Black History Makers: Mary Bowser, Union Spy

Mary Bowser (Mary Jane Richards)

Mary Bowser, born Mary Jane Richards, is believed to have been born around 1839. She was born a slave on the John Van Lew plantation. Nothing is known about her parents. After Mr. Van Lew died in 1851, his daughter, Elizabeth, an abolitionist, freed all of their slaves. Mary remained at the plantation working as a paid servant.

When Mary expressed her desire to go to school, Ms. Van Lew paid her tuition for the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia in the late 1850s. Following graduation, she joined 55 black emigrants, as well as missionary Reverend J. W. Horne and his wife on a voyage to Liberia, becoming a missionary with the American Colonization Society. She became increasingly unsettled in Liberia and Elizabeth Van Lew brought her back.

At that time Elizabeth Van Lew had 12, black and white, informants in her spy ring. Her informants helped secure food and medicine for Union soldiers imprisoned in Libby Prison from 1861-1863, even helping some escape, hiding them in a secret room in Elizabeth’s home. When the Civil War began, Elizabeth Van Lew asked Mary to help her as a spy in the Confederate capitol.

Mary secured position as a servant in the White House of the Confederacy. It was assumed she was illiterate and was overlooked, so it was easy for her to gain information without being noticed as she cleaned and served meals. She had access to military documents, troop movements, and military strategies. Using her photographic memory skills, she would later repeat what she saw in the president’s private study, word for word. Mary was an incredible spy by the time suspicion fell on her, and she had fled from Richmond. She attempted to burn down the Confederate White House on her way out but was unsuccessful.

From there she disappeared into history.

In order to protect her and her loved ones, much of Mary’s history as a spy was scrubbed. Piecing her life together from a historical perspective is made even harder by the fact that she used so many names. Despite all of that, the United States Army recognized Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s contribution to the Union war effort by inducting her into the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

A native of Phoenix, Arizona Aundrea Sayrie is a firm believer in the power of words, faith and a strong spirit. Her greatest desire is to encourage those around her to discover and honor their truth, and to passionately live on purpose.