Murphy Browne © March 28-2018
MARY ELIZABETH BOWSER UNION SPY
“I wish there was some law here, or some protection. I know these southerners pretty well and their present appearance is not at all favorable. I have been in the service so long as a detective that I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is little of the open braggadocio that generally characterizes them, but there is that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil. With a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything. Their apparent good feelings and acquiescence are only a vail to hide their true feelings.”
Excerpt from April 7, 1867 letter from Mary Elizabeth Richards Bowser to G.L. Eberhardt Georgia Superintendent of Freedmen’s Schools
Mary Elizabeth Richards was an enslaved African born on March 30, 1840 in Richmond, Virginia. She was the property of the Van Lew family. As an adult she became the most famous African American undercover agent for the United States Army during the American Civil War. She worked as a domestic servant in the Confederate White House of President Jefferson Davis where she gathered military intelligence for the opposing Union army. Her name in popular history is Mary Elizabeth Bowser, but she used many other names for protection throughout her life. Richards Bowser was part of an extensive Union spy network run by Elizabeth Van Lew, the White woman whose family had enslaved Richards Bowser.
The first record of Richards Bowser is her baptism as “Mary Jane” at St. John’s Church in Richmond, on May 17, 1846. She was dentified in the church records as “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew.” She was also sent North to be educated and then (as a 15 year old) to Liberia in 1855 as a missionary. Richards Bowser returned to Richmond in the spring of 1860. Although she had lived as a free person during her time in a Northern state and as a missionary in Liberia, on her return to Richmond, Virginia she was once more the property of the Van Lew family.
On April 16, 1861, Mary Richards married Wilson Bowser a free African American man. Her marriage to a free African American man did not change her status as an enslaved woman because she was “hired out” as a domestic to the Whitehouse by her owner Elizabeth Van Lew. From Elizabeth Van Lew’s diary entry dated May 14, 1864 “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, “What news, Mary?” and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence, which is wonderful.”
In the Jefferson Davis Whitehouse it was assumed that Richards Bowser was “dim witted” and illiterate so she was free to wander around cleaning offices, reading and memorizing sensitive military material. The information was passed on to Elizabeth Van Lew or other White, Union “spies.” One of these White spies was Thomas McNiven a baker who had immigrated from Scotland on March 25, 1835. In “Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his activities in Richmond during the American Civil War” Mc Niven is quoted: “Miss Van Lew was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary [Elizabeth Bowser] was the best as she was working right in 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 the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home.”
Following the end of the Civil War Bowser gave at least two lectures in the North in 1865 about her education, life in Liberia and her work as a spy. She protected her identity by using pseudonyms at both lectures. At the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan on September 11 she was Richmonia Richards and two weeks later on September 25, at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Bridge Street in Brooklyn she was Richmonia R. St. Pierre.
She used the name Mary J. Richards when she founded a school in Saint Mary’s, Georgia in 1867. She taught formerly enslaved Africans in her school including mostly children as day students, adult night students and Sunday school students. In a June 1867 letter to the Georgia Superintendent of Freedmen’s Schools she requested that he refer to her as Mary J. R. Garvin. After the St. Mary’s school closed she left the US to join her new husband in the Caribbean and there is no further record of Mary Elizabeth Richards Bowser Garvin.
In 1995 she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona by the U.S. government. The acknowledgement of her work reads in part: “Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.” Mary Elizabeth Bowser is just one of countless African Americans whose contributions remain mostly hidden. From the 1500s to the 21st century African Americans have been and continue to be an integral part of American life and yet as African American poet Langston Hughes wrote: “I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company come. I, too, am America.”
It seems not much has changed in the USA since Richards Bowser expressed her fear of being targeted by envious White people who were unsettled at the sight of African Americans striving for education. While in April 1867 they could destroy her school with no consequences, in March 2018 they can kill and maim African Americans and be excused as “troubled” youth even if they are in their 30s.
Murphy Browne © March 28-2018