Tuesday’s Disunion in the New York Times contains a useful contribution by Elizabeth R. Varon entitled “Women at War.” In the piece, Varon essentially makes the argument, accepted by most academic historians, that women and gender are important topics in understanding the Civil War. That the author is making this important point and that the Times is giving her a platform to do so is quite commendable.
A central figure in Varon’s column is Elizabeth Van Lew. Van Lew was a Unionist who lived in wartime Richmond, Virginia, where she aided Union prisoners held at the city’s infamous Libby Prison. She also ran a spy ring inside the heart of the Confederate capital.
Elizabeth Van Lew’s most important operative, unmentioned by Varon, was Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser had been born a slave of the Van Lew family. Elizabeth and her mother freed their slaves after the death of her father. Bowser continued to work for the Van Lews after being freed as a paid servant and they eventually sent her north to Philadelphia before the war to be educated.
(One point to be drawn here was that for a lucky few in the antebellum South freedom could come through acts of manumission and in some cases slaves managing to buy their freedom.)
Mary Elizabeth Bowser (her surname coming from her prewar marriage) eventually returned to Richmond and after the outbreak of the Civil War with Elizabeth Van Lews’ help managed to get hired in the Confederate White House working as a servant for the family of Jefferson Davis. As a servant, Bowser was hard-working and competent, effecting a simpleton personality and feigning illiteracy. This allowed her to gather intelligence from conversations overheard and from reading government papers left out in the open. Bowser was never caught and continued passing information to Elizabeth Van Lew throughout the war. The value of the intelligence she provided is unknown, but at the very least she gave Union leaders a sense of the activities, visitors, gossip, and mood in the household of the highest Confederate leader, useful information in wartime.
I’m not faulting Elizabeth R. Varon for not mentioning Bowser. Major newspapers are necessarily stingy with space even on the internet and the focus of Varon’s column is gender not race (and she gives Harriet Tubman a nod), but in featuring Elizabeth Van Lew so prominently someone really ought to mention Mary Elizabeth Bowser–so I am.