June 21, 2012, 12:30 PM
By LOIS LEVEEN
Mary Bowser, born into slavery in Virginia sometime around 1840, was, alternately, a missionary to Liberia, a Freedmen’s school teacher — and, most amazingly, a Union spy in the Confederate White House.
Her wartime career is all the more astounding because her espionage depended on the very institution that was meant to subjugate her. Chattel slavery was predicated on the belief that blacks were innately inferior — leaving a slave woman not so much above suspicion as below it — yet Bowser demonstrated the value of black intelligence, in every sense of the term. But the truth about the woman who went from slave to spy is fascinating and revealing precisely because it remains incomplete.
Bowser began her life as property of the Van Lews, a wealthy, white Richmond family. Although her exact date of birth is unknown, on May 17, 1846, “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized in St. John’s, the stately Episcopal church for which the elegant Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond is named, and in which Patrick Henry delivered his 1775 “give me liberty or give me death” speech. It was extremely rare for enslaved or free blacks to be baptized in this church. Indeed, other Van Lew slaves received baptism at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, indicating that Mrs. Van Lew, the widowed head of the household, and her daughter Bet singled out Mary for special treatment from an early age.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Some time after being baptized, Mary was sent north to be educated, although it is unclear precisely when or where she attended school. In 1855, Bet arranged for the girl, then using the name Mary Jane Richards, to join a missionary community in Liberia. According to Bet’s correspondence with an official of the American Colonization Society, however, the teenage Mary was miserable in Africa. By the spring of 1860, she returned to the Van Lew household, and eventually to St. John’s Church, where, on April 16, 1861 — the day before the Virginia Convention voted to secede — Wilson Bowser and Mary, “colored servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew,” were married.
The Confederate White House in Richmond, Va.
As these scant biographical traces suggest, much of what historians have documented about the life of Mary Bowser comes from sources that focus more fully on the Van Lews, especially the pro-Union Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew. During the Civil War, Bet’s loyalty to the North prompted her to care for Federal prisoners in Richmond and to smuggle information to Union military commanders. Although the official military correspondence involving Van Lew’s espionage was destroyed at her request after the war, the generals Benjamin Butler, Ulysses S. Grant and George Sharpe all cited Van Lew as a critical source of intelligence from within the Confederate capital.
Van Lew, in turn, credited her family’s former slave as her best source, writing in the private diary she kept during the war, “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.”
But it was not until 1900, when Van Lew was dying, that a Richmond newspaper’s account of her life included a description of an unnamed “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who was educated in Philadelphia and then placed in the Confederate White House as part of Van Lew’s spy ring. It was another decade before Bet Van Lew’s niece identified this black woman as Mary Bowser (sadly, the niece, only 10 years old when the war ended, could provide few other details regarding Bowser). The first publication of Bowser’s name came in a June 1911 article in Harper’s Monthly about Van Lew, which became the source — usually uncited and heavily embellished — for nearly all subsequent accounts of Bowser’s exploits.
But the former spy had already told her own story, publicly and privately, in the period immediately following the war, as recent research has revealed. Nevertheless, her own accounts don’t amount to straightforward autobiography, because she deliberately concealed or altered aspects of her life, as she carefully constructed her own identity and positioned herself in relation to the larger black community.
On Sept. 10, 1865, The New York Times published a notice for a “Lecture by a Colored Lady“:
Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
There can be little doubt that this was Bowser. And yet, as the use of a pseudonym suggests, she was consciously constructing a public persona. Reporting on the talk, the New York-based newspaper the Anglo African described Richards as “very sarcastic and … quite humorous.” The audience might have been most amazed by her description of collecting intelligence in the Confederate Senate as well as the Confederate White House, and aiding in the capture of rebel officers at Fredericksburg, Va. But her acerbic wit shone best when she described her time in Liberia, where “the Mendingoes … never drink, lie, nor steal,” making them “much better than the colored people are here.” (She concluded by admonishing young people to pay less attention to fashion and more to education.)
Slaves, like spies, regularly relied on judicious deceit. But even with the war over, Bowser, speaking in the guise of Richmonia Richards, practiced deliberate dissimulation. “Richmonia” recounted returning from Liberia to Virginia in 1860 to visit “her foster-sister,” whom she referred to as “Miss A–,” though the woman in question must have been Bet; it was a convention of sentimental abolitionist literature to use the phrase “foster sister” to describe the relationship between a sympathetic young mistress and her slave. But Richmonia Richards was more critical. She claimed that because Miss A– confiscated her free papers “for safekeeping,” she was arrested, given five lashes and “finally sold into slavery.” But in truth, although Mary Richards was arrested in Richmond in 1860, rather than being sold, she was returned to Bet’s mother, who was fined for letting her slave go out without a pass.
