Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Q: Last fall I watched a series on TV called Turn: Washington Spies. There was a black spy, Abigail, a former slave, who played a prominent role in the
show. I looked her up and there is debate about the accuracy of her portrayal on the
show. Do you know of any other black female spies in American wars?
~ Jessica Clark
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Although there is some debate among historians about certain details of her life and activities, the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser is intriguing.
This month's answer comes from Lyde Cullen Sizer, Professor, Sarah Lawrence College.
A: Bowser, Mary Elizabeth (1839? - ?), Union spy during the Civil War, was born a slave on the Richmond,Virginia, plantation of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. Very little is known about her early life. Upon Van Lew’s death in 1843 or 1851, his wife and daughter, Elizabeth, manumitted his slaves and bought and freed a number of their family members, Mary among them. Like most of their former slaves, Mary remained a servant in the Van Lew household, staying with the family until the late 1850s. Noting her intellectual talent, Elizabeth, a staunch abolitionist and Quaker, sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia to be educated.
Mary returned from Philadelphia after graduating to marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. The ceremony was held on 16 April 1861, just days before the Civil War began. What made the ceremony so unusual was that the parishioners of the church were primarily white. The couple settled outside Richmond. There is no record of any children. Even after her marriage, Bowser was in close contact with the Van Lew family, clearly sharing their political goals. As a result, their wartime record was very much intertwined, and information about Bowser can be gleaned through the records of Elizabeth Van Lew.
Despite her abolitionist sentiments, Elizabeth Van Lew was a prominent figure in Richmond. Shunned by many before the war began, her loyalty for the Union during the war earned her further enmity. Unlike other spies, Van Lew used this enmity as a cover for her serious efforts on behalf of the Union. Adopting a distracted, muttering personae, she was dubbed “Crazy Bet.” During the war, Van Lew helped manage a spy system in the Confederate capitol, went regularly to the Libby Prison with food and medicine, and helped escapees of all kinds, hiding them in a secret room in her mansion.
Perhaps Van Lew’s most trusted and successful source for information was Mary Bowser. Like Van Lew, Bowser had considerable acting skills. In order to get access to top-secret information, Bowser became “Ellen Bond,” a slow-thinking, but able, servant. Van Lew urged a friend to take Bowser along to help out at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. Bowser was eventually hired fulltime, and worked in the Davis household until just before the end of the war.
At the Davis’s house, Mary worked as a servant, cleaning and serving meals. Given the racial prejudice of the day, and the way in which servants were trained to act and seem invisible, Mary was able to glean considerable information simply by doing her work. That she was literate, and could thus read the documents she had access to--and, in that way, better interpret the conversations she was hearing --could only have been a bonus. Jefferson Davis, apparently, came to know that there was a leak in his house, but until late in the war no suspicion fell on Mary.
Richmond’s formal spymaster was Thomas McNiven, a baker whose business was located on North Eighth Street. Given his profession, he was a hub for information. Visiting his bakery was an unexceptional destination for his agents, and McNiven was regularly out and about town, driving through Ricmond making deliveries. When he came to the Davis household, Mary could daily--without suspicion--greet him at his wagon and talk briefly. In 1904, just before he died, McNiven reported his wartime activities to his daughter, Jeannette B. McNiven, and her nephew, Robert W. Waitt Jr., chronicled them in 1952. According to McNiven, Bowser wass the source of the most crucial information available, “as she 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” (quoted in Waitt, Thomas McNiven Papers).
By the last days of the Confederacy, suspicion did fall on Mary--it is not known how or why--and she chose to flee in January 1865. Her last act as a Union spy and sympathizer was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House, but this was not successful.
After the war ended, the federal government, in an attempt to protect the postwar lives of its Southern spies, destroyed the records--including those of McNiven’s and Van Lew’s activities--that could more precisely detail the information Bowser passed on to General Ulysses S. Grant throughout 1863 and 1864. The journal that Bowser later wrote chronicling her wartime work was also lost when family members inadvertently discarded it in 1952. The Bowser family rarely discussed her work, given Richmond’s political climate and the continuing attitudes toward Union sympathizers. There is no record of Bowser’s postwar life, and no date for her death.
Bowser is among a number of African American women spies who worked on the Union side during the Civil War. Given the nature of the profession, we may never know how many women engaged in uncover spy operations, both planned and unplanned. HARRIET TUBMAN is the most well known, especially for her scouting expeditions in South Carolina and Florida that resulted in the freedom of hundreds of slaves. In 1995 the U.S. government honored Mary Elizabeth Bowser for her work in the Civil War with an induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Coleman, Penny. Spies! Women in the Civil War (1992).
Forbes, Ella. African American Women During the Civil War (1998).
Kane, Harnett T. Spies for the Blue and Gray (1954).
Lebsock, Suzanne. A Share of Honor: Virginia Women 1600 - 1945 (1984).
Van Lew, Elizabeth. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, ed. David D. Ryan (2001).
Lyde Cullen Sizer
Original Article published on African and African American Research Center