Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Elizabeth (Van Lew) Bowser was born around 1839 on a plantation in
Virginia. John Van Lew, the wealthy Richmond merchant who owned the
plantation, died while Mary Elizabeth was a child; thereafter,
his wife and spinster daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, freed all the family’s
slaves. Mary Elizabeth was
sent to a Quaker school in Philadelphia to receive an education.
Elizabeth Van Lew, despite
having been raised in a rich family that owned many slaves, was fervently
anti-slavery. She took part
in local abolitionist activities, and was so outspoken that she developed
a local reputation for eccentricity.
When the Civil War began, Van Lew assisted Union Army Intelligence
in any way she could. Confederate
loyalists in Richmond did not seriously suspect her of spying throughout
most of the war; they would have expected a spy to keep a low profile—Elizabeth
Van Lew constantly called attention to herself by acting as if she were
insane. All the while, she
was a very productive spy.
Van Lew sent for Mary
Elizabeth, who returned from Philadelphia to assist her in her efforts.
Sometime around her return to Richmond, Mary Elizabeth married a
free African American man with the surname of Bowser.
Van Lew used her local connections to obtain Mary Elizabeth Bowser
a position as a household servant in Confederate President Jefferson
Davis’ White House in Richmond.
Bowser’s co-workers and
employers never imagined that unassuming Mary Elizabeth, who DID know how
to keep a low profile, had a photographic memory and an ulterior motive.
As she cleaned, she made mental notes of any military information
she discovered lying around on the President’s desk or in his office,
and wrote it down later in her room. When she waited at table during official dinner parties, she
listened carefully to conversations among the highest-level leaders of the
Confederacy as they discussed strategy; she recorded them later, in private.
Her notes were passed on to either Van Lew or to a Union agent
named Thomas McNiven, who worked out of a local bakery.
When the bakery wagon came to Davis’ White House, Bowser would
meet it outside to pass on her information.
It is not possible now to obtain many details about Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s life; after the war, the Union Army intelligence destroyed personal data about her and records of the information she collected. They did this for her protection, so that she would not be subject to retaliation from Confederate sympathizers.
Van Lew suffered many social repercussions due to her assistance to the Union Army during the war, and ended up quite poor at the time of her death. Mary Elizabeth Bowser left some personal diaries, but unfortunately her descendants accidentally threw them away some time during the 1950s. However, her role in Civil War espionage has not been forgotten, and she was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, in 1995. During the ceremony, her contribution was described thus: “Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”