Why the prevarication? Mary’s freedom was likely de facto, not de jure, at least until after the war: both Virginia state law and stipulations in her husband’s will impeded Mrs. Van Lew from legally manumitting any of her family slaves. For the teenage Mary, the shock of being openly deemed property after having experienced personal liberty in the North and overseas must have been disturbing. And for “Richmonia,” the specter of whipping and forced sale was rhetorically powerful.
Mary’s twin commitments to racial uplift and to creating a story to suit her audience remained in evidence in 1867, when she met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Rev. Charles Beecher and the Rev. Crammond Kennedy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The trio was traveling through St. Mary’s, Ga., when they encountered “a most interesting school taught by a colored girl — quite a character,” who at that time went by the name Mary J. R. Richards. Beecher’s diary entry provides the only known physical description of the slave-turned-spy: “a Juno, done in somber marble … her features regular and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp, her form and movements the perfection of grace.”
As impressed as the travelers were by her efforts as a prewar missionary and postwar teacher of former slaves, it was Bowser’s work as “a member of a secret organisation in Richmond during the war … a detective of Gen’l Grant,” that prompted Kennedy to muse, “She could write a romance from her experience in that employment.” One wonders what story she would have penned, given that she told these visitors that her father was part Cuban-Spaniard and part Negro, and her mother was white, a dubious claim in light of the social mores of antebellum Virginia and the extant documentation that Mary was born a slave, which the child of a white mother would not have been.
Why lie about her parentage? The answer may stem not from the intentional deceptions she practiced during the war, but what she experienced in its aftermath. During her New York lecture, Richards recounted the arrest, torture and threatened execution of a black man who dared defend his wife from physical attack by Union forces occupying defeated Richmond. And while Kennedy described Richards as “this sister of ours, whose history … brought tears to all of our eyes,” Beecher referred to another African American in St. Mary’s as an “old darky.” If even seemingly sympathetic white Northerners could express overt racism, disguising one’s heritage might have been a calculated gesture of self-protection.
In the only direct words of hers we have (her 1867 correspondence with the superintendent of education for Georgia’s Freedmen’s Bureau), Mary emphasized the pull of race, expressing deep concern for the millions of slaves she helped liberate: “I felt that I had the advantage over the majority of my race both in Blood and Intelligence, and that it was my duty if possible to work where I am most needed.” After a month as the sole teacher to 70 day students, a dozen adult night students and 100 Sunday school students, however, she despaired, “I am I hope willing to do what I can, but I fear that in the end it will not prove much.”
The slave-turned-spy now faced an especially insidious enemy, as she wrote in one of her last missives before leaving the school and slipping out of the historical record:
I wish there was some law here, or some protection. I know the southerners pretty well … having been in the service so long as a detective that I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is … that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil … with a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything … Do not think I am frightened and laugh at my letter. Anyone that has spent 4 months in Richmond prison does not be so easily frightened.
Despite her repeated concealments and calculated deceptions concerning her past, she drew on her authority as a former intelligence agent. In so doing, the woman we remember as Mary Bowser anticipated the power her story still holds today.
Journalists, historians, even the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame and the C.I.A. have celebrated the extraordinary Mary Bowser, yet most Americans have never heard of her. Women’s history and African-American history still garner inadequate attention as fields, even when they intersect with an event as widely studied as the Civil War. And even as skeptics and Confederate apologists (starting with the Confederate first lady, Varina Davis) have denied the possibility of Bowser’s espionage, individuals and institutions interested in black history and women’s history have repeated unsubstantiated claims about her (for example, that she used the alias Ellen Bond, or that she set fire to the Confederate White House). Even a photograph purportedly of Bowser, widely circulated online, has not been traced to any definitive 19th-century source. It is especially fitting that although the woman in the photograph stares directly at the camera, her features remain obscured.
Bowser depended upon the way her race, gender, and presumed class allowed her to hide in plain sight. A century and a half later, Mary Richards Bowser remains a fascinating yet frustratingly obscured figure in American history. Ultimately, the lessons she offers us may be about the limitations of history, and the power of invention.
Sources: The American Freedman, April 1867; The Anglo African, Oct. 7, 1865; Charles Beecher diary, unpublished holding in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Conn.; William Gilmore Beymer, “On Hazardous Service”; Rev. L. W. Burton, “Annals of Henrico Parish”; The New York Times, Sept. 10, 1865; Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Georgia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; David D. Ryan, ed., “A Yankee Spy in Richmond: the Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew”; and Elizabeth Varon “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew.” Thanks to Sam Parker at Harvard University, Elizabeth G. Burgess at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and Elizabeth Varon at the University of Virginia for assisting my research.