Monthly Archives: August 2012

With Greenhow's help, the Confederacy won an important victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861

Rose Greenhow, Confederate Spy                                                                                 By Edward T. O’Donnell

Confederate spy, Rose O’Neal Greenhow

On August 23, 1861, Rose O’Neal Greenhow heard a knock at the front door of her fashionable Washington, DC home.  Outside stood several secret service agents bearing papers placing her under house arrest.  The charge was conducting espionage for the Confederacy.  Greenhow became an instant celebrity and, despite her confinement under armed guard, she continued to transmit vital secrets to the Confederate government for another six months.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was born in 1817 in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Her ancestors, the O’Neals, migrated from Ireland to the Chesapeake region in the late 1600’s.  Her father was a planter, but apparently not a very successful one.  She received only a limited formal education, but by all accounts was very smart.  She was also quite attractive and impetuous, leading many to call her “Wild Rose” when she was young.

As a teenager, Rose O’Neal moved to Washington, DC with her sister and took up residence with an aunt who ran a boarding house.  This arrangement allowed them to befriend many young and ambitious politicians who boarded in the house and by the time they were in their twenties the O’Neal sisters were active in the capital’s elite social scene.  At age 26 Rose married Robert Greenhow, a wealthy and socially prominent Virginian who worked for the State Department.  They had four daughters together before Robert died in the early 1850s.  As a widow Rose had both wealth and powerful friends to rely upon, the latter including some of the most important political figures in the capital.

When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861 Greenhow – known for her pro-South sympathies — was recruited into a Confederate spy ring.  As a woman she was, at least initially, above suspicion.  This cover allowed her to ask all sorts of questions of her high placed friends in the Lincoln administration and Congress without raising an eyebrow.  But what appeared to her powerful friends as the excited chatter of an attractive southern belle was in fact the calculated secret gathering of an expert spy.  Perhaps her most indiscreet source of information was Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts whom much evidence suggests may have been her lover.

Greenhow not only proved adept at gathering information, she also managed to recruit dozens of additional spies and devised several ingenious methods for transmitting the information gathered to the right people.

With Greenhow’s help, the Confederacy won an important victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861

Her greatest success came in the weeks leading up to the war’s first major battle, Bull Run.  On July 10, 1861, Greenhow sent one of her recruits, a young woman named Betty Duvall, into Confederate lines.  Carefully hidden in her clothing were coded massages detailing the Union Army’s plan of attack.  These were immediately forwarded to Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  Six days later Greenhow sent additional details to Beauregard outlining, the general later wrote, that “the enemy – 55,000 strong, I believe – would positively commence that day his advance from Arlington Heights and Alexandria on to Manassas [near Bull Run].”  Beauregard sent this information to President Jefferson Davis who responded by ordering Gen. Joseph Johnston to move his army 50 miles to reinforce Beauregard.  On July 21, in what proved to be a confusing clash of inexperienced armies, the Confederacy handed the Union a humiliating defeat.  Days later Greenhow received a note from the head of the spy ring: “Our President and our General direct me to thank you.  We rely upon you for further information.  The Confederacy owes you a debt.”

Despite a mounting counterintelligence effort by the Lincoln administration that increased the likelihood that she would be exposed as a spy, Greenhow continued to gather and transmit information into the summer.  In late July, however, suspicion over her activities began to mount and government agents began surveillance of her home.  Three weeks later, on August 23, 1861, they placed her under house arrest along with her youngest daughter and several suspected spies.  A thorough search of the premises turned up copies of eight intelligence reports concerning Union military strength and plans.  On August 21, for example, Greenhow had written “No more troops have arrived.  Great activity and anxiety here, and the whole [military] strength concentrating around Washington, and the cry ‘The Capital in danger,’ renewed.”  Several of the reports mentioned her high placed sources by name, including Senator Wilson.

News that a major Confederate spy – and a woman at that – had been arrested in the capital soon hit the newspapers.  The novelty of her story made Greenhow a celebrity of sorts and thousands of curiosity seekers filed by her house each day hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

House arrest did not stop Greenhow from continuing her work as a spy.  As she later wrote in her account of her saga, when she discovered that one of her guards was smitten with one of her maids, she quickly took advantage of the situation.  The maid, who was devoted to Greenhow, agreed to lead the guard on and accepted his frequent invitations to take long strolls through the city.  The lovestruck man never suspected that she was using these walks to sneak information in and out of the Greenhow house.

