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Filing Cabinet - Civil War

Mary Bowser
Spy for the Union in President Davis' Home

In June 1995, Mary E. Bowser was inducted into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The following article appeared in Military Intelligence 21, no. 2 (Apr.-Jun. 1995), p. 48.

Ms. Bowser was born a slave and worked on the John Van Lew plantation outside Richmond, Virginia. After her father's death in 1851, Elizabeth Van Lew freed Ms. Bowser and the other Van Lew family slaves. Mary was a very intelligent woman; Elizabeth recognized that and sent her north to attend school in Philadelphia.

During the Civil War, Union sympathizer Elizabeth Van Lew organized an intricate spy operation. Elizabeth Van Lew sent for Mary Bowser after deciding to plant a Union spy in the home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Mary gained employment in the Davis mansion (in Richmond) as a servant because of Ms. Van Lew's recommendation.

Mary pretended to be a bit 'dull and unconcerned,' but she listened to and memorized conversations between Davis and his visitors as she served their dinner. She read war dispatches as she dusted the furniture. Each night after she finished her duties, Mary traveled to the Van Lew mansion which was some distance from the Davis mansion. Upon her arrival, she recited from memory the private conversations and documents. After she coded the information, it passed directly to the Union's General Grant, greatly enhancing the Union's conduct of the war.

Jefferson Davis knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans but never discovered the leak in his household staff.

Specific details of Ms. Bowser's activities and precise knowledge of the information passed to General Grant are unknown. In the interest of their protection, all records on Ms. Van Lew and her agents were destroyed after the war. However, it is certain that Mary Bowser succeeded in a highly dangerous mission that significantly benefitted the Union effort. She was one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War. Exact details of Ms. Bowser's date of birth and the year of her death are unknown.

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