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The summer sun beat down on a wooden milk cart rumbling along a dirt road that stretched up the Washington side of the Potomac River. A long, lazy cloud of yellow dust trailed from the wheels and hung in the heavy summer air. The driver, wearing a frayed gray frock, passed one sprawling Union army encampment after another. To soldiers moving supply wagons upriver to reinforce newly dug-in positions, the slender figure seemed but a simple farm girl returning home from a morning of selling sweet cream and buttermilk at the city market.
She was, in fact, not a country girl at all, but a beautiful, well-bred sixteen-year-old named Bettie Duvall, on a secret mission to Confederate territory. It was Tuesday, July 9, 1861, and the untested troops of North and South were spoiling for their first real fight.
Heading out of the Federal City through Georgetown, Miss Duvall rode by Camp Banks at Georgetown Heights, headquarters of the First Massachusetts Infantry. Some of the soldiers had left that morning, trudging up the road to Great Falls to relieve another unit that had lost two men, shot by rebels from across the river. The two were among the first casualties of war, and the city was in mourning. The Union troops occupied themselves as best they could. “We have received some new pants today, dark blue,” one wrote in his diary. “Are to have blue jackets, I believe.”1 When he was hungry, the soldier sneaked out of camp to look for apples, gooseberries, and currants. He also picked a rose from the garden of a departed secessionist and sent it to his parents. A few soldiers beat the heat by taking a dip in the river. They had been told to be ready to march at a moment’s notice.
All around camp, thin wisps of dark smoke curled up from cooking fires, carrying the smell of burnt sugar to hungry soldiers. Boiled rice with sugar sauce was being prepared for dinner. It was a simple meal, but the men liked the sweet taste, and it was certainly a step up from skillygalee, hard bread soaked in cold water and fried brown in pork fat. “I must say that Uncle Sam don’t feed his soldiers as he ought,” wrote a soldier who signed his letter “C.B.L.” “Hard crackers and salt junk is not the thing for a man to fight on.”
Farther up the road, the cart passed Camp Winfield Scott, headquarters of the Second Michigan Infantry, “Richardson’s Brigade.” It was, in the words of soldier Charles B. Haydon, “a beautiful location,” that rose “almost to the dignity of mountains.” There had been some fighting upriver two days before, and the infantrymen were eager for more action. “I for one am ready to work & give if need be all I am worth which is very little, til the last secessionist is dead or subdued,” Haydon wrote.
The men’s provisions were poor, and theft was a problem. Disease was worse. Measles had broken out, and the sick list lengthened daily. Many were also suffering from severe diarrhea and bloody flux, or dysentery, the result of their insufficient diet. When the surgeon expressed bafflement about how to cure it, some men took to doctoring themselves by drinking the juice of boiled blackberry root. They knew they had to get better quickly, because they had been ordered to pack their knapsacks and expected to move out that night.
A mile beyond the camp, the cart turned sharply left and rattled onto the loose old boards of Chain Bridge. Union artillerymen at Battery Martin Scott, a new, two-tiered stone-and-turf fortification overlooking the bridge, could see the cart and driver from their outpost with its commanding, panoramic view of the Potomac. Twelve-pounder guns mounted at the end of the bridge could sweep the span, and one hundred feet up the hill, three big forty-two-pounders could rake not just the bridge, but the heights beyond. The Union cannoneers used an old stone mill on the opposite side of the Potomac to get their range. But the cart made its way peacefully across. No one stopped the driver.
Bettie Duvall continued up the road. She had left the city hours earlier and had not even gone halfway to her uncertain destination.
Despite regular reports of Confederate soldiers lurking around their camps, Union troops controlled both banks of the river, including the northern edge of Virginia from Alexandria below the capital to encampments all along Arlington Heights and up to Chain Bridge. Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman had command of the three New York regiments and the Second Wisconsin Infantry assigned to protect the far side of the river.
The weather had been intensely hot, interrupted only by severe afternoon thunderstorms. During those brief, violent downpours, water rushed through the soldiers’ tents like a river, soaking knapsacks and forcing them to sleep on raised boards. Confederate patrols fired across the river at Union encampments at night, and the Union forces returned fire, reporting some casualties. Everyone was on edge.
Bettie Duvall drove her cart up a steep hill into the Virginia countryside. The road was narrow and badly cut by wagon wheels, slowing her progress. While most of the Union wagons and artillery were behind her, the young Southerner had to look out for Yankee scouts and pickets.
Not wanting to travel after nightfall, which would increase the danger, she stopped at Sharon, a plantation on the Georgetown & Leesburg Road just west of the village of Langley. It was owned by the family of her friend Lieutenant Catesby R. Jones. Jones had resigned his post as an officer in the United States Navy and left to join the Confederate navy when Virginia seceded from the Union three months earlier, but the family still lived in the ancestral home. The next morning, Miss Duvall changed into a stylish riding habit, abandoned her humble cart, borrowed a saddle horse, and cantered off in the direction of Lewinsville and Tyson Cross roads, where travelers sometimes stopped in a peach grove to rest.
The dirt road took her past deserted wooden houses and farms with weathered ox fences and through undulating fields of ripening wheat and Indian corn. She headed for the village of Fairfax Court House, some twenty miles west of Washington and only ten miles north of Manassas Junction, the Confederate headquarters of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. The Louisiana native, hero of Fort Sumter, had just arrived at Manassas from Charleston to take command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.
