From Slave to Spy
1839 - ?
As the Davis children entered the
dining room for dessert, smiles and
gentle laughter replaced the adults’
frowns and talk of war. The new servant,
Mary, took the opportunity to glance at
a paper one of the officers had
carelessly placed on the side table.
There were notes from the latest battle.
As she scanned the page, she memorized
every word! She had listened to the war
talk as she served the platters of
Virginia ham, roast turkey, and oysters.
Suddenly Mary got that prickly
feeling you get when you know someone is
staring at you. She turned and saw Mrs.
Davis frowning at her. Mary calmly but
quickly picked up the bowls of pudding,
bowed slightly to the Confederate First
Lady, and served dessert to the eager
Her heart skipped a beat as it always
did when she sensed the danger of being
caught. Still, her disguise was perfect.
No one would expect a former slave to be
able to read, let along understand
anything about troop strength and war
* * * * * * * *
Mary Bowser was a former slave, but
she was not uneducated. Born in 1839,
she grew up in the Van Lew household.
When Elizabeth Van Lew returned home
from school in Philadelphia, there were
lively discussions about slavery.
Elizabeth spoke out against it. Mrs. Van
Lew quietly agreed with her daughter.
Unfortunately, Mr. Van Lew didn’t agree,
but he treated Mary and his other slaves
After Mr. Van Lew died, Elizabeth
freed all their slaves. Then she asked
Mary the most startling question: Now
that Mary was free, would she like to go
to Philadelphia to attend school as
Elizabeth had done? Though Mary could
not go to the same school as Elizabeth,
she was able to attend a Quaker school
for black students. Philadelphia had a
strong anti-slavery spirit.
Many of the other freed slaves
decided to stay on and work for
Elizabeth. Mary may have hesitated to
leave her friends and relatives, but
once she got to school, her quick mind
absorbed all the Quakers could teach
her. She had a photographic memory,
which not only helped with her studies,
but eventually made her a great spy.
When Confederate President Jefferson
Davis moved to Richmond, he and his wife
brought a few of their slaves with them.
They needed additional help in the
Confederate White House as they had
young children and all kinds of social
and political obligations.
Elizabeth heard Mrs. Davis wanted
more household workers, so she offered
to find someone for her. Then she
hurriedly sent word to Mary in
Philadelphia: Would Mary come back to
Richmond and take the position—as an
Mary agreed to return.
Working in the Confederate White
House, she was in a great position to
get secret military plans. When the
baker, another Union spy, made his
deliveries, Mary passed the information
to him. He was amazed by her memory!
Mary also met with Elizabeth. She’d
set out, walking quickly, glancing over
her shoulder to see who might be
following her. They had hurried
conversations. It must have been a
relief to Mary to hear how the war was
going from the Union’s point of view.
When two of the Davis family slaves
ran away, Mary was glad that they would
find freedom. She knew what it was to be
free, but even if they had asked her to
join them, she wouldn’t have gone. She
would stay in Richmond until the war was
over, doing everything she could to
bring freedom to all slaves.
Over one hundred years later, in
1995, the U.S. Army inducted Mary into
the U.S. Army Military Intelligence
Corps Hall of Fame for her success “in a
highly dangerous mission. . . .She was
one of the highest placed and most
productive espionage agents of the Civil
Ann Hunter is the pen name for
Pamela D. Greenwood and Elizabeth G.
Macalaster, who write nonfiction for
all ages. Their award-winning
books include Into The Air: An
Illustrated Timeline of Flight
from National Geographic and
Robots Slither, a Book Sense
Best Children’s Book.
Bowser: From Slave to Spy
" is an
excerpt from their book In
Disguise! Stories of Real Women
Spies. Struck by the courage and
conviction of these women, they
wanted to share stories about their
silent service for the cause of
more about Ryan Ann Hunter at
To order a copy of In Disguise!