International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women #6 – Mary Bowser

Photograph of Mary Bowser

Photograph thought to be of Mary Bowser.

Mary Bowser was a freed slave and one of the most successful spies in the American Civil War.

One could be forgiven, reading her Wikipedia entry, for thinking that her achievements were largely the result of the work of her former owner, Elizabeth Van Lew, but Mary is a formidable figure in her own right.

Possessed of a sharp intelligence and photographic memory, Mary adopted the role of a slow witted servant under the name ‘Ellen Bond’. She gained a role in the household of Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. As a black servant she was treated as invisible, and she used these racist assumptions to gather vast quantities of information for the Union. With her photographic memory she could report conversations verbatim and reproduce documents word for word.

Thomas McNiven was her contact and wrote of her:

[S]he 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.

Recollections of Thomas McNiven

After the war, records of many spies were destroyed for their own protection, so we will never know the full extent of her work, but she was clearly a key player. Mary was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame by the US government in recognition of her achievements.

Index of Inspiring Women.

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