Mary Bowser: The Unique Story Of The Freed Slave Turned Civil War Spy
Should Jefferson Davis had known that the seemly illiterate slave, “Ellen Bond” who had become a hand in his house during the civil war was gleaning vital information, and eavesdropping on conversations that happened behind closed doors, he would have chased her away or perhaps put an end to her life.
Should he had known that she was indeed literate, with an almost photographic memory, that she repeated top war secret information to her once master, Elizabeth Van Lew who was devoted to the union and that her name was not even Ellen Bond, but Mary Bowser, he would have freaked out.
Born in 1839 on the plantation of John Lew, who was a wealthy hardware merchant, Mary Bowser’s intelligence had set her apart from the other slaves. So that when John passed away, his daughter, Elizabeth sent Mary to the Quaker school of Negreos. It is within those walls that she would fan the flicker of intellect already burning in her mind, and upon graduation, she formerly known as Mary Jane Richards, would marry a free black man, Wilson Bowser.
The ceremony had taken place just days after the first battle of the civil war at Fort Summer and it is believed that it was then Elizabeth began to implement her spy ring. Elizabeth knew that her biggest bet besides having spies all over the Confederate Capitol where she lived although being a Union member herself was having one in the Confederate White house and to do this, she selected because of her good acting skills and above par intellect, Mary Bowser.
It started from inducting her as a hand to first lady of the confederate, Varina Davis who threw a lot of functions. Bowser was the meek, and handy servant who swallowed orders and never said a word of protest. When she finally got into the White house and resumed fully as a cleaner and meal server, she strengthened further the spy ring of Elizabeth.
She conveyed her discoveries to Elizabeth through Thomas McNiven, a baker who was also a spy for the union and who often made deliveries at the Confederate White House.
It is recorded that Bowser’s discoveries were vital to the success of the Union during the war although it is not certain what these discoveries actually were. But Bowser’s story is being retold all over the world to young girls and young boys, to teach them bravery, and how it is always noble to risk one’s life for good.
It is told to teach how the colour of one’s skin should not be a factor, and about the beautiful things that can happen when people unite without labels. This is very lucid in an entry from Elizabeth Van Lew in her diary where she says;
When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, “What news, Mary?” and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence, which is wonderful.