Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a former slave who operated as a spy for the Union while working on the household staff at the Confederate White House. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born a slave somewhere around 1839 on a plantation owned by John Van Lew of Richmond. Details about her life are little known as family members inadvertently discarded her diaries in the 1950s. Upon his death, in either 1843 or 1851, his wife and daughter, Elizabeth, freed their slaves. An outspoken abolitionist, Elizabeth arranged for Bowser to be educated in Philadelphia. As tensions increased between the North and South, Bowser returned to work as a household servant for the Van Lew family.
Prior to the war Van Lew regularly sent reports to Union officials about activities in the South. Knowing that war was coming, she recommended Bowser for a position on the Davis household staff, and Bowser proved to be a very successful spy for the Union. The household members assumed she was a slave. Thus, Davis and his cabinet members, as well as military leaders, spoke openly in front of her about troop strategy and movement. They also took for granted that she was illiterate, and so she was able to read war dispatches and other important papers Davis left out. Bowser would then pass the information to Van Lew or to other Union informers who would pass her information to military leaders, including General Grant.
Unfortunately, little is known about Mary Bowser's life and her work as a spy. After the Civil War ended, the US government destroyed any record of her, Van Lew and others, ostensibly for their protection. There is no record of what she did after the war, and the date and details of her death are also unknown.