Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Union Spy In The Confederate White House

The CIA's image of Mary Elizabeth Bowser
The CIA's image of Mary Elizabeth Bowser | Source

To Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the servant girl she may have known as Ellen Bond was a typical slave woman: slow, dim-witted, illiterate. But she did such a good job as a household maid that Mrs. Davis added her to the servant staff at the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia.

What Varina Davis never realized, or at least never admitted, was that “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 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.

Born a slave, but a favored one

According to Lois Leveen, writing for the New York Times Disunion series, Mary Elizabeth Bowser began life as Mary Jane Richards. She was born as a slave into the household of John Van Lew, a wealthy merchant in Richmond. Her date of birth is thought to be 1839 or perhaps 1840.

It is not known who her parents were, but Mary was treated with extraordinary favor from the beginning of her life. For example, she was baptized on May 17, 1846 in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. It was practically unheard of for any black child to be baptized in that church, which was attended by the upper crust of Richmond’s white society. It appears, in fact, that Mary was the only one of the Van Lew slaves to receive this distinction.

Elizabeth Van Lew
Elizabeth Van Lew | Source

Mary is freed and gains an education

Mary became the protégé of Elizabeth Van Lew, John’s daughter. Elizabeth had been educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. When she returned to Richmond, it was as a committed abolitionist. When John Van Lew died, Elizabeth and her mother did their best to free all the Van Lew slaves, including Mary, even going against the provisions of Van Lew’s will to do so.

Some time 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 life in that 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).

Mary is recruited as a spy

When the Civil War broke out, Elizabeth Van Lew helped organize and lead a Union spy ring operating in Richmond. To cover her activities, which included aiding escaped Union prisoners of war as well as gathering and transmitting military information to the Union forces outside the city, she took on the persona of “Crazy Bet.” By dressing in an unkempt, slovenly manner, and acting as if she were somewhat mentally impaired, Elizabeth was able to organize and direct a widespread espionage organization without being seriously suspected.

One of her first recruits into her organization was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who became one of the spy ring’s most productive and reliable sources of information. As Elizabeth recorded in the diary she secretly kept during the war:

When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful.

Mary becomes a spy in the Confederate White House

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.

The Confederate White House
The Confederate White House | Source

The invisible woman

As a spy Mary enjoyed a major 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 into his office to clean, it did not occur to the Confederate president that this seemingly illiterate 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 capacity 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:

Miss Van Lew was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary was the best as she was working right in Davis’ home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information.

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.

Mary’s life after she fled Richmond

Until very recently, what happened to Mary after she fled Richmond was unknown. Now, however, new historical scholarship has thrown some additional light on what transpired in the remainder of her life.

After the war the US government made it a point to destroy the records of all its Southern espionage agents, since publicizing that information could endanger their lives and the lives of their families still residing in the South. Lois Leveen notes that Elizabeth Van Lew specifically requested that all her records, which would include those referring to Mary, be destroyed.

However, at about the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1900, some information about Mary began to come out. An article that year in a Richmond newspaper told of a “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who had been educated in Philadelphia and was placed by Elizabeth as a spy in the Confederate White House. A decade later, Elizabeth’s niece identified that agent as Mary Bowser. Then, a June 1911 Harper’s Monthly article about Elizabeth identified Mary by name and gave an account of some of her activities.

Mary’s lost diary

Mary herself apparently kept a secret diary, but a family member, not realizing its significance, destroyed it.

In 1952, McEva Bowser, Mary’s great-niece-in-law, was disposing of the effects of Alice Smith Bowser (1884-1952), her husband's mother. She came across an old diary that had been in Alice’s possession. McEva remembers that family lore says the diary was initially in the possession of Rosa Dixon Bowser (1855-1931), who might well have received it from Mary, herself. In an interview aired on National Public Radio, McEva Bowser reveals what appears to have become of Mary’s diary:

Listen to audio

National Public Radio story about Mary. Includes a brief interview with McEva Bowser.

NPR story

McEva Bowser: "I was cleaning her room and I ran across a diary. But I never had a diary and I didn't even realize what it was... And I did keep coming across (references to) Mr. Davis. And the only Davis I could think of was the contractor who had been doing some work at the house. And the first time I came across it I threw it aside and said I would read it again. Then I started to talk to my husband about it but I felt it would depress him. So the next time I came across it I just pitched it in the trash can."

During that NPR interview, McEva Bowser also relates that as late as the 1960s the Bowser family, still living in Richmond, didn’t talk about Mary “because she was a spy.” The fear of possible retribution on the family by resentful whites was still strong.

Recently unearthed information about Mary's later life

Although Mary’s own account of her life as a spy seems to be forever lost to us, some information concerning her later years has recently been unearthed by historians. The September 10, 1865 edition of the New York Times carries the following announcement:

LECTURE BY A COLORED LADY. -- Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Waverley-place, near Sixth-avenue.

Not our Mary!

