Mary Elizabeth Bowser


During the Civil War (1861-1865) many able Black women aided the Union camps as nurses, teachers and scouts, while others fought on innumerable battlefields as Union spies involved in intricate works of espionage.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser served as a Union spy. Many accounts of her life are veiled in mystery. Exact details of her birth and death are unknown. She was born a slave on John and Elizabeth Van Lew’s plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. After the death of John Van Lew in 1851, Mrs Van Lew freed Mary and the other Van Lew slaves. As a favourite slave, Mary was sent north to attend school in Philadelphia.

After the start of the Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew, a southener who thought slavery “degrading” and who was openly sympathetic to the Union cause, organised an elaborate spy operation (Her mansion was said to have been equipped with secret rooms). Fugitives she helped supplied her with important information, which she would transcribe into cipher code and send through enemy lines to Union officers, including Generals Benjamin F Butler and Ulysses S Grant.

The time came when Mrs Van Lew needed an intelligence agent in the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. She sent for Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Through shrewd scheming, Mrs Van Lew arranged to have Mary placed, as a servant spy, in the White House of the Confederacy.

Mary was of unusual intelligence, however, she pretended to be a bit dull and unconcerned. She would listen to and memorize conversations between David and his men as she served their dinner table. She would read warfare dispatches as she dusted the furniture. It is said that Mary would steal away each night to the Van Lew mansion to report the military plans she had heard. Mrs Van Lew, called ‘Crazy Bet,’ coded this information and placed it inside false eggs or printed it on dress patterns. Through her network of agents, she passed this information along to Grant, who sent replies back to her in the same manner.

The Confederate President never discovered that Mary was the security leak in his household staff. However, he was advised that the enemy knew everything going on behind their lines “as if the most secret counsels of the cabinet were divulged.”

Mrs Van Lew carefully hid accounts of Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s war efforts as an espionage agent, even after the war. A secret diary was buried in Mrs Van Lew’s yard. She had apparently ripped certain pages relating to Mary’s activities out in order to protect Mary from any revenge.