By Lesley Gist, The Gist of Freedom
Mary, Free, Educated & A Spy! Disguise… Confederate White House Slave
Mary was the best as she was working right in The Confederate President’s home. She had a photographic mind. Everything Mary saw on the Rebel President’s desk, she could repeat word for word.
“Ellen Bond” was neither dim-witted, illiterate, nor a slave. In reality, she was a free, well-educated African-American woman by the name of Mary Elizabeth Bowser. And she was a Union spy working right under Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s nose.
For months during the most crucial period of the Civil War, as General Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, Mary supplied critical military intelligence to the Union army. In recognition of her contributions to the Union war effort, she was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995.
Elizabeth was able to arrange for a friend to take Mary with her as a servant to help at social functions held by Varina Davis in the Confederate White House. Mary performed her servant role so well she was eventually taken on full time as, presumably, a slave hired out by her master.
As a spy, Mary enjoyed a significant advantage: invisibility. It’s not that she was unseeable, like H. G. Wells’ Invisible Man, but rather that as a black slave, she was unseen and unnoticed by the whites she served. Her entrance into the dining room to serve at table in no way affected the conversations Jefferson Davis might be having with visiting generals. When she went to his office to clean, it did not occur to the Confederate president that this seemingly ignorant and dull-witted black woman could have either the capacity or the interest to glean information from the papers he left lying on his desk.
In fact, Mary’s role went far beyond the norm. Whatever she read or heard she was able to remember and pass on word-for-word. That’s the testimony of Thomas McNiven, the official head of the Richmond spy ring. McNiven ran a bakery and made daily deliveries all around the city, including to the Confederate White House. This allowed Mary to regularly meet with him for a few minutes as he delivered his goods to the Davis household. Years later, in 1904, McNiven recalled those days to his daughter and her husband, who eventually recorded his story:
Mary was able to continue her espionage activities until January of 1865. Jefferson Davis had become aware that information was somehow being leaked, and suspicion apparently began to fall on Mary. She made the decision to flee Richmond and seems to have made her way to the North. One unsubstantiated account says that in her last act as a Union agent, she tried to burn down the Confederate White House, but was unsuccessful.
Sometime in the early 1850s, Mary was sent to Philadelphia, as Elizabeth had been, to be educated at a Quaker school for African Americans. In 1855, with Mary’s schooling complete, Elizabeth arranged for her to join a missionary community in Liberia. Mary, however, hated living in the African country, and by the spring of 1860 was back in Richmond with Elizabeth.
A year later, in April 1861, Mary was married to Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Interestingly, the ceremony, like her baptism, took place at St. John’s Episcopal. The wedding notice listed both Mary and Wilson as “colored servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew” (Elizabeth’s mother).
Don’t forget about this wonderful program March 28! Hear from an expert on Mary Bowser, the spy who posed as a slave in the Confederate White House. Then stay to watch a living history performance on Harriet Tubman. Details at freedomcenter.org.