Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a black women that served as a spy for the Union
Army during the Civil War. She was born a slave outside of Richmond, Virginia
where she served the Van Lew family until the death of her master, John
Van Lew. She remained with the Van Lew family and Mrs. Van Lew sent her
to Philadelphia to obtain an education.
At the start of the Civil War she returned to Richmond to do espionage
work with Mrs. Van Lew. Mrs. Van Lew was able to hire her Bowser out as
a servant at the Confederate White House to spy on Jefferson Davis. It
is said that she did a great job at pretending to be quite dumb while she
listened to the dinner conversation of the Confederate President. Each
night Bowser would recite to Mrs. Van Lew word for word the military plans
discussed over dinner by leaders of the confederacy.