Near Vienna, Miss Duvall came upon a Confederate outpost and was ordered to halt. The Confederate soldiers, whose gray jackets had already faded to butternut by the relentless sun and yellow dust, had dug trenches in the road and felled thick trees to slow the Union army’s expected advance. At last, she had reached friendly territory.
Miss Duvall told the pickets she had come to see Brigadier General Milledge Luke Bonham, a South Carolina politician who days before had been ordered to relinquish his command of the army to Beauregard, a professional soldier. Bonham, who remained as the general’s top aide, was at Fairfax Court House, about five miles to the south. The soldiers escorted their charge to Bonham’s headquarters, where she tied her horse to the bough of a tree. But when the general learned of his visitor, he at first refused to see her, fearing she was yet another lady spy dispatched by the Federals to assess the strength of the Confederate army. Told that the young woman was prepared to take her message to Beauregard herself and also, perhaps more important, that she was “very pretty,” Bonham relented. “I was very much startled,” he wrote, “at recognizing the face of a beautiful young lady, a brunette, with sparkling black eyes, perfect features, glossy black hair.” Bonham, who seven months before had been a congressman from South Carolina, remembered seeing Bettie Duvall in the spectator gallery of the House of Representatives, a frequent gathering spot for Southern ladies.
When she told him the content of her message and he agreed to forward it to his commander, Miss Duvall reached back, took a tuck comb from a chignon of long, silky hair that had been wound gracefully around her head, and shook loose her locks. Bonham watched spellbound as a tiny bag fell out. It was not larger than a silver dollar and had been carefully stitched out of a torn piece of glossy black silk, the kind used in the finest of mourning clothes. The purse contained a slip of white paper with a combination of numbers and letters written in bold handwriting with black ink: 054 1 7 3. It was code for “Beauregard.”15 With it was a ten-word message, also in code, with information Beauregard would find critical: “McDowell has certainly been ordered to advance on the sixteenth. ROG.”
Bettie Duvall’s mission was complete. The Confederates now knew that Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Union forces around Washington, would march out to attack them in less than one week.
The initials ROG belonged to Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a ravishing and fearless Southerner and grande dame of Washington society. She operated a Confederate spy ring in the nation’s capital, and Bettie Duvall was one of her scouts. An engaging widow with three daughters, including an eight-year-old who carried her mother’s name, Rose was the heart and soul of the operation.
She had a passion for politics and many friends, both Democrats and Republicans. She also had an almost reckless disregard for danger and a fiercely independent streak. She could be manipulative and headstrong at one moment, dripping warm Southern cha-arm the next, each syllable melting slowly from her lips like delicate drops of dew.
Now in middle age, Rose was a handsome woman who carried herself with an air of elegance. While lines creased the corners of her dark, deep-set eyes and her waist had thickened slightly—she had given birth to eight children, five of whom died young—Rose radiated sensuality. In late evening, when she let down her luxuriant dark hair, it fell below her waist.
Rose also exuded a hint of vulnerability that men found irresistible. And unlike most well-bred Southern women in an increasingly partisan capital, she entertained Union and secessionist friends not only at her table—but, it was whispered, on late night calls as well. Senator Henry D. Wilson of Massachusetts, an abolitionist Republican, was a frequent visitor. So was Senator Joe Lane of Oregon, a Democrat. Both entertained thoughts of higher office.
Rose captivated the hearts of even the most proper gentlemen, usually to their regret and sometimes to their dismay. With flattery and the finest of feminine wiles, she cajoled military secrets from Union sympathizers, whose inflated egos blinded them to her clever ways and loosened their tongues. Skilled at the art of gathering information from normally tight-lipped officials, she entertained statesmen and diplomats and charmed their lesser-ranked clerks and aides as well. Some may have had unimpressive titles, but their access to paperwork, including military maps, made them vital contacts.
But as with many players on the Washington stage, Rose’s graceful manner and keen sense of style masked a nagging secret. Since the accidental death seven years before of her husband, Robert Greenhow, who had been a high-ranking official at the State Department, she had no regular source of income and was later forced to rely on a son-in-law for financial support. That’s never easy, especially for a proud woman like Rose Greenhow, but over the years it forced her to be resourceful. She had become a skilled seamstress and could make the fine black silk dresses with a decorative thread of white lace down the arm that she wore for years as a sign of mourning. She would have had no trouble stitching the small black purse Bettie Duvall had concealed in her hair.
Rose Greenhow was a sophisticated lady of many talents, many passions. When James Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857, she became one of the capital’s most prominent and influential women, a close friend and confidante of the president, whom she had known for years. Although Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor, there was no suggestion that he and Rose ever had a romantic involvement, none whatsoever. In fact, historians have long thought he was asexual.
Yet Rose basked in the glow of her friendship with the president. It offered her entrée to the highest levels of Washington society—to the White House, the embassies, and the most exclusive salons, where political gossip was traded over fine Madeira and old port. It also gave Rose a measure of influence, which in Washington is the coin of the realm.
There were other men in her life, powerful men of equally great ambition. They pursued her; she pursued them. It was a game, Rose’s game, and she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought.