How a Black Spy Infiltrated the Confederate White House

How a Black Spy Infiltrated the Confederate White House

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Confederate President Jefferson Davis occupied an anxious home in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War. A steady leak of information dripped from the highest ranks of the Confederacy to the Union. Davis was wary of a mole in his house, but had no idea how to stop the flow of information. Little did he know, a Union spy found her way into deepest parts of the Confederate White House as part of an abolitionist woman’s spy ring.

These women, Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew and Mary Bowser, a freed slave who posed as a Davis’s servant, worked together to bring down the political fixtures of the South from the inside out.

Spies were common on both sides of the Civil War. Van Lew organized a spy ring in the heart of the Confederacy and Bowser, with her photographic memory and incredible acting skills, was able to relay critical intelligence to Van Lew, which would then make its way to the Union.

Spying on the most elite members of the Confederacy required the deception of more than just the enemy. In order to keep from exposing themselves, the women needed to fool society around them. They opted to be labeled as senseless and stupid instead of revealing themselves as the canny operators that they were.

Van Lew was born in 1818 into an affluent family in Richmond. After receiving her education as a teenager in Philadelphia, she began to see the injustice of slavery throughout the country. And as she got older, her stance against slavery only got stronger, despite the fact that her family owned slaves.

Following her father’s death in 1843, Van Lew and her widowed mother freed the slaves that the family owned, and Van Lew used the money from her father’s death—$10,000 (about $200,000 in today’s currency)—to buy and free the relatives of the slaves that her family had owned.

“No pen, no book, no time can do justice to slavery’s wrongs, its horrors,” Van Lew wrote in her diary, as reported by author Elizabeth R. Varon in the biography Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy.

Among the many freed slaves was young Mary Bowser, born Mary Jane Richards. Believed to have been born between 1839 and 1841, Richards remained a servant for the Van Lew family after attaining her freedom. Bowser was given special treatment from the time she was baptized as an infant at the family’s church, and was sent by Van Lew to the North, possibly Philadelphia, to receive a formal education. At the end of Richards’ education, Van Lew dispatched her as a missionary to the West African nation of Liberia in 1855.

Richards stayed in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, until 1860, but was unhappy living there. When she finally came back to America, she was promptly arrested, likely because of a law that prohibited black Virginians who had lived in a free state or gotten an education from returning. She spent 10 days in jail before Van Lew paid her bail.

Richards used aliases from the moment that she was apprehended to the time that she was released, going by both Mary Jane Henley at her arrest and Mary Jones at her release—an early precursor to her ability to take on the role or title that best benefitted her scenario. The records that follow her life bear witness to the many names she used. She married fellow Van Lew servant Wilson Bowser on April 16, 1861, and was then known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. The Civil War erupted just four days before the marriage.

Shortly afterward, Van Lew began volunteering as a nurse at the tobacco warehouse in Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—that housed Union prisoners and would later become known as Libby Prison. In July of 1861, she and her mother started to bring food, clothes, books, medicine and other materials to the prisoners.

Unbeknownst to the guards, Van Lew was unofficially helping the Union with her deliveries, hiding messages and plans for escape in her deliveries. She even housed escaped Union soldiers, helping them as they tried to make their way back to the North.

Van Lew’s assistance to enemies of the Confederacy was met with disdain in Richmond, where residents were proud of the pro-slavery stance that their government upheld, shunning—and sometimes threatening—those that were sympathetic to the Union cause. But under the guise of a false persona in which she mumbled nonsense and was easily distracted, “Crazy Bet” was left alone by her fellow Southerners.

Word of Van Lew’s efforts to help the Union reached military leaders in the North, namely General Benjamin Butler, who sent a representative to recruit her as a Union spy. Under the instruction of Butler, Van Lew started to grow her network of spies, having them deliver dispatches in a colorless ink that could only be deciphered when milk was applied to the page.

Van Lew’s most valuable asset in her spy operation was Mary Bowser, who was able to spy for the Union in an entirely different way: from the vantage point of a domestic servant. After cleaning and cooking at several functions for the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Bowser was hired as a full-time servant in the Confederate White House.

There, she swept and dusted in the nooks and crannies of Davis home, reading the plans and documents that were laid out or hidden in desks, and reporting her findings to Van Lew. Equipped with a photographic memory, she was a troublesome spy to have behind enemy lines.

There’s not much information as to what Bowser was able to report back as a spy, as all of her dispatches to Van Lew were destroyed out of fear that they would lead to severe repercussions. However, Van Lew’s diary entries imply that Bowser’s reports were critical in helping the Union navigate their way towards victory during the war.

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

As the war came to a close, in 1865, Van Lew was thanked personally by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” he reportedly told her.

