Steampunk This! – The Fascinating Life of Mary Bowser

“Mary Bowser, born into slavery in Virginia sometime around 1840, was, alternately, a missionary to Liberia, a Freedmen’s school teacher — and, most amazingly, a Union spy in the Confederate White House.”–Lois Loveen

Last week I attended a talk by author Lois Loveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. In this ambitious fictional work, Loveen attempts to recreate the murky history behind one of the more interesting, (and lesser known) figures of the American Civil War.

Mary Bowser was born “Mary Jane” sometime in the 1840s, a slave in the home of the Van Lews–a wealthy white Richmond, Virginia family. In a peculiar turn of events, the young slave was sent North to be educated at an early age, and even spent time in the West African colony of Liberia. Mary’s status at this time is confusing. The Van Lews, who had once owned some 21 slaves, only had two by 1860–both of them elderly women. Mary, having traveled in free states and even once lived in a colony of free blacks, appeared to enjoy the life of a free woman. In fact, she only returns to Richmond in 1860 to visit her “foster-sister.” Upon arrival from Baltimore however, Mary is arrested for impersonating a freed woman. She is released to the care of her mother after one of the Van Lew daughters, Elizabeth Van Lew, pays a fine of $10 to set her free. And here is where things get interesting.

Despite her family’s status as slave owners, Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew remained fiercely loyal to the Union, deeming the secessionist impulses that were sweeping Virginia at the time a type of madness. When the Civil War erupts, Elizabeth remains a Unionist, and creates an intricate spy ring to funnel Confederate secrets to the North. The CIA fact page on Mary Bowser (yes, she is on a CIA fact page!) sees a connected series of events at work here. In their interpretation, Elizabeth Van Lew, perhaps anticipating the coming conflict, called for Mary to return to Richmond with just this sort of spy ring in mind. Historians seem to agree that the “foster-sister” Mary claimed to be visiting was likely none other than Elizabeth.

The CIA takes it one-step further, and even posits that the arrest of Mary may have been orchestrated–a way to establish her credentials as a slave, rather than a free woman, and thus provide her with the perfect cover. In truth, Mary was not free in a legal sense. Lois Loveen points out that according to Virginia state law, as well as stipulations in the late Mr. Van Lew’s will, Mary could not be manumitted. In order for the two women to pull off their intended espionage, Mary would have to don the identity of a slave–even if she had once enjoyed freedom. This course of events, so neatly connected, is hard to verify; and parts of it readily appear dubious, especially the notion that Elizabeth Van Lew could possibly have such foresight in 1860. Yet, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and would make both women masters at spy craft and subterfuge. Whatever the case, upon her return to Richmond Mary marries a free black man on April 16, 1861–some four days after the first shots are fired by Confederate batteries on Fort Sumter. She will adopt her husbands’ surname, Bowser.

Elizabeth Van Lew sets her spy operation up almost immediately. Gaining access to the upper circles of the Confederacy, she manages to place Mary Bowser into none other than the Confederate White House of Jefferson Davis. There, the well-traveled free woman now returned to slavery, drawing on her Northern education and exploiting antebellum Southern assumptions about her intelligence and literacy, passes information on to Elizabeth Van Lew–who in turn placed it into the hands of Union generals. Mary Bowser would later recount to awe-struck audiences after the war her time as a “detective,” collecting intelligence both from the Confederate Senate and White House, and even her role in the capture of Confederate officers.

Mary Bowser’s stint as a slave and spy is as vexing for researchers and historians as it is fascinating. At Elizabeth Van Lew’s own request, all military correspondence or documents relating to the spy ring were destroyed–out of fears for her own safety in the bitterly vengeful and defeated Confederacy. Not until late in her life were accounts of her escapades made public, and corroborated by Union generals like Benjamin Butler and Ulysses S. Grant. It is from Van Lew’s accounts that many learned of Mary Bowser’s role, who an incredulous news report described as a “maid, of more than usual intelligence.” Van Lew, in her personal diary, was more praiseworthy:

“When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence which is wonderful.”

The CIA fact page also notes Thomas McGiven, a white Richmond resident who posed as a baker while making daily rounds as a Van Lew agent, who claimed Mary Bowser “had a photographic mind” and “Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s Desk, she could repeat word for word.” Lois Loveen points out that long before any of this, Mary Bowser had been telling tales of her role as a Union spy to black audiences–or anyone who cared to listen. As early as 1865, The New York Times published a notice for a “Lecture by a Colored Lady” to be held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. The speaker, described as being “recently from Richmond where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen,” would also regale her audience with “a description of her adventures …. connected with the secret service of our government.” According to Loveen, Mary Bowser would even relate her story to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the Rev. Charles Beecher and the Rev. Crammond Kennedy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The trio, in a paternalistic sense common to white abolitionists of the day, seemed to find Bowser a curious figure, with Kennedy appearing both struck and bemused at her tales of being “a member of a secret organisation in Richmond during the war … a detective of Gen’l Grant.”

