I have written about the women who assist the causes for freedoms. “Petticoats and Redcoats” a couple years ago, WWII Codebreaker Elizabeth Freedman, just recently, and then Pinkerton detective Kate Warne last week. These women changed the course of history in their days and in their ways. As Ms. Warne so eloquently put it when applying as a Pinkerton detective, “men tend to be braggards around women who encourage their boasting and women have keen eyes for detail.” Elizabeth Van Lew used her wiles to deceive them too, during the Civil War, with the help of her freed and educated slave Mary Bowser.
In honor of Black History Month, this post is dedicated to those who gave voices to the repressed then and now.
Mary Bowser, also known as Mary Jane Richards, was a slave who operated as a Union spy during the Civil War. Born as a slave in about 1839 on John Van Lew’s plantation in Richmond, Virginia, Mary remained as such until Mr. Van Lew died in 1843, when Elizabeth set all her father’s slaves free and began educating them in private. Bowser’s espionage work began in 1863, when Elizabeth Van Lew organized a spy ring of 12 people, including not only Mary but also several clerks in the war and navy departments of the Confederacy and a Richmond mayoral candidate. The outspoken and rebellious Van Lew was well known in Richmond society as an abolitionist, but had cultivated a persona as “Crazy Bet,” which she used to her advantage as a cover to deflect attention from her activities coordinating her network of spies. Mary was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1995.
Elizabeth Van Lew (October 12, 1818 – September 25, 1900) was an American abolitionist and philanthropist who built and operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Born to a prominent slave-holding Richmond family with Northern roots, Elizabeth Van Lew attended a Quaker school in Philadelphia, where she developed a strong attachment to the antislavery cause.
Because Mrs. Jefferson Davis could never believe a young black woman was educated to read and write, Ms. Van Lew was able to place Mary as a servant into the “Confederate White House” where Mary could view important documents left out and report them back to her. Later in the war, Elizabeth moved her up to Philadelphia where she would be safe. Back home, things had heated up and it only made more important to stay the course. Van Lew and her mother met with much scorn for their support of prisoners in the Richmond prisons. “We had threats of being driven away, threats of fire, and threats of death.” The Richmond Dispatch wrote that if the Van Lews didn’t stop their efforts, they would be “exposed and dealt with as alien enemies of the country.”
She was now labeled a spy—a term she thought cruel and unfair. “I do not know how they can call me a spy serving my own country within its recognized borders… [for] my loyalty am I now to be branded as a spy—by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest? God knows.”
After the war, quite destitute, when Grant became President, he gave her the job of Postmaster for Richmond, which she had for 8 years until Rutherford B Hayes was elected and replaced her. Grant too was helped during his march on Richmond by her dispatches. She then turned to the Boston family of Paul Revere whose Grandson she had helped during the war. They and other Boston families continued to help her until her death. Another “fun fact” is when she died, she was buried facing north and without a grave marker. Again, the Bostonians came in and placed a huge boulder with bronze marker at her burial site.