Mary Bowser is the greatest Civil War spy you never heard of. And her story is finally being told in Enigma Alberti and Tony Cliff’s new beginner's chapter book Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring.
Mary’s story is marked by her intelligence and alleged photographic memory. Bowser was a black woman and was just a teenager at the time she began work for the Union. According to Civil War record resources, Bowser was born Mary Jane and freed from slavery by Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew, whose mother had owned Bowser’s family. Elizabeth Van Lew funded both Bowser’s Philadelphia education and her 1855 journey to the new Republic of Liberia as a missionary. By 1860, Bowser returned to America, and married her husband Wilson Bowser in Richmond the day before Virginia seceded from the Union.
Mary obtained a job as a servant in the Confederate White House. She kept her literacy a secret and gained access to confidential information intended for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the war, Mary Bowser worked as a teacher for freed slaves, and gave one known speech in the fall of 1865 under the name "Richmonia Richards" before successfully disappearing. Though records of her espionage were destroyed by the Union's War Department to ensure her safety should she be discovered, Mary Bowser is hailed as a Union hero. She was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachaca, Arizona in 1995.
But Bowser's story is still shrouded in mystery. And contrary to popular belief, there are no existing photos of her — though the above image has been circulated by Wikipedia, NPR, numerous libraries, and in Lois Leveen's novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. According to an article by Leveen in The Atlantic, "the [alleged Bowser] photograph began circulating in 2002, when Morning Edition ran a story about Bowser, and NPR included the photograph on their website, with a caption crediting it to 'James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence.'" Yet the archives at the Library of Virginia revealed that the image was taken in 1900, and depicted another Mary Bowser, as Bowser the Union spy would have been in her sixties at that time.
The digital era has only made it easier for the story of Bowser's espionage to be embellished and repeated without verifiable sources. The current political climate has also created a need for an image of Bowser, who in some ways has become shorthand for the historical invisibility of black excellence, especially the excellence of black women. Now perhaps Toni Cliff's illustrations in Spy on History can provide a truer picture of Bowser, a trailblazer for race and gender equality, for young readers.
The story's graphics include a three-dimensional, interactive decoder: "This book is a mystery story. But there's also a mystery in the book itself. At the end of the story, you'll find a letter from Mary. Use the clues in this envelope to decode other clues and codes you'll find throughout the book... and discover Mary's last secret!" Alberti and Cliff's Spy on History is a structurally immersive, feminist-friendly, beginner's chapter book focused on equality, female empowerment, freedom, and overcoming odds.
Top photo: Tony Cliff, illustrator
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Olivia Loperfido is an English and psychology major at New York University's College of Arts and Sciences, and the junior editor of NYU's Mercer Street (2017-'18). She enjoys spending time with her dogs and tortoise, watching RuPaul's Drag Race, and contacting her state representatives. Follow her on Instagram here and contact her via email here.