Grant even gave Van Lew money for her services to the Union. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to cover the money she had already spent operating a spy ring of more than a dozen people; she had largely exhausted her inherited wealth during the Civil War. Afterward, she was left poor and abandoned by her community after it was revealed that she was a Union spy.

On Van Lew’s deathbed, in 1900, the story of Mary Bowser came to light in press accounts. In the Richmond and Manchester Evening Leader, it was reported that Van Lew described a “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who was educated out of state, sent to Liberia and planted as a servant to Davis during the war. A decade later in a Harper’s Monthly interview, Van Lew’s niece, Annie Randolph Hall, identified the woman as Bowser.

Bowser, meanwhile, did not wait long to tell of her incredible exploits. In fact, just days after the fall of the Confederacy, Bowser, using her maiden name Mary Jane Richards, began to teach former slaves in the area. In 1865, she traveled throughout the country, giving lectures about her experiences at war under the name Richmonia Richards.

The New York Times listed one such event with the notice “Lecture by a Colored Lady,” which stated “Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Waverley-place, near Sixth-avenue.”

Fittingly for a former double agent, Richards’ speeches often contradicted one another, leaving historians befuddled as to her actual story. One thing that remained consistent, however, were reports of her sarcastic and humorous speaking style. As Richards traveled the country, records of her whereabouts begin to fade, in true spy fashion. She was last seen meeting abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in Georgia in 1867, sharing the riveting story of her life as a spy yet again.

Mary Bowser: A Brave Black Spy in the Confederate White House

Elizabeth Van Lew. National Park Service

When she returned to Richmond, Mary was arrested and imprisoned for nine days for claiming to be a free person of color without having her free papers. During her confinement, she was constantly questioned and interrogated. Mary knew how to protect herself: she gave false names to her jailers and lied about her identity. After her release from jail, the chances were that she would be sold into slavery again. To save Mary from this fate, Elizabeth&rsquos mother paid a fine and secured Mary&rsquos release.

By September 1861, Elizabeth Van Lew became involved in pro-Union activities in Richmond. She began developing the contacts for what would be known as the Richmond Underground, the spy ring she would organize until the end of the war. Its members collected intelligence from both Union and Confederate troops, smuggled the information to Union leaders outside the city, and helped Union soldiers escape from behind enemy lines. Elizabeth recommended Mary for a job as a servant for the Davis family in the Confederate White House, giving the Richmond Underground the upper hand in having a source so close to the leader of the Confederacy.

White House of the Confederacy, 1201 East Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. Wikipedia Commons

Mary&rsquos education and excellent memory would serve her well. She knew what to look for, and she could keep an eye out for certain information on troop movements while she was cleaning the President&rsquos office. Blending in easily, she kept her ear to the door and eavesdropped on conversations. At the end of the day, she would write down all of the information she had gathered that day and smuggle it out to Elizabeth. Elizabeth would then code the information and send it to General Grant, significantly improving the Union advantage.

After the war was over, Mary earned her freedom, but she stayed in Richmond. Her education and teaching experience in Liberia was highly valuable: she began working with the Freedmen&rsquos Bureau, teaching former slaves. Within a few months, Mary traveled to New York, giving two speaking engagements about her experiences during the Civil War. For each of these engagements, she gave two separate aliases and shared different information about herself, much like she had when she first came back to Richmond from Liberia. One can only assume Mary felt safer this way, with fake names and identities to hide behind, especially as a black woman who plotted against the Confederacy. In these speeches, she not only described her spy activities, but she also used them as a platform to support voting rights and equal rights for African-Americans.

Mary Bowser: A Brave Black Spy in the Confederate White House

Editor’s note: For Women’s History Month, The Root is spotlighting less famous figures from the African American National Biography , whose stories exemplify the extraordinary, and often unsung, accomplishments of African-American women from our past.

In modern wars, including the Civil War, women have taken on key assignments at the heart of the action as soldiers or nurses or performed supportive roles. Women contributed important work to the intelligence services of the Union as well as the Confederacy: Perhaps the most remarkable service rendered was that of Harriet Tubman, now recognized as having played a central role in gathering intelligence and planning the liberation of more than 700 slaves in the Union Army’s dramatic 1863 raid on the Confederate redoubt at the Combahee River in South Carolina.

Other black women are known to have served the Union cause as spies, but because of the very subterfuge involved, biographical detail about them is hard to pin down.

One exception is Mary Bowser . Born a slave on a plantation near Richmond, Va., she was owned by the family of John Van Lew, a wealthy businessman originally from the North. Along with other slaves of the Van Lews, Mary was emancipated sometime in the 1840s.

