blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Civil War Spy

Mary Bowser

During a sesquicentennial year, battles and generals of the Civil War continue to get most of the attention. In the past I felt some of the heroic women deserved their own story, and I have blogged about a female soldier and Dr. Mary Walker. This time I'll continue with an almost totally unknown spy by the name of Mary Bowser. Her birth date is unknown, but it's believed that she was born in 1839. She was born a slave to John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. Upon his death in 1843, Van Lew's wife freed the slaves, but it was in name only due to the terms of his will.

Van Lew's daughter, Elizabeth, became the head of the household in the 1850s. She was aware of Mary's intelligence and sent her North to be formally educated. Mary became a missionary to Africa, and returned to Virginia to marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Shortly afterward, the Civil War broke out.

Elizabeth Van Lew was part of a major spy network in Richmond, and she frequently resorted to a routine that gave her the appearance that she was crazy, earning her the nickname "Crazy Bet." She briefly appears in my novel Honor & Glory. Her greatest achievement though was using Mary Bowser as a spy.

Not only was Mary highly educated, but she had a photographic memory. She assumed the role of a slow-thinking, dull-witted servant. Van Lew managed to get her to serve at social functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Eventually, she was hired full time and worked in the Davis household, serving meals. Because of Mary's education and memory, she was able to work invisibly, reading any papers.

She relayed the information to a baker by the name of Thomas McNiven who made deliveries. In his recollections that he relayed to his daughter, he only used Mary's first name. He mentioned her photographic memory and that she could repeat everything she saw on the President's desk "word for word." Mary's full name wasn't revealed until 1911 in Harper's Monthly Magazine by Elizabeth Van Lew's niece.

Her [Elizabeth Van Lew] method of reaching President Davis in his least-guarded moments is evidence of her genius as a spy and a leader of spies. The Van Lews had owned a negro girl of unusual intelligence; several years before the war she had been given her freedom... this young woman was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was now sent for; she came, and for a time was coached and trained for her mission; then... she was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.

There are no records as to what happened to Mary after the war, but in 1995, the United States Army finally recognized her contribution and inducted her into U.S. Army Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. I won't post the photo commonly believed to have been Mary Bowser because it's a hoax. While the woman's name was Mary Bowser, she wasn't the same Mary Bowser, who had served as a spy during the Civil War.

Kim Murphy


  1. I enjoyed reading this so much. It is amazing and satisfying - the thought of a black woman besting Jefferson Davis and the entire confederacy is great. I recently read Sue Monk Kidd's novel which reminded me of this - what white women learned from black women even then! Thanks as always for your glimpses of history, Kim.

  2. Thanks, Lari! I enjoy showing different aspects of history.

  3. Compare this kind of forgotten history to an upcoming movie I've just heard about. It will, no doubt, glorify Peggy Shippen, collaborator, spy, and born into the upper-crust in Philly. Thanks for sharing this amazing story about "a woman of color". I think kids would have more interest in history if they were offered this kind of primary source stuff. Thanks again Kim, for a fascinating post about a forgotten heroine.

  4. Thank you, Juliet! I agree. I have always loved history but disliked history classes. There is so much more to history than battles and generals. It needs to be made personal, and one can only do that by sharing how the individuals lived.