Mary Elizabeth Bowser
(Born c. 1839)

She was an African-American freed slave who worked as a Union spy under the name “Ellen Bond” while posing as a slave in the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Born a slave in Richmond, VA, Mary Bowser was freed after the death of John Van Lew in 1843 by his wife Elizabeth and their children. But like most former slaves, Mary remained a free woman and servant in the Van Lew household until the late 1850s. Elizabeth Van Lew, an abolitionist and Quaker noticed Mary’s exceptional intelligence and sent her to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia to be educated. After school, Mary Elizabeth married Wilson Bowser on April 16, 1861, four days after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, thereby initiating the Civil War. Mrs. Bowser remained in contact with the Van Lew family, which ultimately lead to them accomplishing one of the greatest feats of espionage in the Civil War. Mary was placed into the Confederate White House as Jefferson Davis’s personal servant. She possessed a photographic memory that made her great at her job. After the war ended, the federal government destroyed any records of evidence of espionage in order to protect those involved, including those of McNiven and Bowser. Therefore, the extent of information gathered by Bowser is unknown. A significant amount made its way to General Ulysses S. Grant and influenced his decisions from 1863-1864. There is no record of Mary Bowser’s post-war life and no date of death. Bowser is one of many African-American female spies who worked for the Union during the Civil War, yet her works are hardly known to us today.

Another extraordinary woman whose story is too often untold. Shout out to Michael Stone for introducing me to her. Look her up.

via Instagram