Varina Davis’s critical assessment of Confederate spy Rose Greenhow

Rose Greenhow, from her book

Rose Greenhow as pictured in her book, 1863.

As a Confederate spy in Washington, Rose Greenhow used her relationships with men in high level positions in the Union government or military to gain access to sensitive information. She was eventually caught, imprisoned in Washington, then banished across Confederate lines.

Greenhow was a major hero to the Confederacy, and when she drowned on October 1, 1864 while returning on a blockade running ship from a trip to England, she was buried with full military honors.

In its edition of October 12, 1864 the Richmond Daily Dispatch described the funeral:

Hundreds of ladies lined the wharf at Wilmington upon the approach of the steamer bearing Mrs. Greenhow’s remains. The Soldiers’ Aid Society took charge of the funeral, which took place from the chapel of Hospital No. 4.

The coffin…covered with the Confederate flag, was borne to Oakdale Cemetery, followed by an immense funeral cortege… Rain fell in torrents during the day; but as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, the sun burst forth in the brightest majesty, and a rainbow of the most vivid color spanned the horizon. Let us accept the omen… for her, the quiet sleeper, who, after many storms and a tumultuous and checkered life, came to peace and rest at last.

Varina Davis-en'wikipedia'org@wiki@Varina_Davis#mediaviewer@File~VHowellDavis

Varina Davis

But even though she had served the Confederate cause well, being credited by Jefferson Davis with providing information that allowed the rebels to win the battle of First Manassas, Rose Greenhow’s way of life did not meet with universal approbation in the South, especially among women.

Varina Davis, wife of the Confederate president, expressed her less than glowing assessment of Greenhow in a letter to her friend, the diarist Mary Chesnut:

October 8, 1864, Richmond, Virginia

Nothing has so impressed me as the account of poor Mrs. Greenhow’s sudden summons to a higher court than those she strove to shine in. And not an hour in the day is the vivid picture which exists in my mind obliterated of the men who rowed her in across ‘the cruel, crawling, hungry foam’ and her poor wasted beautiful face all divested of its meretricious ornaments and her scheming head hanging helplessly upon those who but an hour before she felt so able and willing to deceive. She was a great woman spoiled by education – or the want of it. She has left few less prudent women behind her– and many less devoted to our cause. “She loved much,” and ought she not to be forgiven? May God have mercy upon her and upon her orphan child.

By being “able and willing to deceive” men, Rose Greenhow had provided significant aid to the Confederacy. And they were grateful. But you have to wonder whether, if she had lived, the “hundreds of ladies” who buried her with such pomp and adulation would ever have truly accepted her.

Ron Franklin

For more on Varina Davis, see
Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Union Spy In The Confederate White House

About RonElFran

Ron Franklin is pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
This entry was posted in Jefferson Davis, Spies, The Confederacy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Varina Davis’s critical assessment of Confederate spy Rose Greenhow

  1. aurinia81 says:

    Dear Mr Franklin,

    Thank you so much for this little gem! I enjoy reading your posts on the Civil War a lot and hope to learn much more about this fascinating period. Would you be so kind as to tell me the source for Varina Davis’ letter? I currently research Rose Greenhow for an article and would like to quote the letter. Unfortunately I’m not allowed to use blog posts as sources. Thank you for the interesting insights, and I hope to read many more posts from you.

    Take care,


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