A Woman to Know: Mary Bowser

Her eyes, exceedingly bright and sharp. — Harriet Beecher Stowe

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Just before the Civil War, immediately after her father died, Elizabeth Van Lew freed all her family slaves, sending them North to be educated. Among them was Mary Bowser, Elizabeth's friend and confidante. Once the Civil War began, however Even though Mary enjoyed her freedom up North, Mary felt a deeper purpose calling her back to Richmond, Va. And Elizabeth had plans for that, too — as a Union sympathizer living in the war-torn South, she was building a spy ring to infiltrate the heart of the Confederacy.

Mary became an important part of Elizabeth's espionage plan. Back in Richmond, she posed as a slave -- one working inside the Confederate White House. Everyone in the house thought of her as Ellen Bond, an illiterate slave girl, but secretly she was memorizing every document, blueprint and missive sent to Confederate President Jeff Davis. She and Elizabeth set up a sophisticated spy system, sending messages sewn inside dresses, underlined in books and encoded in grocery lists.

Just before the end of the war, Jeff Davis searched his house in Richmond, certain there was a spy on his staff. Mary escaped in the dead of night — but just before she left, she set a fire in the basement, almost burning Confederate headquarters to the ground.

After that daring escape, she disappears from history. We have no record of Mary's life at the end of the War, no way to know whether she continued her espionage, moved back North or returned to her former missionary work in Liberia. While many history books commend Elizabeth's work and that of other Union spies, they forget Mary, and what little we do know is rife with misinformation and error. The photo above? For years it was presumed to be the spy herself, but recently biographer Lois Leveen reported that it's not even our Mary Bowser. It's another Mary Bowser, born more than 30 years later — a reminder that the work of black women like Mary is often erased or forgotten. Even when they almost burn down the Confederacy HQ.

As Leveen wrote for The Atlantic, "The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women's history and black history, can blind us to how much the past remains unknowable."

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