Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Union Spy In The Confederate White House

To Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the servant girl she may have known as Ellen Bond was a typical slave woman: slow, dim-witted, illiterate. But she did such a good job as a household maid that Mrs. Davis added her to the servant staff at the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia.

What Varina Davis never realized, or at least never admitted, was that “Ellen Bond” was neither dim-witted, illiterate, nor a slave. In reality she was a free, well educated African American woman by the name of Mary Elizabeth Bowser. And she was a Union spy working right under Jefferson Davis’s nose.

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For months during the most crucial period of the Civil War, as General Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, Mary supplied critical military intelligence to the Union army. In recognition of her contributions to the Union war effort, she was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995.

According to Lois Leveen, writing for the New York Times Disunion series, Mary Elizabeth Bowser began life as Mary Jane Richards. She was born as a slave into the household of John Van Lew, a wealthy merchant in Richmond. Her date of birth is thought to be 1839 or perhaps 1840.

It is not known who her parents were, but Mary was treated with extraordinary favor from the beginning of her life. For example, she was baptized on May 17, 1846 in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. It was practically unheard of for any black child to be baptized in that church, which was attended by the upper crust of Richmond’s white society. It appears, in fact, that Mary was the only one of the Van Lew slaves to receive this distinction.

Mary became the protégé of Elizabeth Van Lew, John’s daughter. Elizabeth had been educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. When she returned to Richmond, it was as a committed abolitionist. When John Van Lew died, Elizabeth and her mother did their best to free all the Van Lew slaves, including Mary, even going against the provisions of Van Lew’s will to do so.

Some time in the early 1850s, Mary was sent to Philadelphia, as Elizabeth had been, to be educated at a Quaker school for African Americans. In 1855, with Mary’s schooling complete, Elizabeth arranged for her to join a missionary community in Liberia. Mary, however, hated life in that African country, and by the spring of 1860 was back in Richmond with Elizabeth.

A year later, in April 1861, Mary was married to Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Interestingly, the ceremony, like her baptism, took place at St. John’s Episcopal. The wedding notice listed both Mary and Wilson as “colored servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew” (Elizabeth’s mother).

When the Civil War broke out, Elizabeth Van Lew helped organize and lead a Union spy ring operating in Richmond. To cover her activities, which included aiding escaped Union prisoners of war as well as gathering and transmitting military information to the Union forces outside the city, she took on the persona of “Crazy Bet.” By dressing in an unkempt, slovenly manner, and acting as if she were somewhat mentally impaired, Elizabeth was able to organize and direct a widespread espionage organization without being seriously suspected.

One of her first recruits into her organization was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who became one of the spy ring’s most productive and reliable sources of information. As Elizabeth recorded in the diary she secretly 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.

Elizabeth was able to arrange for a friend to take Mary with her as a servant to help at social functions held by Varina Davis in the Confederate White House. Mary performed her servant role so well she was eventually taken on full time as, presumably, a slave hired out by her master.

As a spy Mary enjoyed a major advantage: invisibility. It’s not that she was unseeable, like H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, but rather that as a black slave, she was unseen and unnoticed by the whites she served. Her entrance into the dining room to serve at table in no way affected the conversations Jefferson Davis might be having with visiting generals. When she went into his office to clean, it did not occur to the Confederate president that this seemingly illiterate and dull-witted black woman could have either the capacity or the interest to glean information from the papers he left lying on his desk.

In fact, Mary’s capacity went far beyond the norm. Whatever she read or heard she was able to remember and pass on word-for-word. That’s the testimony of Thomas McNiven, the official head of the Richmond spy ring. McNiven ran a bakery, and made daily deliveries all around the city, including to the Confederate White House. This allowed Mary to regularly meet with him for a few minutes as he delivered his goods to the Davis household. Years later, in 1904, McNiven recalled those days to his daughter and her husband, who eventually recorded his story:

Miss Van Lew was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary was the best as she was working right in 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 the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information.

Mary was able to continue her espionage activities until January of 1865. Jefferson Davis had become aware that information was somehow being leaked, and suspicion apparently began to fall on Mary. She made the decision to flee Richmond, and seems to have made her way to the North. One unsubstantiated account says that in her last act as a Union agent, she tried to burn down the Confederate White House, but was unsuccessful.