The Lincoln administration decided the best course of action for dealing with a female

Rose O’Neal Greenhow wrote a best-selling account of her exploits in Washington, DC during the first year of the war.

spy was to exile her to the South.  So Greenhow was released in the spring of 1862 and sent to Richmond.  She met President Davis who bestowed upon her $2,500 in gratitude for her services, saying “But for you there would have been no battle of Bull Run.”  One year later she accepted a new assignment and sailed for Europe to lobby the governments of France and England on behalf of the Confederacy.  There she wrote a book about her experiences, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolitionist Rule at Washington which became a bestseller. But on the return voyage in September of 1864, Greenhow’s vessel ran aground off the coast of North Carolina and she was drowned when her lifeboat overturned.

Sources and Further reading:

Ann Blackman, Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy (Random House, 2005).

Larry G. Eggleston, Women in the Civil War: Extraordinary Stories of Soldiers, Spies, Nurses, Doctors, Crusaders, and Others (McFarland, 2009)

Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War For The Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

Rose O’Neal Greenhow, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington (1863)

H. Donald Winkler, Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War (Cumberland House, 2010)

The tombstone marking the grave of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, NM. The original stone was stolen and this one was placed here in 1930.

The Short and Violent Life of Billy the Kid                                                                                 By Edward T. O’Donnell

On August 17, 1877, young William Henry McCarty became a killer and outlaw.  Attacked by a barroom bully in Arizona, the seventeen-year old killed the man with his pistol and fled to nearby New Mexico where he tried to start a new life as a ranch hand.  But he would soon find himself embroiled in a bitter and bloody rancher feud, a conflict that propelled him to national infamy as “Billy the Kid,” one of the most notorious outlaws in the west.

Billy the Kid was born William Henry McCarty to Irish immigrant parents Catherine and Michael McCarty in New York City on September 17, 1859.  Like many of their fellow Irish immigrants, the McCarty’s lived in poverty in a run down tenement on the Lower East Side.  When Billy’s father died soon after his birth, he and his mother headed west, eventually landing in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

There in 1873 Billy’s mother married a miner named William Antrim.  Her death the next year from a long bout with tuberculosis hit Billy hard and set him on a downward spiral.  He accompanied his step-father to a silver strike in Arizona, near a place called Globe City.  Antrim alternated between abusing and ignoring Billy, leaving him to fall in with a rough crowd in the mining town.  By age sixteen, Billy was known as a violent and reckless young man who possessed little regard for authority.  Shortly after his arrest for stealing laundry, he set out on his own, supporting himself as a ranch hand, cattle rustler, and gambler.

Up to this point the 17-year old’s offenses were relatively minor, given the rough and lawless character of life in the 1870s southwest.  But that changed one afternoon in August 1877 when Billy got into an altercation with a fellow rowdy named Frank Cahill. “Windy” Cahill was a big man – considerably larger than the slight Billy – who delighted in taunting others.  No one remembers what Billy said in response to one of the burly man’s barbs, but it prompted Cahill to attack.  He threw Billy to the ground and began to pummel him.  Somehow Billy managed to pull his gun and fired into Cahill’s stomach.  When Cahill died the next day, Billy was long gone.

The only known photograph of Billy the Kid

Now an outlaw, he headed for New Mexico and again fell in with cattle rustlers and horse thieves.  But as was common in the wilder days of the west, men like Billy were often hired by ranchers (sometimes the very ones they stole from) to protect their herds from other rustlers or rival ranchers imposing on their grazing and watering areas.  Billy was hired by a wealthy rancher named John Henry Tunstall, a man then embroiled in a bitter struggle with a rival rancher named James Dolan.  Dolan and his partner William Murphy held a monopoly on the local beef market in Lincoln County and were notorious for paying prices for beef that kept ranchers on the verge of ruin.  When Tunstall, the largest rancher in the county set out to break the monopoly, he found that Dolan controlled all the local politicians, judges, and businessmen.  Worse, Dolan hired rustlers to harm Tunstall’s cattle and drive him out of business.  Tunstall’s response was to hire his own men, including Billy.

The simmering feud between Dolan and Tunstall erupted into a conflict that came to be called the Lincoln County War when Dolan had his men assassinate Tunstall on April 18, 1878.  When the local sheriff, a man under the thumb of Dolan, refused to arrest any suspects, Billy and a group of Tunstall’s men took matters into their own hands.  Only days after the assassination, they hunted down and killed two of the suspects.  Three weeks later they killed Brady in an ambush.  Another suspect was shot soon thereafter.  Dolan’s men got revenge a few weeks later when they gunned down three men in Billy’s group and Tunstall’s business partner.  Billy narrowly escaped.

