Mary Elizabeth Bowser was an American freed slave who served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Mary was born as a slave, circa 1839, in Richmond, Virginia, to slave owner John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. Following his death in 1843, his wife and children decided to free all of their slaves. Bowser included.
Like many slaves at the time, she remained free but stayed to work for the family as a servant.
The wife and mother of the family, Elizabeth Van Lew, saw intelligence in Mary. Elizabeth, being an abolitionist and Quaker, sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philidelphia to be educated.
Elizabeth had strong ties to the Union. She was instrumental in establishing a spy system in the Confederate capitol, and using Mary was probably the best thing she could have done.
Mary was intelligent. She could act as though she was not and work in the house as a servant to listen in on conversations and relay her findings back to Elizabeth who would inform the Union.
Mary became “Ellen Bond” a slow-thinking but able servant, who worked in the Confederate White House for Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina.
Mary would listen in and give information to Thomas McNiven, a baker who made deliveries to the House. He would then deliver the information to Elizabeth who would take it to the Union.
Davis knew there was a leak in the house because the Union kept finding out all of their moves but did not suspect it was Mary until almost the end of the war. She fled the house in January of 1865 but not before one last move against the Confederacy.
She attempted to burn down the Confederate White House. It was a failed attempt but she made it out alive.
The U.S. government honored Mary for her work in the U.S. Civil War by inducting her into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, in 1995.