Mary Bowser was no longer a slave. She, however, remained a servant for the family of Elizabeth Van Lew, a renowned abolitionist who freed the family of slaves along with her mother, after her father passed away. Elizabeth went even as far as to buy the freedom of relatives of the slaves that her family had owned. Mary Bowser, especially, had a special place in the Van Lew family. This special relationship lead her to become a black spy, and infiltrate the Confederate White House.
Elizabeth Van Lew sent Mary Bowser to the North to receive a formal education and later was sent to Liberia for missionary work in 1855. She returned from Liberia in 1860 and married fellow Van Lew servant Wilson Bowser in 1861.
Four days before the wedding, the Civil War erupted.
Mary first started out by volunteering at a warehouse that held Union prisoners. But she was bringing much more than food and clothes. She was delivering hidden messages and plans for escape.
Soon after, Mary was fully integrated into Van Lew’s network of spies working for the Union. After working for the Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a cook and servant, she was employed as a full time servant in the Confederate White House.
Becoming Van Lew’s most valuable spy, Mary passed on plans and documents straight from the Confederate White House to the Union. Although there is not much information on exactly what Mary Bowser was able to report, diary entries by Van Lew suggest that critical information was able to pass on to the Union Army due to her work.
Mary later became an educator of the freed slaves and traveled the country sharing her adventures as a spy.
For more information on this incredible story, read History’s “How a Black Spy Infiltrated the Confederate White House.”