Badass American History: Mary Bowser

It’s funny what I remember from my pre-college educational experience. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget an American government teacher who described in great detail how ball bearings would eventually be made in space, or an American history teacher who pointed out that one of the Cold War targets of a nuclear attack was right next door to my hometown, or how my fifth grade English teacher complimented one line of one poem that I wrote, to the point that I still remember that opening stanza.

I’m pretty sure I recall nothing of trigonometry.

And seeing how it’s February, I can remember how even back in elementary school it puzzled me that every year we studied the same few notable people during Black History Month. I mean, there’s no escaping the fact that Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rosa Parks were all giants, and worthy of recognition. And as I got older, Malcolm X was thrown into the mix, as well as excerpts from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the movie Glory. I’m just saying that my studies were a bit narrow in scope.

Fortunately, it’s 2016 and the internet exists in far more splendor than it did in 1998, so educational sites such as Tumblr have helped filled in the gaps of my early education. And before you say Tumblr isn’t at all educational, let me tell you that it introduced me to the badass slave turned free woman turned Union spy, Mary Bowser.

Bowser was born into slavery, which is ridiculous in and of itself, to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. Upon the patriarch’s death, his surviving family freed his slaves. Bowser remained with the Van Lew household, however, working as a servant only now she was presumably paid for her work.

Elizabeth Van Lew noticed the girl’s intelligence and sent her off for an education, and while the details are murky, it was more than likely a Quaker school in Philadelphia, and it seems she left the country for a while to be a missionary, was miserable, and eventually returned to the family, and became a huge asset to Elizabeth’s military intelligence efforts for the Union.

See Mary Bowser chose to return to slavery in order to spy for the Union. And she did so in the somewhat important household of one Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Given the idea that people didn’t expect slaves to be educated and generally disregarded their presence as long as they fulfilled their duties, Bowser was able to gather information and report it undetected for quite some time. She was also said to have had a photographic memory, so her location gave her access to documents that no one in the house would have suspected she could even read.

When suspicion finally fell on Bowser, she was able to flee, and she may have attempted to burn down the Confederate White House as a final act on her way out. Whether that’s merely legend or has some root in fact we’ll probably never know, because many of the records regarding spies were destroyed for the protection of the spies and their families in a post-war nation that was still very much in a state of unrest.

In 1995 Mary Bowser was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, and finally recognized for her work. Yet I’d never heard of her until someone on Tumblr decided to post about this incredibly brave woman who was willing to forsake her freedom and risk her life to report from the very heart of the Confederacy.

History is full of such stories that get lost in time, or even right after the fact. And with textbooks attempting to rewrite history to make it sound less ugly, we risk losing even more. However, I mostly wanted to share this story because I think Mary Bowser was a total badass, and worthy of recognition.


Sources or it didn’t happen:

One. Two. Three.

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