Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Posted: July 4, 2008 in Civil War, Espionage, Missing In Action, Tradecraft, Whom You Least Suspect

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1839-Unknown) was an unbelievably courageous freed slave who worked as a Union spy during the Civil War.

Mary began life as a slave on a plantation in Richmond, Virginia. When the plantation owner passed away in 1851, his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, a staunch abolitionist, freed Mary. Mary stayed on and continued working for the family. However, Elizabeth took note of what a smart cookie Mary was and sent her to the North to receive an education.

In 1863, Elizabeth Van Lew arranged for Mary and a friend to be placed in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ home as a servant. As a maid in Davis’ home, Bowser had access to a great deal of military information. Troops movements, correspondence, POW reports, and military strategies were all memorized and reported back to Van Lew, who in turn, reported the information back to Union Military Intelligence. Needless to say, this should have taught Davis a thing or two about underestimating the lady who serves you tea.

Whatever became of Mary remains a mystery. What is known is that In January of 1865, Mary fled Davis’ home but not before a failed attempt to burn down the Confederate White House.

Was Mary discovered as a spy? This Agent prefers not to think about it as the consequences of discovery for Mary would have been undeniably grave. Instead, this Agent prefers to think of her like Amelia Earhart, never crashing but instead flying the ghostly plane. I like to think Mary, who disappeared in time for the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, is roaming the Virginia Appalachians keeping tabs on things.

In 1995, Mary Elizabeth Bowser was admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

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