I believe that Maria Rosetta O'Neal (above) was no hero. She was, in fact, insane. Her affliction poisoned everything and everyone she touched, until it infected a nation of 31 ½ million people and killed over 750,000 of them over four years - 2 people out of every 100 Americans alive in 1860 . She was not personally responsible for all those deaths. But Rose did her part. Her justification was that when she was four years old her father had been murdered – by one of the slaves on his Maryland plantation. And his death and the loss of emotional and financial security he had provided, fueled Rose's life long hatred and fear of the black slaves who surrounded her and on whom she depended and whom she despised. Courage and sacrifice in service of a delusion is not heroic. It is pathological.
“Wild” Rose grew into one of the most beautiful women in Washington, D.C., with flashing “tempestuous eyes” and soft olive skin "delicately flushed with color". She was also smart and witty and skilled in the bitter social wars of the small southern town that Washington has always been. But her lack of a dowry meant she did not marry until 1835, at the advanced age of 18. Robert Greenhow was twice her age but could match her intelligence and whit, and he was wealthy enough to provide her with security. After Robert died suddenly while in San Francisco in 1854, the widow won a $10,000 lawsuit against that town, and returned to Washington independently wealthy and having entered the Victorian no man's land between virgin and wife. The combination of wealth, political connections and sexual availability made her one of the most powerful women in the capital.
In 1860 this “...southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins”, viewed Abraham Lincoln's election as an attack upon “our domestic institution”, by those “ignorant...of the benign and paternal manner in which it was conducted in the South.” As part of this “paternal” institution, there were at least six “stinking and reeking” slave pens and sales lots where human beings were bought and sold like cattle, within walking distance of the White House and Capital Hill, in Washington. It was Rose Greenhow's devotion to that “paternal institution” that made her an eager recruit for the Confederacy of the Slave States. Rose Greenhow served as a conduit for one of the three spy rings collecting and dispatching intelligence to the Confederate army in Virginia, and the capital in Richmond, 100 miles to the south.
The obvious choice to command the federal army charged with crushing this pro-slavery revolt should have been the highest ranking officer, "Old Fuss and Feathers", General Winfield Scott. He was a brave decorated veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexico war of 1848. But by 1861, he was 74 years old , and weighed 300 pounds (above). General Scott had become “Old Fat and Feeble”. Scott's plan for dealing with the rebellion was to capture southern ports and blockade the coast line, forcing the southern radicals to eventually face the reality that the south was not financially nor culturally independent. But the northern public, insulted by the April attack on Fort Sumter, was in no mood to slowly constrict the south like an anaconda snake. The northern public wanted the rebels punished now, this summer of 1861
Given the demand for immediate action, Scott's choice to lead the troops in the field was Colonel Robert E. Lee (above), “the ablest soldier I know” according to Scott.. But Lee was hesitant about attacking his home state of Virginia. Offended, “Fuss and Feathers” barked, “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.” So Lee resigned and went to work for the Confederacy. Only then did Scott pick the next ranking officer, commander of the expanding Washington garrison, Irwin Mcdowell.
Born to money, and married to it as well, McDowell was the patrician in uniform, most often described as “odd”. His personality almost sounds like a mild form of autism. He could not remember faces or names, he was better at numbers than people, and was so painfully shy that when forced to speak his face would flush and his speech would slur, which some mistook for drunkenness. In fact the general was a teetotaler. He fed his insecurities with food. “At dinner he was such a Gargantuan feeder...he had but little time for conversation.” And the only thing he was certain of was that the 55,000 militia gathered in Washington that spring were not yet an army.
McDowell must have felt at times like a sane man trapped in a mad house. “I wanted very much a little time,” he wrote later, “an opportunity to test my machinery, to move it around and see whether it worked smoothly or not.” But the press for action, the drum beat for invasion, the demands for a march on Richmond had reached a frenzy. The majority of the troops in Washington (above) were 90 day militia, called up on April Fools day, and due to be released on the first of August, adding the pressure for McDowell to use them before he lost them. The new President seemed to agree. Lincoln urged McDowell, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” Still, McDowell resisted a march on Richmond. Instead, he decided, “The first object should be to reach as soon as possible the Manassas Junction...”
By 1850 it was already obvious that railroads so simplified supply problems, that all future wars would be fought along rail lines. And because of that, the little village of Centerville, Virginia, which had no railroad, loomed large in McDowell's plans. The tiny village of about 200 sat on a plateau dominating the surrounding terrain, including, 27 miles south of Alexandria, the junction of the north/south Orange and Alexandria railroad and the east/west Manassas Gap railroad. Occupy Centerville, and it was a short step across Bull Run creek to cut the Manassas Gap railroad. This would seperate the 10,000 rebels in the Shenandoah Valley from the 21,000 rebels in northern Virginia. Once federal troops had out flanked the Manassas Junction rail yards (below), the rebels would be forced to retreat another 40 miles south to the Rappahannock River. And that would put the Federal army just 30 miles outside of Richmond.
This was the plan approved by Lincoln and his cabinet, and the Congressional Republicans, the last week of June, 1861. And on Tuesday, 9 July 1861, Rose Greenhow composed a warning for the rebel commanders. She wrote that in one week (on 16 July), McDowell's entire force of upwards of 55,000 men, would advance along a line from Alexandria and Arlington Heights toward Fairfax Courthouse and Centerville. Their ultimate goal, she wrote, was to capture Manassas Junction.
This encoded message was folded and sewn into a silk packet no larger than a silver dollar. Rose entrusted this missive to 19 year old Betty Duvall (above), who tucked it into the hair bun at the back of her head.
Dressed as a farm woman, Miss Duvall drove a single horse cart across the Chain Bridge (above) over the Potomac River and canal. Switching to a horse at a safe house on the Virginia shore, Miss Duvall followed the turnpike around Arlington Heights and Robert E, Lee's plantation, and trotted down the dark road for another ten miles, to the Rebel outpost at Fairfax Courthouse (below).
Here, a rebel picket stopped the woman, who demanded to see an officer. When South Carolinian General Milledge L. Bonham appeared, the young lady announced she had an urgent message for the over all commander of rebel forces in northern Virginia. Bonham agreed to see that it was delivered as quickly as possible. "Whereupon," wrote Bonham, “she took out her tucking comb and let fall the longest and most beautiful roll of hair I have ever seen. She took then from the back of her head, where it had been safely tied, a small package..” By breakfast on Wednesday, 10 July, Rose's warning was being read in Manassas Junction by Louisiana native, General Gustave Toutant-Beauregard , and before lunch in Richmond by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
It was Davis who ordered the commander of the 10,000 rebels at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, General Joe Johnston (above), to, transfer his troops 50 miles east via the Manassas Gap railroad, to support Beauregard in defending Manassas Junction, as soon as he could safely do so. Now all the rebels at Harper's Ferry (below) needed was for the Union army to make a mistake. They did not have long to wait.