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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mary Bowser - Union Spy

Things have been very crazy in my household  over the last few months - I have been doing a lot of book reviews.
Our small town library does not get a lot of the new releases that I love to read, and now that I am not in grad school I have been on a lot of blog tours and have been able to read a lot of new books.

So, somehow it's been almost 4 months since I have shared more parts of my capstone .

I have been writing a lot. With trying to break into the Christian Historical Fiction realm I have been researching lots of fun things. So, hopefully I will be sharing some of that soon ,..

But until then - here is Mary Bowser --- Union Spy

Mary Bowser
Union Spy

            Mary Bowser was a fearless African American Woman.  She was born in the year of 1839. As with the slaves during the American Revolution they did not record the exact birth of Civil War Era slaves either. She was a slave in the household of Elizabeth Van Lew and her family. There is not much documented of her early life. Once John Van Lew died, Elizabeth and her mother freed some of their slaves. Mary would become a servant in the household until the late 1850’s. At this time, Elizabeth had recognized her intellectual abilities. Mary was sent to the Quaker School for Negros. The school was located in Philadelphia.
            Van Lew was instrumental in creating records to make everything look legit. She knew that African Americans were essential to the operation. They used both free and enslaved blacks. There were two identities that were created for Mary. Van Lew had registered Mary as Mary Jones in the 1860 census. She was registered as the only free black servant in the Van Lew Family. There was also a record that showed up in April of 1861 in St. John’s Church as a wedding of a Van Lew servant. It is unsure if this was a real wedding or if this was one to create records.
            Once she returned she met and married Wilson Bowser. Wilson was a free black man. Interesting thing to note is that she married on April 16, 1861. This was just a few days before the Civil War begun. There was mostly whites that attended this wedding. They settled in Richmond, Virginia. They do not appear to have had any children. She still remained close with Elizabeth Van Lew. With the addition of her intelligence she also had incredible acting skills per Van Lew Records. Mary Bowser became Ellen Bond. “Ellen” would be a slow thinking but stable 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.”[1] This would allow her access to the Confederate President’s daily activities.
            Once inside the Davis household, Mary worked as a servant. She would clean and cook meals. “Bowser spied on the South from inside the lion’s den – in the Richmond, Virginia, household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During that period, she provided the Union with invaluable information about Southern military forces.”[2] They had no idea that she was literate. She was able to read documents that were laying on tables or that she was able to gain access too. She also was able to understand the conversations that she would overhear. One of the things that was important is that since there was such great racial prejudice during this time. Servants were expected to be invisible. Bowser was able to secure this during her time of service.
            She would pass her information to Richmond’s spymaster, Thomas McNiven. McNiven was a baker. While he would be out making deliveries he could collect information from other Union spies that had infiltrated the Confederacy. Bowser was a valuable asset since she was able to repeat things word from word. When he would make his deliveries to the Confederate home – she would make sure she greeted him and dropped her information.
            After the war, Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina (who was now a widow) denied that there was ever a spy in their household. “In a 1905 letter to the regent of the Confederate White House Museum, Mrs. Davis wrote that she never “had in her employ an educated negro ‘given or hired’ by Miss Van Lew as a spy” during the War.”[3] However historian and author, William Gilmore Beymer felt that Mary Bowser did indeed work for and in the Jefferson household. It is also noted that her actual name was: Mary Ann Richards.   
After the war – the Federal Government sought to destroy discriminating evidence to protect identities of those involved. “When the fighting was over, War Department records on Union spies were destroyed to protect those who’d worked for the North from Southern retaliation.”[4] While we may never know the full effect the information that Bowser and Van Lew extracted and passed – we do know that they had a significant place in history.

[1] "Bowser, Mary Elizabeth (1839? - ?), Union Spy during the Civil War..." Hutchins Center. Accessed July 1, 2016.

[2] Martin, Paul D. Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World. New York: William Morrow, 2012. Pg. 39

[3] Winkler, H. Donald. Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War. Naperville, IL: Cumberland House, 2010. Pg. 79-80

[4] Ibid. Pg. 43

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