Long thought to be the only known photo of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, this photo was recently discovered to be of a different woman of the same name.
Long thought to be the only known photo of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, this photo was recently discovered to be of a different woman of the same name. | Source

Given that Mary’s maiden name was Mary Jane Richards, and that in her talk she described having lived in Liberia, it’s obvious that the lecturer was none other than Mary herself, hiding her identity behind a pseudonym. In its report on the talk, the New York Anglo African newspaper said she was “very sarcastic and… quite humorous.”

Lois Leveen relates that in 1867 Mary, then teaching freed slaves in Georgia, met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Harriet’s brother, Rev. Charles Beecher. In his diary account of that meeting, Rev. Beecher recorded what is thought to be the only surviving physical description of Mary: “a Juno, done in somber marble … her features regular and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp, her form and movements the perfection of grace.”

Later that year, Mary remarried, and left her teaching position. Nothing is known of her life after that.

Induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame

When Mary was inducted into the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995, an article in Military Intelligence magazine (April-June 1995 issue) reports the reasons she received that honor:

Mary pretended to be a bit 'dull and unconcerned,' but she listened to and memorized conversations between Davis and his visitors as she served their dinner. She read war dispatches as she dusted the furniture. Each night after she finished her duties, Mary traveled to the Van Lew mansion which was some distance from the Davis mansion. Upon her arrival, she recited from memory the private conversations and documents. After she coded the information, it passed directly to the Union's General Grant, greatly enhancing the Union's conduct of the war.

Jefferson Davis knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans but never discovered the leak in his household staff…

Mary Bowser succeeded in a highly dangerous mission that significantly benefitted the Union effort. She was one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.

A final testimony to Mary’s success as a spy

In 1905 Varina Davis, then the widow of the Confederate president, denied the possibility of there having been a spy in the Confederate White House. “I had no ‘educated negro’ in my household,” she wrote.

As far as Varina and Jefferson Davis were concerned, Mary Elizabeth Bowser maintained her cover until the very end. And that is perhaps the best testimony to Mary’s effectiveness as a spy.

© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin

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Comments 14 comments

KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

Fascinating! I'm sharing this one. What an outstanding historical novel her life would make.

mothercristina profile image

mothercristina 3 years ago

Great to come across this piece of history. I was intrigued!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, KrisL. As a matter of fact, Lois Leveen, author of the NY Times piece cited in the hub, has written a novel: The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The Amazon ad is on this page. She also said a movie was in the works. Let's hope so!

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

mothercristina, it is a fascinating story, isn't it. I am regularly amazed at the courage and resourcefulness of ordinary people who committed themselves to doing the right thing. Thanks for reading!

PWalker281 3 years ago

I always enjoy reading your history articles, Ron. Mary's story will make a great movie! Voted up and shared.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Patrice. Your comments are always encouraging, and I look forward to them.

Lois Leveen 3 years ago


Thanks for bringing Mary's story to your readers. For folks who want a deeper look at what Mary might have experienced, THE SECRETS OF MARY BOWSER fills the bill -- and it's available at Target stores, as well as bookstores including Barnes and Noble as well as Amazon. For more about Bowser online, see

I've actually uncovered new information about Mary's postwar life since writing the New York Times piece--so the story continues. BUT I've never seen any documents suggesting she used the name "Ellen Bond" -- so we have some things to "unlearn" as well as to learn when it comes to Mary Bowser.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Lois, thanks for dropping by. Your NY Times piece was of immense help in rounding out Mary's story. And I did take note of your caution regarding Ellen Bond; in fact you caused me to revise my introduction to read that Varina Davis "may" have known her by that name.

An ad for your novel appears on this page, and I'm sure readers will be glad to know they can pick it up locally as well. And we are hoping to see the movie one day!

I look forward to seeing the new info you and others are uncovering about Mary's life. Thanks for continuing to bring her story to light.

platinumOwl4 profile image

platinumOwl4 3 years ago

RonElFran, It was a pleasure for me to read of this extraordinary Black woman. It seems that no matter how people have tried the information continues to appear. Thank you for writing this article I will continue to read for the remainder of the day. Again thanks for this .

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, platinumOwl4, for the encouragement. For me Mary's story is a great inspiration. I wish her family hadn't thrown away her diary!

RachaelOhalloran profile image

RachaelOhalloran 2 years ago from United States

This is a truly remarkable story. The spies whom we know so much about are no longer fascinating to many of us and the spies we know little about will hold fascination for centuries. It must have been very hard to maintain her cover because she was a bright woman. Although most slaves were groomed to keep their eyes cast down, sometimes when one looks into their eyes or really looks at their face, it is the "knowing" that shows through and gives them away. The fact that she kept her cover is a testament to how well she kept the "knowing" off her face.

I write about this era as well (on Tumblr and Blogger) and although there is much written about it, there will always be that one story that somehow escaped the reading list.

Voted up, awesome and interesting.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

Thanks, Rachael. Mary's story is one of those hidden gems that, in my opinion, far too few people know about. I look forward to reading some of your Civil War era material.

mbs 16 months ago

when did she die

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 16 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA Author

mbs, it is unknown when or where she died.

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    Ronald E. Franklin (RonElFran)503 Followers
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    Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

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