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Mary Elizabeth Bowser -- Civil War Union Spy

In honor of Black History Month

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (nee Mary Jane Richards) was born into slavery in 1839 on a plantation owned by John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. When he died about four years later, his wife and daughter freed all their slaves. Mary continued working on the plantation for pay. Van Lew’s daughter, Elizabeth, was impressed with Mary’s intellect. Since African Americans were not allowed to learn to read in Virginia, she sent Mary to an African American Quaker school in Philadelphia in the late 1840s. After graduating in 1855, Mary joined other freed African Americans living in a missionary community in Liberia.

Mary and her benefactor, Elizabeth, kept in touch. In 1860, after hearing of civil war tensions in the States, Mary returned to Virginia to aid in the cause. Four days before the start of the Civil War in 1861, Mary married William Bowser, another freed slave. Their ceremony was held in a wealthy white peoples’ church. There is little known information about William before or after this time.

Elizabeth was an abolitionist and actively worked to advance the Union cause. She asked Mary to join her. Mary eagerly agreed. Elizabeth arranged for Mary to become a member of Jefferson Davis’ household staff under the name of Ellen Bond.

In addition to her intelligence, Mary was a good actress. She feigned ignorance as she went about her chores, listening to conversations between Davis, his cabinet members, and military officers at the Confederate White House where she also had the opportunity to read documents. She paid great attention to details and had a phenomenal memory, although Davis thought her “dim-witted, lazy, and slightly crazy.” She relayed all the information she gleaned to Elizabeth.

Davis was aware that there was a mole, but it wasn’t until near the end of the war that he suspected Mary. She left his employ abruptly in January 1865. On her way out, she tried, unsuccessfully, to burn down the Confederate White House.

The federal government destroyed all records about southern spies after the war to protect them from retaliation. Mary’s, and her husband’s, whereabouts after the war are not well-documented. It is unknown when or where they died.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was inducted into the U.S. Army Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1995. At the ceremony, it was stated, “Ms. Bowser succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”

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