Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Mary Elizabeth Bowser 1822 - ?
As A yong girl Mary Elizabeth Bowser was purchased by Richmond’s Van Lew family to be a playmate for young Elizabeth Van Lew. The two girls grew up together and were close friends. After being schooled in Philadelphia, Van Lew returned home an abolitionist and persuaded her widowed mother to free the family slaves. The Van Lews paid for Mary Bowser to attend a private school for women in Philadelphia.
When the Civil War broke out, ardent Unionist Elizabeth Van Lew decided she could best serve the cause by working as a spy and sending information on activities in Richmond to Union military leaders. Van Lew wrote Mary Bowser and asked her to give up her secure life in the North and return to Richmond and help in the dangerous work. The fact that Bowser obligingly returned to the Confederacy and the Van Lew home attests to the trust and friendship that existed between the two women.
In the Souther society, a slave was often nearly invisible. Bowser, a polished and well-educated freedwoman, adopted the guise of an ignorant slave and as such, she was able to pass through Confederate lines while carrying important information to Union commanders, Bowser accompanied Van Lew on visits to provide “Christian Charity” to Union officers in Libby Prison, and she helped Van Lew hide and care for prisoners who escaped. Bowser’s most important service to the Union came in 1864, when Van Lew arranged for her to work at the Confederate White House as a maid or nanny for President Jefferson Davis’s young children.
As Bowser went about her duties, often serving as waitress at dinner meetings that included top military and political leaders, she gathered important intelligence that Van Lew passed on to Union officials. Supposedly an illiterate slave, Bowser was able to read and sometimes make copies of documents she found on the president’s desk. At the end of the war Bowser returned to the North; nothing of her later life is known.