Mary Bowser is an enigma...
What we think we know about her makes it unmistakably clear that she was, probably, the best Civil War spy. Unfortunately, what we know is very little, and that little is further clouded by misinformation.
For example, the picture to the left is widely reported to be Mary Bowser, but there is no documented proof of this. As a matter of fact, it is not really known where this picture comes from at all. (Actually, since this article was published I have learned that it has been confirmed that this picture is definitely not our spy.)
It is not known exactly when she was born, but it was sometime before May 17, 1846. There is a record of her being baptized as a child on this date at St. John’s Episcopal in Richmond, Virginia.
Her name was given in the record as Mary Jane, and was noted as, "...a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew." This Mrs. Van Lew would have been the mother of the well-known Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew. It was Elizabeth, who after her father's death, prevailed upon her mother to free Mary and the rest of the Van Lew slaves. Mary is generally thought to have been born in the late 1830s or early 1840s.
At a very early age, it was recognized that Mary was exceptionally intelligent, and Elizabeth Van Lew provided for her to receive an education in Philadelphia. After her education was completed, Elizabeth arranged for her move to the new Republic of Liberia. In 1855, using the name Mary Jane Richards, she made the move and joined a missionary community in Liberia.
Unfortunately, life in Africa did not suit young Mary, and by 1860 she had returned to Richmond to work for the Van Lew family. She became Mary Bowser on April 16, 1861, when she married a man named Wilson Bowser. The next day, Virginia seceded from the Union and Elizabeth and Mary embarked on a new path...
Much is made of the espionage work done by Miss Van Lew during the Civil War, but little is known about the many people working in her extensive spy network throughout the Confederate capital of Richmond. These secret suppliers of information were what made Miss Van Lew so successful, and none are known to have been better placed or more effective than Mary Bowser.
At some point during the first couple years of the war, Mary succeeded, with Miss Van Lew's assistance, in getting a position as a servant in the Confederate White House (right). Under this humble and overlooked guise, Mary became privy to information intended only for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The Confederate leadership felt no need to guard their conversations in the safe confines of the Presidential residence; and since it was assumed that she was illiterate, no effort was made to keep Mary from seeing secret documents.
Thanks to this, she was able to gather sensitive information at all times. Whether she was dusting Jefferson Davis's office or clearing away dishes during a cabinet meeting, Mary Bowser was always on the lookout for information.
A local bakery man, Thomas McNiven, supplied the Confederate White House with baked goods and served as a part of Miss Van Lew's network. Thus, Mr. McNiven (he used the code name "Quaker") was able to receive important information from Mary when he delivered to the White House each evening. He later described Mary's incredible skill to his daughter, "...Mary [Bowser] was the best as she was working right in Davis’ home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word."
As with most Union spies who served in Richmond during the war, all records of Mary's work were destroyed by the War Department to protect her from the retaliation she would have faced if the extent of her service were uncovered. Because of this, very little specific information is known about her activities during the war.
However, it cannot be doubted that she served exceptionally well in an exceedingly dangerous position. In 1995, the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, honored her effort with these words:
"Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War."
After the war ended, Mary Bowser spent time serving as a teacher for freed slaves, and gave at least one speech in which she told the story of her time as a spy in the Confederate White House. For the speech, given in the fall of 1865 in New York, she used the name, "Richmonia Richards."
Later, in 1867, she had a chance meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe in Georgia, and told her story again. At that time, she was teaching under the name Mary J. R. Richards. After 1867, we don't know what happened to her...
She seems to have effectively disappeared. Like a good spy would...
...and her story almost disappeared with her, only being properly researched in recent years.
It is possible that Mary Bowser kept a diary detailing her exploits, but is believed that this possible lead has been lost to history as well... in the 1950s, some relatives "...ran across a diary..." in which they kept "...coming across (references to) Mr. Davis..." Not realizing the possible significance of "Mr. Davis," they eventually, "pitched it in the trash can." It will never be known if this was in fact Mary Bowser's account of her exploits or not, but it seems almost fitting that this Civil War spy and hero remains a mystery...
Sadly, much of her story will probably never be known, but what is known is this: Mary Bowser rose from slavery to become possibly the best Civil War spy of them all. She is, without a doubt, a true American Civil War hero.