Mary Elizabeth Bowser- The Union’s Secret Weapon- Courageous Freed Slave Who Worked as a Union Spy During the Civil War
Placed as a servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond..
While she cleaned the house and waited on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military leaders, she read war dispatches and overheard conversations about Confederate troop strategy and movement. She memorized details and passed them along to Union spies, who coded the information and sent it to Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Butler, “greatly enhancing the Union’s conduct of the war,” according to the account assembled by the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. As recorded by Waitt, Thomas McNiven credited Bowser with being one of the best sources of wartime information, “as she 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
“Jefferson Davis never discovered the leak in his household staff,” reads the account, “although he knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans.”
Papers believed to have been Bowser’s diaries were discarded inadvertently by family members in the 1950s. They said descendants rarely talked about Mary Elizabeth Bowser’s work for fear of retaliation from lingering Confederate sympathizers.
Her grave was re-discovered in 2000 in Richmond, Virginia.