Mary Elizabeth Bowser

—African American woman spy!

Civil War photograph portrait of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, African American woman spy

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born a slave to John Van Lew, a hardware businessman, on his plantation near Richmond, Virginia. When Mr. Lew died his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, inherited everything, and immediately freed their slaves. However, Mary Elizabeth remained in Van Lew's employment and married another freed Black man, William Bowser. Her intellect was recognized by Ms. Van Lew, who sent the former slave to school in Philadelphia.

During the war Ms. Van Lew, though well connected in southern social circles, was a Union sympathizer. Lew organized an elaborate spy operation around the Richmond, Virginia, area and enrolled Bowser. Then, Ms. Van Lew secured a position for her in the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. As a housekeeper/Union spy gathering military intelligence, she appeared dim-witted, but is reputed to have had a photographic memory. She remained undercover throughout the war and undetected. Her position and appearance allowed her to listen in on conversations of Jefferson Davis' dinner guests and other visitors to the southern White House.

Jefferson Davis home in Richmond, VA

Home of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia.

Van Lew Mansion

South side view of the Van Lew Mansion, ca. 1890, outside Richmond, Virginia.

Sometimes she met with Ms. Van Lew back on the plantation, appearing to exchange recipes, but in reality passing information, which Ms. Van Lew sent to General Ulysses Grant. Her other methods of transferring information included using a serving tray with a false bottom or hanging up laundry in a coded fashion, varying the pattern of dark and white clothes.

Thomas Nash drawing of woman spy

"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."

(left) Thomas Nash drawing of woman spy. (right) From an article in Military Intelligence 21, No 2 (Apr.-Jun. 1995), p. 48, about Bowser's induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, 30 June 1995.

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