This week’s featured Woman of History was a reader suggested choice. Mary Bowser was a civil war spy, missionary and educator. Unfortunately she is also a mystery.
She was born Mary Jane Richards near Richmond Virginia in early 1839 (or 1846 depending on the source). Her parents were slaves, owned by the Baker-Van Lew family. The family took special notice of Mary, baptising her in their own church, and eventually paying for her education. When John Van Lew died in the late 1840s, his wife and daughter decided to free their slaves, including Mary. She remained with them as a servant untill she was sent away for her education. She was educated in the Northeast, possibly at Philadelphia or near by Princeton, New Jersey. Education would continue to play a part in her life.
In the 1855, at the age of 16 (or 9), she was sent by Elizabeth Van Lew (John Van Lew’s daughter) to be a missionary in Liberia. She spent five years there, returning in 1860 to Richmond. A year later she would marry Wilson Bowser just a few days after the opening shots of the American Civil War (Also known as the War amongst the States in some areas).
Very little records remain about Mary’s life before the civil war, except of those kept by Elizabeth Van Lew in her own records and a few mentions in those of Thomas McNiven, a well known spy for the union.
After her marriage, she managed to get a position as a servant in the Confederate White House, serving President Jefferson Davis. The assumption is made that Mary was able to use the bias of those around her to get information and deliver it to Van Lew or McNiven when they would visit.
Most of the records of her life as a spy were destroyed after the war. Enough mentions in the notes of others have painted a picture of a woman who was quite skilled at what she was doing, and quite helpful to the Union.
After the civil war, she became a teacher, educating the now freed slaves. She would travel using alias to talk about her time as a spy, but no definate records were kept other then a few notations.
All in depth information was unfortunately destroyed over the years for one reason or another. The War department destroyed her records, and a possibly personal diaries of hers was potentially thrown out by her descendants who didn’t know it was historically important.
Her life has been expounded upon, but those researching her life are not sure what elements of the story were factual and what is just legend that grew from the truth. The fact that she was a spy is definite, and a good one. It is less certain to what extent her duties went, and what exact information she gave to the Union. All we really have to rest on are the accounts of other spys whose exploits became public knowledge after the war, like Thomas McNivens and Elizabeth Van Lew. McNivens was quoted by his daughter as having sad that Mary had a photogenic memory, and would given him some of the most important information within their spy network.
It could mean that Mary was one of the best spies in that she did her job – and no one knew what she did.
According to the legend, Mary took on the name of Ellen Bond, and in the last days of the civil war escaped the Confederate White House trying to burn it down in her wake. Sources differ on whether this is true or not. She is also accredited to starting a school in Florida for freed people.
The last known accounts of Mary Bowser were in 1867, in letters written as Mary J.R. Gavins.
In 1995, Mary was inducted into the US Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame for her duties during the civil war.
Due to the loss of so much detail about Mary’s life and spywork, it is hard to find sources with any significant amount of information. Hopefully, in time, research on her life will find more concrete facts.