When you think of a spy, you think of laser guns and invisible ninjas! What if a young African American woman could be a spy, for a whole army! That is just what Mary Elizabeth Bowser did!
Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born in Richmond, Virginia in the time period of 1839. She was born a slave to the Van Lew family. John Van Lew, her slave owner, died in 1843. He was a wealthy hardware merchant. His death led to all the slaves being freed by Elizabeth Van lew and her mother. Though she was freed, Mary continued working for the Van Lews as a free, paid servant. Elizabeth Van Lew sent her to an African American Quaker school. She had to return when the war tension started.
Before the war Mary was married to a free black man named William (Wilson) Bowser. They were married four days after the war started. It was a weird wedding because they were married in a church that only wealthy, white people went to. In the records of William and Mary, it said they never had children. It also did not state if they saw each other during the war or not.There are no records on where they moved.
On April 12, 1816, Elizabeth Van Lew asked Mary to be a spy for the Union. Elizabeth could not handle this task herself, because she had to be an important member of Richmond, but only because of her father’s wealth. Mary wasn’t just a spy, she also helped free prisoners of war. Mary agreed to help and started “working” for Jefferson Davis at the Confederate White House. She worked there until the end of the Civil War. When Mary started “working” for the Confederate White House, she had to change some things. First, her name. She had to change her name Ellen Bond, so no one would know her true identity.
The Confederate White House
Before going to work as a spy, Mary had to remind herself that she wouldn't be treated with proper respect or like the freed woman actually was. All her dignity would have to be given up. Instead she had to act stupid and “dim witted”. She also had to act slightly crazy, but an able servant for the president and his wife. She would have to risk her life to help the Union. The Union and all the slaves depended on her.
Mary couldn't get info if she just did her job. While she dusted or washed the dishes, she would listen to plans and troop movements. She would also snoop around the president's papers while he was away. Mary had an excellent memory so she would remember every little thing. She would then deliver to Elizabeth. Or another spy by the name of Thomas McNiven.
Thomas was a baker who was a spy for the Union as well. Every time he would deliver bread for the president, Mary would give the info. Mary was different from most of the slaves because she could read and write. After she gave the info, Thomas would deliver everything to Elizabeth. Jefferson Davis never suspected a thing until the end of the war. When Mary found out that’s what Jefferson thought, she fled! As a last attempt to help the Union she tried to burn down the Confederate White House, but failed. There were no records of the death of Mary or William Bowser.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser was put in the U.S Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. She was an important asset to the win of the Union!