AFRICANGLOBE – The story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser is one of intrigue and espionage during the U.S. Civil War. She is among a number of Black women who served as spies for the Union. The most well-known Union spy is Harriet Tubman, who worked in South Carolina and Florida.
Like much about Mary, her exact birth and date of death are shrouded in mystery. Many commentaries report that she was likely born in 1839 as Mary Elizabeth Richards into slavery on the plantation of John and Elizabeth Van Lew near Richmond, Virginia. John Van Lew was a wealthy hardware merchant. In 1851, when John Van Lew died, his widow Elizabeth freed Mary and all of the other enslaved Africans on the Van Lew plantation. A staunch abolitionist and Quaker, Elizabeth also purchased many of her former slave’s family members owned by others. She would also free them in an effort to bring the families back together.
Recognizing Mary’s keen intelligence, Elizabeth sent her north to attend the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia. After Mary graduated she returned to Richmond and married Wilson Bowser, a free Black man on April 16, 1861. This was only a few days before the U.S. Civil War began. The couple settled near Richmond and Mary maintained a close relationship with Elizabeth.
A southern lady, Elizabeth had earned quite a reputation for her sympathies. Dubbed “Crazy Bet”, she encouraged this personae to cover the very serious espionage work for the Union when the Civil War began. She organized an intricate spy operation in support of the Union by using her resources and connections in the Confederate capital. It is said that her mansion was outfitted with many secret doors that led to secret rooms that became a safe haven for African fugitives who also supplied Elizabeth with information that she transcribed into cipher codes sent to Union officers, which included General Ulysses S. Grant.
Elizabeth’s operation became so sophisticated that she planned to send a spy to the white house of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, an able actress like Elizabeth herself, would become “Ellen Bond”, a dull-witted, but able servant for the White House of the Confederacy.
Once settled in Davis’s home, Mary played her role well. She pretended to be slow-thinking. No one suspected that she could read, for this would have been illegal within the Confederate states. Mary read warfare dispatches as she cleaned the house. She listened keenly to the conversations of the Confederate men as she served them meals. These military communications would be relayed back to the Van Lew mansion. Elizabeth coded information, which was placed inside of false eggs or printed on dress patterns — to be passed to her network of Union agents.
Jefferson Davis eventually began to suspect that there was a leak. The Union was learning entirely too much, as the most secret communications of the cabinet were divulged. In the last days of the war, suspicion fell on Mary and she fled from the Davis’s house in January 1865. Her last act for the Union was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House, but this was unsuccessful.
Even after the war, Elizabeth never revealed Mary’s espionage work. We know about this information today from others, such as Thomas McNiven, another Union spy in Richmond who was a baker. The Thomas McNiven Papers report that Mary “was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel president’s desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information.”
After the Civil War ended, the U.S. federal government destroyed its records related to Southern spies during Reconstruction to protect their lives. There was, however, a journal known to have been written by Bowser herself. It is said to have chronicled her wartime work, but the journal was lost by the Bowser family around 1952. There is no record of Bowser’s life after the war. There is no exact date known regarding her death. In 1995, the U.S. government honored the service of Mary Elizabeth Bowser by inducting her in the Military Intelligence Corp Hall of Fame.