The authenticity of Mary Bowser’s role in the Van Lew spy ring has long been the subject of debate. Jefferson Davis’ widow, Varina Davis when asked about it in 1905, claimed to have no knowledge of any slave of Van Lew working in the Confederate White house, and denied any of her bonded servants were “educated.” The more recent Van Lew biographer, Elizabeth Varon, points to scant evidence to corroborate many of the stories surrounding Bowser’s exploits. And indeed some of the more fantastic claims found on online sites like wikipedia–of Bowser’s attempts to burn down the Confederate White House–are wholly unsubstantiated. Even the photo that usually accompanies her name cannot be definitively traced back to her. The shadowy cloak Mary Bowser wore in her time as a spy seems to have followed her into history, making it hard to construct a developed narrative around her life.

It is the task of reconstruction that Loveen takes up in her novel, attempting to peel back the layered veils of the mysterious Mary Bowser. Through painstaking research, Loveen takes us through a host of aliases and dissembling that seem starkly fitting for a one time spy. She admits her novel takes historical license in several areas for the purpose of storytelling and dramatic effect, and is careful (wisely so) to not call it a biography, as she instead attempts to recreate “the thoughts, motivations, and daily actions” of this nebulous figure.

And while we’re being inventive, let’s throw in a little Steampunk.

The American Civil War remains a popular theme in steampunk, providing a dramatic backdrop for Victorian American fashion, reconfigured weaponry and airships. Probably one of the more popular takes on the topic are the works of author Cherie Priest, whose Clockwork Century posits a never-ending Civil War locked in an era of steampunk dress and gadgetry. In one of her books, the novella Clementine, Priest introduces us to Maria Isabella Boyd–a Confederate spy on a mission and on the run. It is rather obvious that the fictional Isabella Boyd is none other Belle Boyd, the real-life famous teenage “Siren of the Shenandoah” who served as a Confederate spy.

I’m a fan of Priest’s novels, and enjoyed Boyd as a spirited, witty strong female character; but the kinder, gentler Confederate thing (a trope that is fast becoming popularized–see Cold Mountain, Jonah Hex or AMC’s Hell on Wheels) was admittedly hard for me to digest. Boyd’s eventual alliance with the almost apolitical Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey, a Gatling gun-toting larger than life runaway slave (who oddly enough never seems to take a definitive stand against slavery), struck me as far-fetched–alternate steam and mechanic powered timeline or no. In Priest’s universe while the Confederacy starts the war over slavery, they eventually mostly abolish the “peculiar institution” yet continue fighting for “other” reasons; the historian in me says, very much unlikely and winces at the eye-raising unspoken, but seemingly hinted, “states rights” reference; yet the speculative fiction lover in me suspends disbelief for a good story. Besides, Priest is hardly a Neo-Confederate, and boldly addresses slavery, issues of race and gender head on in numerous novels, particularly in her book Ganymeade, which features a mixed-race heroine in a free New Orleans occupied by an independent Texan Republic. Oh, and did I mention there are zombies? No? Okay. There are zombies.

But back to Mary Bowser…

If there is one thing missing from our understanding of the Civil War, it is the sense of agency by the slaves themselves. In too many of our popular mediums, monuments and depictions of the conflict, slaves are rendered passive players–waiting for “Jubilee” at the hands of white saviors. I have already blogged on this trope and how it distorts our understanding of the period in my bit on Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; and it seems Steven Spielberg’s latest more historical piece, Lincoln, follows in much the same trend. Even movies that give black characters more assertive roles, such as the 1989 film Glory, play loose with facts to push the passive theme; in this case, the 54th Massachusetts is reconfigured as mostly composed of ex-slaves (in reality the early recruits were free black men from the North, Canada and even the West Indies–some with prior military training), in order to present a tale of a white-savior General Shaw (Matthew Broderick) molding former slaves into fighting men.

Highlighting the work of figures like Mary Bowser would go a long way in providing a more nuanced understanding of the Civil War. Here was a woman who could have chosen to remain free in the North, but returned South to don the mask of a slave–with all the indignities, humiliations and dangers that entailed–and risk her life as a spy deep within the inner circles of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was not the only black spy for the Union; there were many. The CIA fact page Black Dispatches in fact is dedicated to highlighting them, from Harriet Tubman to runaway slaves who fed information to Allan Pinkerton. Both the coachman and butler serving Jefferson Davis and his wife would escape to Union lines, bringing with them valuable intelligence. Yet Mary Bowser’s tale, and the sheer audacity of the undertaking, stands out as remarkable.

Much has been said about the continued need for strong and diverse women in steampunk, to bring some color to the often “whites-only” Victorian Age, dominated by patriarchy–and our own limited imaginations. I nominate Mary Bowser. If Belle Boyd can get a remake, why not her?

So yeah, for writers, creators and artists out there–Steampunk This! I’ll be waiting….

Further reading:

A Black Spy in the Confederate White House- NY Times

The Secrets of Mary Bowser- by Lois Loveen – official site

Black Dispatches- CIA

Black Dispatches- Real-Life Superheroes in the Age of Steam(funk)- Balogun Ojetade

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One thought on “Steampunk This! – The Fascinating Life of Mary Bowser

  1. If ever a story needed a cinematic treatment, it’s Mary Bowzer’s story. When I first discovered that the black soldiers of the 54th were free men, it tainted my view of the movie Glory. How easy it must be for Hollywood to default to a simplistic, narrow view of black men as slaves-turned-soldiers instead of exploring the complexities of them as free men. It would have made for a richer movie if Glory had taken this route.

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