Edmond P. DeRousse

Civil War Spy Ring – Richmond Underground

The Confederate Army was struggling. It seemed as if the Union Army was so good at predicting the moves of the Confederate army that President Davis suspected information was being leaked. Could there be a mole in his government?

This is a brief history of a Civil War spy ring known as “Richmond Underground”. It was a sophisticated operation involving the daughter of John Van Lew, one of Richmond’s elite families, and a woman enslaved at birth by that same family. The daughter’s name was Elizabeth Van Lew. The woman born into slavery was Mary Elizabeth Bowser.
Elizabeth Van Lew hated slavery. Despite the risk, she decided to do something about it.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser became a servant for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. No one imagined she was feeding vital information to the Union.
Van Lew and Bowser operated an extensive spy ring for the Union Army.
Mary Bowser was freed by the Van Lew family after the death of John Van Lew. Elizabeth arranged for Mary Bowser to be educated in Philadelphia. She returned to Richmond to work for the Van Lew family as a household servant.

So how did the spy ring work?
When war broke out, Elizabeth and her mother began caring for wounded Union soldiers in Libby Prison in Richmond. They brought food, clothing, writing paper, and other things to the imprisoned soldiers. Elizabeth even helped some escape providing them with information of safe houses. She was able to get Union sympathizers appointed to prison staff. Captured Union prisoners gave Van Lew valuable information on Confederate troop level and movements. She passed that information on to Union commanders.
Messages would be passed along in different ways. Some were hidden in dishes with secret compartments and some would be carefully placed in books. Some soldiers working for her and about to be dispatched to different areas would be hidden in her mansion.
Dispatches were written in code. She used a colorless liquid, which turned black when combined with milk. Her network of spies had grown to more than a dozen people. The Richmond Underground network of spies included agents in government service. Men, women, black and white. It also included her servant, Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Van Lew recommended Mary Bowser for a position on Jefferson Davis household staff. The household members believed Bowser was a slave. Assuming her to be illiterate, Davis and his cabinet members would leave war dispatches and other important papers out and speak openly in front of her about troop movement and strategy.
Under the disguise of illiteracy, Mary Bowser was able to read the dispatches and whatever other important papers were left out by the Confederate war planners. She would then pass what she learned to Van Lew. Bowser is believed, by some historians, to have had a photographic memory.

Had Bowser been caught, she probably would have been executed. Mary Browser, though, was too good to be caught. To spy on the most elite members of the Confederacy required a great deal of deception. The women needed to fool the elite society around them. To do so, they opted to be regarded as senseless and stupid to keep from exposing themselves as the shrewd operators they were.

The Confederates began closing in on Elizabeth Van Lew in 1864. But the South had pretty much lost the Civil War by then. In 1865, Grant captured Richmond. Elizabeth was the first person to raise the US flag in the city. In her journal, she wrote “Oh, army of my country, how glorious was your welcome!”

Grant was so pleased with Van Lew’s war effort, he awarded her with an official job as postmaster of Richmond. She modernized the city’s postal system and hired several African Americans. All employees worked for same pay and benefits. She served in that capacity until President Rutherford B. Hayes replaced her in 1877.

Elizabeth Van Lew, after the war, was shunned by Richmond. They considered her a traitor. She wrote: “No one will walk with us on the street, no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on.” On September 25, 1900, Elizabeth Van Lew died at the age of 81. In 1993, Elizabeth Van Lew was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, very little is known about Mary Elizabeth Bowser after her work as a spy was over. Her records were destroyed by the US government, presumably for her protection. It is mostly believed that after the Civil War ended, Mary became a teacher for the Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. She founded Freedmen’s school for former slaves in St. Marys, Georgia, in early 1867 and taught them herself.
The historical record of her life ends in 1867. Most people think she moved to the West Indies that year to be with her new husband. She was about twenty-six at the time.

There is much information about Elizabeth Van Lew and her Richmond Underground. As for Mary Elizabeth Bowser, the information is not so prevalent. She was a real person and worked for the Van Lews. But some historians are not so sure of her espionage experience. Perhaps that is due to records of her life being destroyed.