Until very recently, what happened to Mary after she fled Richmond was unknown. Now, however, new historical scholarship has thrown some additional light on what transpired in the remainder of her life.

After the war the US government made it a point to destroy the records of all its Southern espionage agents, since publicizing that information could endanger their lives and the lives of their families still residing in the South. Lois Leveen notes that Elizabeth Van Lew specifically requested that all her records, which would include those referring to Mary, be destroyed.

However, at about the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1900, some information about Mary began to come out. An article that year in a Richmond newspaper told of a “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who had been educated in Philadelphia and was placed by Elizabeth as a spy in the Confederate White House. A decade later, Elizabeth’s niece identified that agent as Mary Bowser. Then, a June 1911 Harper’s Monthly article about Elizabeth identified Mary by name and gave an account of some of her activities.

Mary herself apparently kept a secret diary, but a family member, not realizing its significance, destroyed it.

In 1952, McEva Bowser, Mary’s great-niece-in-law, was disposing of the effects of Alice Smith Bowser (1884-1952), her husband’s mother. She came across an old diary that had been in Alice’s possession. McEva remembers that family lore says the diary was initially in the possession of Rosa Dixon Bowser (1855-1931), who might well have received it from Mary, herself. In an interview aired on National Public Radio, McEva Bowser reveals what appears to have become of Mary’s diary:

McEva Bowser: “I was cleaning her room and I ran across a diary. But I never had a diary and I didn’t even realize what it was… And I did keep coming across (references to) Mr. Davis. And the only Davis I could think of was the contractor who had been doing some work at the house. And the first time I came across it I threw it aside and said I would read it again. Then I started to talk to my husband about it but I felt it would depress him. So the next time I came across it I just pitched it in the trash can.”

During that NPR interview, McEva Bowser also relates that as late as the 1960s the Bowser family, still living in Richmond, didn’t talk about Mary “because she was a spy.” The fear of possible retribution on the family by resentful whites was still strong.

This National Public Radio story about Mary. Includes a brief interview with McEva Bowser.

NPR story

Although Mary’s own account of her life as a spy seems to be forever lost to us, some information concerning her later years has recently been unearthed by historians. The September 10, 1865 edition of the New York Times carries the following announcement:

LECTURE BY A COLORED LADY. — Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Waverley-place, near Sixth-avenue.

Given that Mary’s maiden name was Mary Jane Richards, and that in her talk she described having lived in Liberia, it’s obvious that the lecturer was none other than Mary herself, hiding her identity behind a pseudonym. In its report on the talk, the New York Anglo African newspaper said she was “very sarcastic and… quite humorous.”

Lois Leveen relates that in 1867 Mary, then teaching freed slaves in Georgia, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Harriet’s brother, Rev. Charles Beecher. In his diary account of that meeting, Rev. Beecher recorded what is thought to be the only surviving physical description of Mary: “a Juno, done in somber marble … her features regular and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp, her form and movements the perfection of grace.”

Later that year, Mary remarried, and left her teaching position. Nothing is known of her life after that.

When Mary was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995, an article in Military Intelligence magazine (April-June 1995 issue) reports the reasons she received that honor:

Mary pretended to be a bit ‘dull and unconcerned,’ but she listened to and memorized conversations between Davis and his visitors as she served their dinner. She read war dispatches as she dusted the furniture. Each night after she finished her duties, Mary traveled to the Van Lew mansion which was some distance from the Davis mansion. Upon her arrival, she recited from memory the private conversations and documents. After she coded the information, it passed directly to the Union’s General Grant, greatly enhancing the Union’s conduct of the war.

Jefferson Davis knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans but never discovered the leak in his household staff…

Mary Bowser succeeded in a highly dangerous mission that significantly benefitted the Union effort. She was one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.

In 1905 Varina Davis, then the widow of the Confederate president, denied the possibility of there having been a spy in the Confederate White House. “I had no ‘educated negro’ in my household,” she wrote.

As far as Varina and Jefferson Davis were concerned, Mary Elizabeth Bowser maintained her cover until the very end. And that is perhaps the best testimony to Mary’s effectiveness as a spy.