Mary Elizabeth Bowser: A spy for the Union

Published 12:17 pm Wednesday, April 24, 2019

What a treat it was to find out that the woman you are about to meet was a spy for the Union during The Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born Mary Elizabeth Richards a slave in 1839 in Richmond. In 1843 after her owner John Van Lew died, Mary was freed by Van Lew’s daughter Elizabeth (you remember her). Mary continued to work as a free paid servant for the Van Lews. She was sent by Elizabeth to an African-American Quaker school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In addition, in 1855 Mary ventured to Liberia, West Africa to join a missionary community but once the Civil War began in 1860 she returned to Richmond.

Eventually, Mary married William Bowser, a free black man beforehand. They had no children. Subsequently, on April 12, 1861, Elizabeth asked Mary to assist the Union by working as a spy. Mary agreed to aid Elizabeth in her quest and began working in the Confederate White House in Richmond. She worked there until right before the end of the Civil War. Moreover, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy. Before Mary started working for him and his wife she changed some things. One, her name became Ellen Bond so no one could know her real identity. Second, she had to assume the role of a slave again. Mary had to act unintelligent which would make it easy for her to get information on the Confederates and their plans to attack the Union. Mary listened in on conversations about troop strategies and movements while doing household chores. She even went into President Davis’s office looking through letters and other paper work. Indeed having a very good memory enabled Mary to effectively report to Elizabeth by way of Thomas McNiven, another spy, what was said and what she read word for word. Mary proved to be a great asset to the Union cause because unlike other slaves she could read, comprehend conversations and write.

Finally, President Davis realized there was a leak in the Confederate White House but never suspected Mary — not until the end of the Civil War. Once Mary knew that President Davis was on to her deeds she fled the home in January 1865. Her one last attempt to help the Union cause was trying to burn down the Confederate Capitol, which proved unsuccessful. After the war the government burned all records of southern spies; basically there was no record of Mary’s existence. In 1995, Mary was honored by the U. S. government for her spy efforts during the Civil War and inducted into the U. S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.

Even though Mary’s existence was erased according to U. S. records her contributions cannot be. She did live, work and support the cause of the Union during the Civil War. Mary should be celebrated for that.

Judy Moore is a tour guide at The Central High Museum and lives in Wylliesburg. She can be reached at