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Filing Cabinet - Civil War

Mary Bowser
Union Spy in the Confederate White House

Mary BowserMary Elizabeth Bowser was born a slave approximately 1839 in Virginia. When John Van Lew died, his wife and daughter, Elizabeth, who later becomes the well-known Union spy, manumitted all the family’s slaves.

Elizabeth Van Lew took a special interest in Mary’s abilities and sent her to be educated in Philadelphia in a Quaker school in the 1850s. Later Mary returned, began to work for Miss Van Lew and her mother in their Church Street home in Richmond, Virginia, and married a free black, William Bowser.

Through her connections, Mary Elizabeth Bowser secured a position as a household servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond. There she served the needs of President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina.

Mary Bowser

She had a photographic memory and could remember the contents of documents she saw on Jefferson Davis’ desk as she cleaned. She listened intently to conversations among the leaders of the Confederacy who frequented the mansion. She reported it all to Elizabeth Van Lew or Thomas McNiven, leaders of the Union’s spy ring in the heart of the Confederacy.

Thomas McNiven operated a bakery on North Eighth Street. Frequent deliveries from the bakery to the Confederate White House gave him ample opportunity to receive information from Mary, known as “Ellen Bond” to the Davises, as they spoke by the delivery wagon.

Before McNiven’s death in 1904, he told his daughter, Jeannette B. McNiven, about his experiences, which were recorded in 1952 by her nephew, McNiven's grandson, Robert W. Waitt Jr.

McNiven identified Bowser as an essential source of wartime information because: "she was working right in the Davis' home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis' home to drop information."

Mary was not suspected until the end of the war. She fled Richmond in January 1865 and she was never heard from again.

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