Carnival of Genealogy: A Tribute to Women

The Carnival is now posted at Jasia’s Creative Gene.  There are 31 outstanding selections from both veteran and nedwcomer genea-bloggers.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1840- ??)

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1840- ??)

You won’t find my contribution there; I simply ran out of time.  But had I had the time, I would have written about Mary Elizabeth Bowser.   A Central Intelligence Agency paper tells her story as one of the least-known, but perhaps most valuable, spies in the Civil War:

Union officers got so many valuable pieces of intelligence from slaves that the reports were put in a special category: “Black Dispatches.” Runaway slaves, many of them conscripted to work on Confederate fortifications, gave the Union Army a continually flowing stream of intelligence. So did slaves who volunteered to be stay-in-place agents. Tens of thousands of ex-slaves fought and died for the Union in military units. Less known is the work of other African-Americans who risked their lives in secret, gathering intelligence or while entering enemy territory as scouts.

One of the boldest—and least known—Northern spies of the war was a free African American who went under cover as a slave in what appears to have been a plan to place her in the official residence of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The residence, called the Richmond White House, served as the Davis home and the President’s executive office. While he conducted Confederacy business there, he would not have seen his slaves as a threat to security. Official papers did not have to be given special protection when slaves were around because, by law, slaves had to be illiterate.

Elizabeth Van Lew well knew this law, and, while running her spy ring in Richmond, realized the espionage value of a slave who was secretly able to read and write. Van Lew had a perfect candidate for such an agent-in-place role:Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

The wealthy Van Lew family, which had 21 slaves in 1850, had only two by 1860—both of them elderly women. Yet, Virginia and Richmond archives show that the Van Lews had not gone through the legal procedures for the freeing of slaves. Freedom meant exile. Under Virginia law, freed slaves had to leave Virginia within a year after winning their freedom. Only by ignoring that law could Van Lew carry out the audacious placement of an agent in the Richmond White House.

Elizabeth Van Lew and her widowed mother Eliza raised the eyebrows of their social acquaintances in Richmond in 1846 by having a slave baptized as Mary Jane Richards in St. John’s Episcopal Church, revered as the site where Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Later, Elizabeth sent Mary Jane off to Philadelphia for an education. In 1855, Mary Jane sailed to Liberia, the African nation founded by Americans as a colony for ex-slaves.

On March 5, 1860, a ship bearing Mary Jane Richards arrived in Baltimore. She went on to Richmond—an illegal act for a freed slave. Five months later, she was arrested for “perambulating the streets and claiming to be a free person of color….” She was briefly jailed and released after Elizabeth Van Lew paid a $10 fine and claimed that Mary Jane was still a slave. This declaration would give her perfect cover as an agent. Mary Jane Richards married and became Mary Elizabeth Bowser. It is under that name that she enters Civil War espionage history.

Information about her is scanty. One good source is Thomas McNiven, who posed as a baker while making daily rounds as a Van Lew agent in Richmond. From him, down the years, came the report that she “had a photographic mind” and “Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s Desk, she could repeat word for word.”

Jefferson Davis’ widow, Varina, responding to an inquiry in 1905, denied that the Richmond White House had harbored a spy. “I had no ‘educated negro’ in my household,” she wrote. She did not mention that her coachman, William A. Jackson, had crossed into Union lines, bringing with him military conversations that he had overheard. In a letter from Major General Irvin McDowell to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Jeff Davis’ coachman” is cited as the source of information about Confederate deployments. A butler who served Jefferson Davis also made his way to Union lines.

From Intelligence in the Civil War–Black Dispatches, United States Central Intelligence Agency (2007)

After the war ended, Mary Elizabeth Bowser disappeared from Richmond and nothing is known about her life thereafter.   The 1900 census shows a Mary Bowser of the proper age living in Boston, but it is not clear that this is the same woman.  It is known that Elizabeth Van Lew had friends and acquaintances in Boston, and that she had sent Mary “up North” for an education.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser has been the subject of scholarly examination, as well as popular history, novels, and plays.  In 1995, she became one of just eight women ever admitted to the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.


3 Responses to “Carnival of Genealogy: A Tribute to Women”

  • What a fascinating story. I think we are only now beginning to unearth the work of many remarkable women, and there is still so much to discover. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Craig, I realize I misstated her name in my comment above. I meant to say Mary Jane was baptized with the name of Richards.

  • Hi Craig,

    Fascinating history lesson! My interest was peaked when I read that Mary Elizabeth was baptized and given the name Richards. I wonder if they just arbitrarily picked out that name or if it had some family significance. Since my maiden name is Richards I noticed that right away.

    She must have gone through a lot of hardships and dangers to travel to Liberia and back again and ultimately spy for the Union. Yes, I’d say she is deserving of this “Tribute to Women” in our Genea Blogger community.

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