Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c.1839 – ?) was born into slavery in America, but in adulthood was able to use this dreadful position in society to worm her way into the very heart of the Confederate government, and helped to overthrow the very system that wished to enforce slavery.
We don’t know who her parents were (she claimed to be a mix of black, Spanish – Cuban and white, but if this was true she would be unlikely to have been born into slavery.) Mary seemed from the start to be very favoured by her ‘owners,’ the van Lews, who baptised her in 1846 in the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, a church usually reserved for upper class white people; none of the van Lew’s other servants were baptised here.
Mary was favoured by her owner’s daughter, Elizabeth ‘Bet’ van Lew, and when her father died in 1851 she tried to free all of the families’ slaves (although this probably wasn’t legally binding in the state of Virginia at this time). Later in the 1850’s, Bet paid for Mary’s tuition to a Quaker school in Philadelphia (education for black people was also illegal in Virginia at this point!). Bet had also received her education at a Philadelphian Quaker school, which had instilled in her strong abolitionist values.
Civil War broke out in 1861, and Bet and her mother soon began secretly working to help the Union. She also ran the Richmond Underground, a very successful spy ring, in which Mary would play a huge role:
‘Van Lew, in turn, credited her family’s former slave as her best source, writing in the private diary she kept during the war, “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful.” ‘*
Mary got a job at the White House. Pretending to be an illiterate, enslaved housemaid. In this position she was able to read many important documents and overhear conversations which they assumed she was not bright enough to understand, and she fed this information to the Union leaders. The Confederates knew that there was a spy, and that they could keep no secrets as long as they were on paper, but they never worked out who it was. President Jefferson Davis complained that it was making his mental state collapse, being unable to find the spy.
Apparently suspicion did eventually fall on Mary, who fled to Richmond in 1865, although in 1905 Davis’ widow Varina denied the possibility that there was a spy in the White House, writing “I had no ‘educated negro’ in my household,”
Details of her spy work were burnt after the war, along with information about all southern spies, in order to avoid retaliation from the defeated Confederates. As such, we don’t know that much about what she did, and indeed although she gave talks (using a pseudonym) after the war, we know almost nothing about her life after the war.
There’s evidence that she set up a school for black people which taught children during the day and adults at night, but she left this position in 1867, remarried and…. nothing more about her life is known. Her family members rarely spoke about her even into the 1900’s, still fearing, decades later, the retribution of resentful Confederates.
We can only catch tantalising glimpses of Mary and her personality, but even with only glimpses it’s easy to be inspired by this courageous and intelligent woman. I could easily have covered Bet in this project, too, who is also such an interesting woman, and I’m thankful that Mary was lucky enough to have that rare creature: a truly good ‘owner.’ This is a story about women taking politics into their own hands and changing it for the better, and Mary’s intelligence must have had a major effect on the success of the Union army’s success in the war. The least you can say is that her work must have brought it to a conclusion more rapidly and thus have saved lives. The sad fact is that Mary is not widely known of. I will leave you with this quote from the New York Times:
‘Journalists, historians, even the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and the C.I.A. have celebrated the extraordinary Mary Bowser, yet most Americans have never heard of her. Women’s history and African-American history still garner inadequate attention as fields, even when they intersect with an event as widely studied as the Civil War.’*
Learn about her life here, and the life of Bet van Lew here.
*Quotes from this New York Times article