Documenting the Life of an Elusive African American Civil War Spy

Lois Leveen's picture

To begin H-CivWar's new author's blog, in which contributors will document our triumphs and tribulations as we work on our current book projects, public humanities scholar Dr. Lois Leveen introduces us to her work documenting the life of the elusive African America Civil War spy most often (erroneously) referred to as Mary Bowser.

How does one begin to describe a project you've been working on for years, and will be for many more? How about this:

My Civil War project is so exciting! 

I have been quoted in the Washington Post!

No, the "reporter" did not actually interview me! He merely pulled a few quotes from a then-six-year-old video he found online!

Yes, the article was riddled with historical errors that the Post refused to address despite my numerous communications with the "reporter" and several editors once I discovered the article after it was published!

(No, I will not include a link to the Post piece here, because why should legitimate scholars increase the search rank ratings of such things?)


The truth is, no one needs any help to find falsehoods about my subject, a woman most often "misremembered" as Mary Bowser. Type the words Mary Bowser spy or Mary Bowser slave into an internet search engine, and you'll discover hundreds of thousands of results describing how she spied for the Union during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. These accounts reflect Hollywood-inspired expectations of cloak-and-dagger espionage, coupled with limited understanding of nineteenth-century dynamics of race and gender. Ironically, these inaccurate accounts proliferate because of the public's growing interest in African American history and women's history, underscoring the need for rigorous research, presented in a way that allows general readers to learn how historians document and interpret the past.


Born around 1840, "Mary Jane," as she was called by her enslavers, the Van Lew family of Richmond, spent her earliest years in Virginia. When she was still a child, Bet, an adult Van Lew daughter, arranged for her to be educated in New Jersey, then to serve as a missionary in Liberia. Unhappy there, she returned to the Van Lew household in Richmond in 1860. During the Civil War, she was a key participant in the pro-Union espionage ring coordinated by Bet. The work performed by this interracial ring was so significant, it was praised by Generals Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Butler, and George Sharpe, with the credit going largely to Bet. Mary (as she began to self-identify in her twenties) went on to be a teacher of the newly emancipated in various locations across Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. She also became a postbellum activist for racial justice, calling publicly for full citizenship rights for African Americans, including protection from white supremacist violence. Baptized as a child by the Van Lews in their Episcopal church, then educated at Bet's behest as a Presbyterian, she converted to Catholicism as an adult. By 1870, she had left the South and moved to New York, where, like many African Americans, she struggled to support herself in the face of myriad forms of discrimination.


Over the course of her first thirty years, she used more than a half-dozen different surnames and pseudonyms, often concurrently (three related to short-lived formal or informal marriages), making her especially challenging to trace in historical records. The abundance of names, some of which she used simultaneously, or switched back to after periods of disuse, makes it a challenge to know how best to refer to her. There is some merit to referring to her simply as Mary; it is the name she used most consistently, and serves as a reminder that her self-definition included repeated acts of reinvention.


My role as her biographer is complicated not just by the many names to track but also by her own propensity to give contradictory information about her life in public talks, in private conversation, and in the scant correspondence she seems to have left. Oh, and another complicating factor is that I've already written a book "about" her, the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser – despite my own concerns about how historical fiction gets mistaken for feminist history. The truth is, I imagined my way into fiction when I thought the historical record would not yield the rich and surprising details I have since found. My research for this new project began with efforts to track and correct all manner of inaccuracies about her, and to convey to the public why it is particularly problematic when we get African American history wrong.


As it turns out, her real life is more astounding than anything anyone could make up. But my goal is not to emphasize her exceptionalism (as biographers often do); rather, I refer to my current book project as "a biography of race in nineteenth-century America" because although it traces the life of one person, I contextualize her experiences before, during, and after the Civil War within the larger fields of African American history and women's history. The chapters of her life can thus serve as an aperture for introducing audiences outside academia to lesser-known topics in U.S. history, including urban slavery, the rise of vibrant free black communities in the antebellum North, efforts to expatriate African Americans, the contributions made by networks of black civilians and their white allies during the Civil War, and the post-emancipation struggles of African Americans in the South and in New York.


Depictions in print and online of "Mary Bowser" typically focus on her Civil War espionage (usually embellished with fabricated details); centered solely on her exploits, these accounts obscure the contributions countless other blacks made to the Union during the war. Such depictions simultaneously promote a simplistic version of historical struggle that resolves in the "happy ending" of Union victory and emancipation. The framework for my project, by contrast, uses the popular hook of the slave-turned-spy to illuminate a broader pattern of how African Americans and their white allies challenged not only the institution of slavery, but also myriad other manifestations of racism in the North as well as the South, before, during, and after the Civil War.


Dear Lois, 

Thank you for this great post and for sharing your fascinating work. A few works that might be helpful to consult are as follows... just in case you're looking for suggestions.   

Erskine Clarke's By the Rivers of Water focuses mostly on the missionaries careers of two white southerners, the Wilsons, but may provide some useful context for southern whites who encouraged emigration to Liberia and the missions there. 

Karl Jacoby's The Strange Career of William Ellis is likely well known, and focuses on an individual whose life revolved around a slightly different set of issues, including most obviously passing, but the work Jacoby did to put Ellis's/Eliseo's life together and connect it to the social and cultural context of they day might prove helpful to your own work. 

It sounds like there are lots of challenging issues built into this project, so I hope the blog helps work through them as we move forward.

Best wishes,