The Lincoln County War cooled after that episode.  Billy laid low in Fort Sumner, New Mexico (not far from Lincoln) until arrested by a posse sent by the governor of the New Mexico territory.  Billy soon escaped and rejoined his friends in the hills near Fort Sumner.  In late December 1880 Sheriff Pat Garrett found them and arrested Billy, charging him with the murder of Sheriff Barry.  A jury found Billy guilty and sentenced him to hang, but he again escaped the day before going to the gallows, killing both his guards in the process.

By now Billy’s exploits had become the stuff of sensational stories in newspapers across the country.  Journalists often exaggerated the details and weaved in copious amounts of fiction into their dispatches, turning Billy – a nondescript ranch hand caught in the midst of a brutal range war – the nation’s most famous outlaw.  And for good measure, they gave him a catchy nickname, “Billy the Kid,” a moniker that derived from Billy’s youth (he was only 21) and boyish face.

The tombstone marking the grave of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, NM. The original stone was stolen and this one was placed here in 1930.

Sheriff Garrett eventually caught up with Billy on July 14, 1881 and killed him with a bullet in the heart.  Garrett was heralded for ridding the west, in the words of the New York Times, of “probably the most noted desperado on the Pacific coast … [and] one of the most dangerous characters this country has produced.”  That hyperbole indicated the myth making yet to come as novels, ballads, movies, and oral tradition turned William Henry McCarty into a national icon.


Sources and Further Reading:

Mark Lee Gardner, To Hell on a Fast Horse: Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West (2010)

Pat F. Garrett, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid (1882)

Michael Wallis, Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride (2007)


The Young Republic in Peril: The Whiskey Rebellion                                                                              By Edward T. O’Donnell

On August 7, 1794 President George Washington decided the time had come for action.  Popular protest by farmers in western Pennsylvania against a new federal excise tax on whiskey had recently turned into an armed insurrection.  Recognizing the threat this “Whiskey Rebellion” posed to the new constitutional government established only a few years earlier, Washington mobilized a force of federal soldiers and personally led them to confront the rebels.

The men and women who settled on the colonial frontier in the 17th and 18th centuries were in many ways the ultimate risk takers. They were also more often than not poor.  With the best land near the coastal cities and waterways (vital to transporting agricultural produce) taken by earlier arrivals and the wealthy, those who wanted to own land headed for the interior where both opportunity and peril (in the form of hostile Indians, economic isolation, and lawlessness) abounded.  Colonial governments welcomed these risk takers because they expanded the line of settlement westward and acted as a buffer against Indian attacks.  But these same officials were also leery of the colonial frontiersmen’s fiercely guarded independence and resistance to government authority—especially taxes. Colonial history includes many episodes of rebellion by discontented frontier settlers, including Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), the Paxton Boys (1763), and the Regulators (1760s).

So the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 fits into a larger tradition of frontier discontent in early American history.  But why all the fuss about a tax on whiskey?

The answer lies with the important role that whiskey played in frontier society.  Whiskey became a vital part of everyday frontier life, perhaps because it was so tough, lonely, and devoid of diversion.   Many family farms maintained a still for producing whiskey and the average adult male on the frontier consumed prodigious amounts of the stuff each year.  Observers of frontier gatherings such as weddings and harvest festivals were often shocked by the amount of whiskey consumed and the violent games and wrestling matches that followed. This explains why easterners generally viewed frontier inhabitants as backward, violent, and crude.

But whiskey also played an essential role in the local economy as a form of currency.  This was especially true when it came to obtaining important goods from frontier market towns like Pittsburgh.  Primitive roads and difficult terrain on the frontier made it prohibitively expensive to transport heavy barrels of grain to market. But a farmer could distill one hundred pounds of grain into one gallon of whiskey that weighed a little more than eight pounds and fetched a price of 25 cents in Lancaster or Pittsburgh. That money allowed a family to purchase necessities like tools and guns, as well as a few luxuries such as coffee and sugar.

Alexander Hamilton

Given how central it was to his everyday life and livelihood, the typical frontier farmer reacted angrily to any perceived threat to his whiskey.  Imagine, then, his reaction to the news in 1791 that the new federal government had, at the behest of the Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, enacted a new excise tax on whiskey.  Similar taxes on liquor had been on the books since the 1690s, but they applied only to rum.  The 1791 tax on whiskey (seven cents per gallon) was intended to raise much needed revenue for the federal government to pay off its huge debt (much of it being state debts run up during the Revolution).  It also contained a provision that taxed large distillers at a lower rate, putting a greater burden on the small-scale distillers.

