Mary Bowser is one of the most fascinating figures of the Civil War. A free black woman (though her freedom might not have been recognized in Virginia), she took a job as a servant for Jefferson Davis to serve as a spy in the Confederate White House, working with the famous spymaster Elizabeth van Lew. Mary pretended to be illiterate when, in fact, she could not only read but may have had a photographic memory. (Some scholars, however, believe that she might not have had a photographic memory but was just good at remembering things.) Whatever the case, for years, everything she saw and read in the Confederate White House was fed to Union generals. Below are five facts you may not know about the remarkable Mary Bowser, adapted from Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring.
1. SHE WAS BORN A SLAVE.
Mary was born into slavery sometime in 1839 or 1841. John van Lew, a Virginia businessman, was her owner; after he died in 1843, his daughter, Elizabeth—who had become an abolitionist after receiving a Quaker education—helped free Mary. Later, van Lew would recruit Bowser for her spy ring.
2. IT WAS ILLEGAL FOR HER TO KNOW HOW TO READ.
Around the time she was freed, Elizabeth sent a young Mary north to be educated. It was a crime to teach blacks to read in the state of Virginia, punishable by prison sentence or fine. Years later, Mary made a deliberate choice to pretend to be a servant again to help end slavery for others. Given her background, it was an act of incredible bravery.
3. SHE LIVED IN LIBERIA ...
Some time after Mary was educated, she moved to Liberia to teach and to do missionary work. At the time, free slaves were settling Liberia, so it wasn't uncommon for someone like Mary to go—but Mary did it before she was even 20 years old! The timeline of Mary’s life is unclear, but she worked in Africa for approximately five years.
4. … BUT SHE RETURNED TO VIRGINIA AND GOT MARRIED.
Mary and Wilson Bowser tied the knot just a few days after the Civil War started. The young couple only got to spend a short time together before Mary took her place as a spy in the Confederate White House. Elizabeth van Lew, who was the head of an extensive spy ring, learned the Davis household needed another servant. Elizabeth recruited Mary and helped her get the job.
5. SHE WAS A SOURCE OF CONSTANT FRUSTRATION FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS.
Confederate leaders could tell there was a mole in the highest reaches of the Confederacy, but nobody ever figured out it was Mary. In his letters, Jefferson Davis complains that his mental state is collapsing under the strain of not being able to find the spy. At one point, he wrote to Confederate General GJ Rains that “no printed paper could be kept secret.”
After the war, Mary taught ex-slaves to read, but beyond that, much of her history is lost to us. Some of this is because the Union and van Lew herself destroyed many of the records of spies in the South, knowing that after the war, Southern officers would have access to the files, and so the spies could suffer reprisal.