Mary Elizabeth Bowser – Union Spy


Mary Elizabeth Bowser

This photo was long assumed to be that of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Union Spy, however it has since been identified as another woman of the same name. 

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (1839?-??) – Born as a slave on John Van Lew’s plantation in Richmond, Virginia, Mary Elizabeth remained as such until Mr. Van Lew died in 1851. At that time, Mrs. Van Lew and her daughter, Elizabeth, freed all of their slaves, in addition to buying members of their slave families from other owners and freeing them as well. Elizabeth Van Lew, an outspoken abolitionist, soon arranged for Bowser to be educated in Philadelphia. However, when tensions increased between the North and South, Bowser returned to the Van Lew household, where she worked as a servant. Soon thereafter, she married a free Black man named William (or Wilson) Bowser.

Despite her abolitionist sentiments, Elizabeth Van Lew was a prominent figure in Richmond, though secretly she was regularly sending reports to Union officials about activities in the South. To further her cause, she recommended Bowser for a position in Jefferson Davis’ household, where Mary Elizabeth would become a prominent Union spy. Household members and guests assumed that Bowser was an illiterate slave and therefore spoke openly in front of her about battle strategies and often left important papers lying about that Bowser would read. The information was quickly passed to Union informers which ultimately led to the Confederate defeat. Unfortunately, what happened to Mary Bowser after the war is unknown, including the date and details of her death.

By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, August, 2017.

Also See:

Historic Women List

Women in American History

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