Outraged, frontier farmers took a page from the Revolutionary era and like their patriotic brethren during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-66, formed a resistance movement.  From Pennsylvania to Georgia, distillers refused to register their stills with their local country tax office.  Farmers charged with failure to pay the whiskey tax refused to travel to Philadelphia to stand trial.  And federal revenue collectors who ventured to the frontier were beaten, tarred and feathered, and otherwise harassed to the point where they feared for their lives.

Washington and Hamilton initially opted for a wait and see approach, hoping the resistance would died down.  But from 1791 when the tax took effect, to the summer of 1794, defiance only grew stronger and President George Washington was concerned for the future of the country.

Protests and attacks on tax collectors occurred all across the frontier, but the most intense spirit of rebellion was found in Pennsylvania. One particularly notable incident involved farmer and distiller William Miller. In mid-July 1794, he was served a summons by a local politician named John Neville to appear before a judge in Philadelphia to answer charges of tax evasion. Miller refused and sent Neville packing. “I felt my blood boil,” he later recounted.

Neville returned to his large manor home and soon found it surrounded by a force of 50 armed men. He and his family and slaves managed to drive them off, killing one of the rebel farmers. Neville then asked for military protection and received a contingent of 12 soldiers under the command of Major Abraham Kirkpatrick from a fort near Pittsburgh. The next morning a larger rebel force arrived under the command of Major James McFarlane, a local farmer and Revolutionary War veteran. In the ensuing fight, McFarlane was shot and killed — some say after he was lured toward Neville’s house by a flag of surrender. The rebels then stormed the house and forced the surrender of Kirkpatrick and his soldiers (they were released on condition that they leave the area). Finding that Neville had escaped earlier, the rebels then burned his house and outbuildings.

Thousands turned out for the funeral of Major McFarlane and it soon turned into a giant recruiting rally for the rebel farmer cause. Within weeks a large rebel force of some 5,000 to 7,000 had gathered near Pittsburgh and begun to drill. On Aug. 1 a contingent marched to Pittsburgh, where they were met by a nervous reception committee eager to avoid any violence. They plied the rebels with food and whiskey and agreed to banish certain citizens of questionable loyalty.

While this maneuver seemed innocent enough, the prospect of Pittsburgh being overrun and occupied by a larger rebel force terrified the Washington administration. Clearly, if the new federal government was to have any credibility, Washington and his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, would have to make a stand. On Aug. 7, 1794 Washington issued a proclamation, requisitioning 13,000 militiamen from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia and ordering the frontier rebels to return to their homes. Federal and state commissioners were sent to the frontier with offers of amnesty to all who would quit the rebellion. When they received a weak response to this overture, the decision was made to send the army to the frontier.
Commanded by Revolutionary War hero and current governor of Virginia Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, the force contained many other notables, including five of Washington’s nephews, two other state governors, and a young soldier named Meriwether Lewis (of future Lewis and Clark fame). Gathering near Harrisburg in October 1794, they were reviewed by President Washington, who arrived to boost their spirits and to remind them of their loyalty to the federal government.

All was in order except for one thing: the rebellion had begun to fizzle in the face of the federal threat. Most rebel farmers slipped away and returned to their farms and stills. With no rebel army to disperse, Hamilton ordered the militia to fan out and arrest any suspected ringleaders. Hundreds were taken and questioned and eventually 20 were sent to Philadelphia for prosecution. They were paraded through the streets with “Insurrection” inscribed on their hats and thrown in jail to await trial. Two were eventually convicted of treason and sentenced to hang. But Washington decided that leniency was in order and pardoned both men.

Hamilton likewise played a role in defusing the crisis by having his tax collectors also act as purchasing agents for the federal army. Now the despised collectors became customers who purchased at top dollar vast quantities of whiskey to satisfy the weekly ration owed each soldier. The hated excise tax was repealed a few years later during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson.
Although comical in some respects, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94 represented the first great challenge to the new federal government established under the Constitution in 1788. Washington’s forceful response legitimized federal authority and went a long way toward securing future generations of stable government. And the frontier farmers who led the revolt learned to channel their anger into politics as a more effective way to get the justice they sought.

Sources and Further Reading:

William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (2006)

Thomas P. Slaughter, The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution (1988)