Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c.1839 – unknown) was an educated American freed slave who worked in connection with Elizabeth Van Lew as a Union spy during the American Civil War. Placed as a servant in the home of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis at the Confederate White House, she gathered much useful information which was passed on to the Union Army intelligence.
Unsuspected because of her supposed status as an illiterate slave, Bowser was able to gain access to sensitive military information, which she provided to Van Lew both through direct messages and an ingenious system of codes and signals. After three years of spying, she fled Richmond as the war came to a close and was not heard from again.
For centuries, her role as one of the Union’s most effective and courageous spy remained untold. In 1995, she was admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame as “one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”
Born in Richmond, Virginia around 1839, Mary Elizabeth (Van Lew) Bowser began her life as a slave on the plantation of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. When Mary was very young, her family members were traded away to other masters. John Van Lew then died in 1851, and his daughter, Elizabeth, was a strong abolitionist. She freed Mary and ten other slaves owned by the family. She also bought Mary’s family members and freed them as well. Though free to leave, Mary would remain with the Van Lew family until the late 1850s.
Elizabeth Van Lew noted Mary’s intelligence and arranged for her to be educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where Elizabeth herself had also studied. Mary was attending classes there when the Civil War began. Van Lew, who had already begun working for the Union cause, then sent for Mary to return to Richmond to help with her efforts. Around that time, Mary married a free African American man with the surname of Bowser. However, nothing more is known of her husband, and it does not appear that the couple had children.
Bowser’s espionage work began in 1863, when Elizabeth Van Lew organized a spy ring of 12 people, including not only Mary but also several clerks in the war and navy departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. The outspoken and rebellious Van Lew was well known in Richmond society as an abolitionist, but had cultivated a persona as “Crazy Bet,” which she used to her advantage as a cover to deflect attention from her activities coordinating her network of spies.
After Mary’s arrival in Richmond, Elizabeth enlisted her as a spy and devised a plan to place her as close as possible to the top levels of Confederate military planners. Besides her intelligence and a near-photographic memory, Mary apparently possessed considerable skill as an actress. She thus became “Ellen Bond,” an eccentric and uneducated, but highly capable servant, reassuming the position of a slave. Elizabeth convinced a friend to bring Mary with her as a servant to social functions held by Varina Davis, who, as the wife of President Jefferson Davis, was the First Lady of the Confederacy. Mary soon won her confidence and was taken on as a full time domestic worker at the Confederate White House.
Bowser had grown up in Richmond, and she had several other advantages as a spy. At Davis’ house, the servants were taught to be unobtrusive, so it was easy for her to gain information without being noticed. As a supposed slave, she was not expected to be able to read and write and thus was not watched carefully when sensitive documents were left where she could see them. However, thanks to her education, she was able to read military plans and retain the information due to her excellent memory.
As a spy for the Union, Bowser read a number of secret military documents, including lists of troop movements, reports on moving Union prisoners, military strategies, and treasury reports. She also overheard important conversations in the dining room about troop movements and other Confederate plans. She would later write down notes on her findings and pass them either to Elizabeth Van Lew or to a Union agent named Thomas McNiven, who worked out of a local bakery. When the bakery wagon came to the Davis house, Bowser would meet it outside to give him her information. When passing messages directly became risky, Mary sometimes hung wet laundry outside the Confederate White House in a special coded pattern: A white shirt beside an upside-down pair of pants might mean “General Hill moving troops to the west.”
To send this intelligence north, Van Lew at first simply used the mail. However, as the information increased and the possibility of discovery grew, she became more sophisticated and created a system of codes and signals. She also established contact with Union agents who slipped into Richmond on secret missions.
Van Lew also sent her own household servants—though she had freed the family’s slaves, many of them chose to stay with her—northward carrying baskets of innocuous-looking farm produce together with Mary Bowser’s secret information. One method involved several baskets of eggs, one of which contained encoded messages from Bowser inside of several eggshells. Another involved a serving tray loaded with food, with messages concealed in its false bottom. Reports were also hidden inside the shoes of Van Lew’s servants, since not many white people would poke into the soles of muddy shoes worn by an “old colored man” on horseback.
Van Lew sent Bowser’s information directly to Union General Benjamin Butler as well as to General Ulysses S. Grant through her elaborate courier system. It was reportedly so fast and effective that Grant often received flowers still fresh from his spy’s large garden. Grant would later say of Bowser and Van Lew’s efforts: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.”
Disappearance and legacy
After nearly three years of spying, in January 1865, as the war was coming to a close, Mary Bowser fled from Richmond. She was never to be heard from again, and her sudden disappearance remains unexplained. Jefferson Davis is known to have suspected a leak from the Confederate White House, and some think that Mary’s work as a spy had finally become suspected. Before she left, Mary reportedly attempted to burn down the Confederate White House, but was unsuccessful. When Richmond fell to the Union, Elizabeth Van Lew was the first person to raise the U.S. flag in the city.
However, Mary Bowser’s story and her role as one of the Union’s most courageous and effective spies remained mostly untold, even in her family. To protect the lives of collaborators, the federal government destroyed its southern espionage records after the war. The Bowser family, apparently fearing recriminations from Confederate sympathizers, rarely discussed her work. Van Lew likewise sought to hide her activities from her neighbors in Richmond.
In 1904, however, Thomas McNiven told his daughter Jeannette about his activities as Mary’s contact and courier. She reported his story to her nephew, Robert Waitt Jr., who set them to writing in 1952.
In the 1960s, Mrs. McEva Bowser was asked by a relative about her husband’s great-great aunt Mary, and she answered: “Well, they don’t ever talk about her cause she was a spy.” Bowser apparently left a diary, which McEva Bowser may have found in 1952 after her mother-in-law died. She said, “I did keep coming across (references to) ‘Mr. (Jefferson?) 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.”
Mary Bowser’s story was, thus, reconstructed from research into the Union intelligence operation in the Civil War and from memoirs of her colleagues in the operation. In 1995, she was admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. During the ceremony, her contribution was described as follows:
Ms. Bowser certainly 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.