Civil War Spies

Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew by Snigdha Reddy

Standard

*Identify and analyze the impact of tensions between and among individuals, groups, and institutions.


The Story

Elizabeth Van Lew was a Richmond Elite, daughter of a rich slave owner, but she was an abolitionist through and through. She freed all of her slaves after her father died, including Mary Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser stayed and worked as a paid servant to the Van Lew family. When Van Lew realized Bowser has a lot of potential, she sent her to the Quaker School for Negroes of Philadelphia. After school and marriage, Van Lew asked for Bowers's help. Van Lew has been helping Union soldiers escape and stay safe, and when General Grant heard of her, he enlisted her help as a spy. Van Lew had found a spot as a slave maid at the Confederate capital building, and used her status to get Bowser into the capital. Bowser, thought to be an illiterate slave, had access to all of the important papers that held all of the Confederate secret plans, tactics, troop information and much, much more. Since President Jefferson Davis didn't think anything of an "illiterate slave maid dusting his room. This is how the Union got most of their information. Bowser passed this information along a line of people to Van Lew, who got it to General Grant as soon as possible. According to Thomas McNiven, a partner spy of Van Lew claimed that Van Lew "took on the persona of "Crazy Bet," so the guards wouldn't think of her as a spy when she visited prisoners," and think of her more as a crazy lady who likes prisoners instead of cats.

The Importance of Their Actions

The information the pair got from the Confederate capital was vital to the victory of several battles, sieges, and prison break outs. Information Bowser got from the capital helped the Union win several battles against the Confederates by countering the Confederates attack plans in a way the Confederates didn't think of. Van Lew also not help gather information from several of the spies working under her, but helped plan prison escapes and breakouts so that Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners could try to make it to the safety of the North, or hide in the South. They both helped lead the Union to its success in the battle because they both risked their lives to get a hold of information of the Confederates battle plans, troop movements, involvement and even information Confederate spies stole from the Union. These two spies were important because the Union got information from not only them, but from all of the spies that have helped them and pushed them to success. The effects of their acts on the Confederate was devastating. The South lost and wasn't able to keep slaves, who had worked to make most of the money that the Southerners had.

The Impact of Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew

Bowser and Van Lew had a huge impact on the history of America. They both played a part in bringing the Union to success and keeping the States together. They helped free the slaves and make sure that slavery wouldn't happen again by risking their lives. Today, too, you can see their impacts. They were one of the first women spies. Now, women spies are also held in high positions - maybe even more than men. Men and women continue to risk their lives the freedom of others just like Bowser and Van Lew. They and all of the other spies, man and woman, helped shape us into the way we are now.

Sources:

"Bowser, Mary Elizabeth (1839?-?), Union Spy during the Civil War..." Hutchins Center. The President and Fellows of Harvard University, n.d. Web. May 2016. <http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/bowser-mary-elizabeth-1839-union-spy-during-civil-war>.

"Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Spy of the Confederate White House." Civil War Saga. N.p., 16 Jan. 2013. Web. May 2016. <http://civilwarsaga.com/mary-elizabeth-bowser-spy-of-the-confederate-white-house/>.

"National Treasures - Union Civil War Flags 1861 to 1865." ZFC -. N.p., n.d. Web. May 2016. <https://www.flagcollection.com/resourcesstaticcontent.php? CollectionHTMLZone_Code=tours_unioncivilwarflags>.

"National Women's History Museum Spies Exhibition." National Women's History Museum Spies Exhibition. N.p., n.d. Web. May 2016. <https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/spies/1.htm>.

"WOMEN AS SPIES & SOLDIERS." Georgetown College. N.p., n.d. Web. May 2016. <https://spider.georgetowncollege.edu/htallant/courses/his312/tgentry/webpage/spies.htm>.


United States. National Park Service. "Person (U.S. National Park Service)." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. May 2016. <https://www.nps.gov/resources/person.htm?id=116>.

History.com Staff. "Secret Agents in Hoop Skirts: Women Spies of the Civil War." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 03 Sept. 2013. Web. May 2016. <http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/secret-agents-in-hoop-skirts-women-spies-of-the-civil-war>.