in the national archives, thus leading me to the conclusion that such evidence must have been obtained from employees and agents in the various departments of the government.”
In July 1861, she received the following telegram from her handler, Thomas Jordan, “Our President and our General direct me to thank you. We rely upon you for further information. The Confederacy owes you a debt. (Signed) Jordan, Adjutant-General.”
In the telegram, the president was Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The general was General P. G. T. Beauregard. And, their appreciation was for the intelligence she provided that allowed the south to win the First Battle of Bull Run.
Initially, Pinkerton observed Mrs. Greenhow due to her broad range of friendships on both sides – the north and the south.
After he became convinced Mrs. Greenhow was sending information to the Confederacy, Pinkerton placed her on house arrest.
Later, though, Mrs. Greenhow and her young daughter, Rose, were placed in the Old Capitol Prison where they spent several months.
The Union forces released them without trial provided they stayed within confederate boundaries.
Not to be deterred, Mrs. Greenhow traveled to Europe, mainly France and Britain, where she continued her efforts to gain support of the southern cause.
While there, she wrote “My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington” due to society’s popular request to hear of her exploits.
In August 1864, Mrs. Greenhow traveled back to the southern US carrying dispatches to the Confederacy along with gold.
As her ship, the Condor, neared the North Carolina coast, a Union gunboat gave chase. The Condor floundered on a sand bar.
Fearing capture, Mrs. Greenhow begged to be taken ashore in a rowboat. Unfortunately in the rough waves, the rowboat capsized.
Weighed down by the gold she carried and her heavy silk dress, Mrs. Greenhow drowned on that fateful night.
The next morning her body washed ashore. The Confederacy gave her a full military funeral with honors in Wilmington, North Carolina.
A few years later, the Ladies’ Memorial Society placed a cross at her gravesite. On one side it reads, “Mrs. Rose O’Neal Greenhow. A Bearer of Dispatches to the Confederate Government.”
On the opposite side, the tombstone states, “Drowned off Fort Fisher, from the steamer Condor, in attempting to run the Blockade, September 30th, 1864.
Each year on memorial day, they place a laurel wreath, like those for soldiers, on her grave.
In honor of Rose O’Neal Greenhow’s bravery, the women’s auxiliary of the Sons of Confederate Veterans changed its name to the Order of the Confederate Rose in 1993.
A picture of Mrs. Greenhow with her young daughter while at the Old Capitol Prison form the background for the reverse images of the Civil War Commemorative – half-dollar, one dollar and five-dollar – coins.