Yet she remained a household servant until a Van Lew daughter, Elizabeth, arranged for her to attend a Quaker school for blacks in Philadelphia. In April 1861, she married Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Records list them as “servants” of Elizabeth Van Lew and the couple settled outside Richmond.

Even if Mary Bowser believed herself to be free (although by law she may have still been a slave), some people today might wonder why she bothered to return to a slave state after living in the Quaker circles of Philadelphia.

It turns out, in fact, she did not return directly from the North to the Van Lew household in Virginia but rather spent five years in the African nation of Liberia. There she grew homesick and, perhaps through continued correspondence with Van Lew, arranged to return to Virginia in early 1860, well before Abraham Lincoln’s election as president or the attack on Fort Sumter that ignited the Civil War.

The full extent of the relationship between Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew is not entirely clear, but at some point early in the war, the two women agreed to collaborate with the Union spy network in the Confederate capital of Richmond. Well known as a staunch Unionist and abolitionist before the war, Van Lew came to adopt a distracted, muttering persona as “ Crazy Bet ” to deflect Confederate concern. This way she could visit the city’s prison for Union soldiers with care packages of food and medicine and also pass along messages and establish a network of contacts.

To infiltrate the Confederate White House, the home of President Jefferson Davis and First Lady Varina Davis, however, required a different type of talent: the ability to act as a dimwitted yet loyal and hardworking domestic servant even while observing the Confederacy’s first family up close.

Mary Bowser, it seems, took to the role like a natural. After working at several Davis functions, she was hired full time and cleaned and served meals in the Confederate White House from about 1862 until almost the war’s end. She was known as “Little Mary,” according to Thomas McNiven, the Scottish-American baker whose business deliveries throughout Richmond, including to the Confederate White House, served as a cover for his activities as a member of the city’s Union spy ring.

McNiven’s recollection, provided late in life to his daughter, Jeanette, was that Mary Bowser “had a photographic mind” so that “everything she saw on the Rebel president’s desk, she could repeat word for word.”

He also observed, “Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information .”

At the time of one bakery delivery, McNiven claimed, “little Mary had the terms that the rebels were offering at Hampton Roads to Lincoln’s men to end the war” and Elizabeth "Van Lew plastered [the information] all over town. The rebels … were sick about it.”

The Davis family eventually learned a spy had entered their midst, but Mary Bowser appears to have avoided detection. She must have played her role well, although Jefferson and Varina Davis and other White House officials were also playing theirs—behaving as Southern whites who saw their slaves as present in body but invisible.

As Lois Leveen, historian and author of the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser, deftly put it , “By pretending to conform to slaveholders’ expectations of an enslaved black woman in domestic service, Bowser rendered herself not so much above suspicion as below it. Playing on the foundational belief of slavery—that blacks were not fully human and therefore incapable of intelligence—she became an intelligence agent who successfully undermined the institution of slavery.”

Some accounts suggest that Mary Bowser fled Richmond in early 1865 (the city fell in May) and that she might have participated in a failed effort to torch the Confederate White House. Bowser family lore has it that Mary had kept a diary during the war years but that it ended up inadvertently discarded in the 1950s.

Slowly over the years, Mary Bowser’s name and efforts have gained wider recognition. In 1995, the U.S. government honored her Civil War espionage and inducted her into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Arizona’s Fort Huachuca.

In the past decade historians have unearthed new information about Bowser, including details of her five-year sojourn to Liberia. Upon her return to Richmond in 1860, she was arrested for the crime (for people of color) of traveling without papers. That arrest seems to provide a clue about her appearance: Her skin color was dark enough for Richmond officials to stop her.

Other newly found documents bear additional clues. A Sept. 10, 1865, notice in the New York Times listed an upcoming talk at New York’s now famed Abyssinian Baptist Church by one Richmonia Richards who would share recollections of her adventures as a Union spy in the Confederate White House. After the event, the Anglo African newspaper described her lecturing style as “very sarcastic and … quite humorous.” She had pointedly urged young people in the audience to pay less attention to fashion and more to education, according to Leveen , who is convinced this speaker was likely Bowser. A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle added another wrinkle: He described the lecturer as “ strongly resembling ” the famous white abolitionist Anna Dickinson.

Some of Bowser’s own correspondence has surfaced. Two years later she was teaching at the Freedmen’s Bureau in St. Mary’s, Ga., serving as the sole teacher for 70 day students, 12 adults at night and 100 Sunday school pupils, all eager to gain an education. This required a Herculean effort, and Bowser doubted she would succeed without greater support or federal protection from whites who wanted to keep their former slaves in a subservient role.

Writing to bureau officials, Bowser drew on her past work as a spy: “I know the southerners pretty well,” she said. “Having been in the service so long as a detective,” Bowser wrote, “I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is … that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil.”

Bowser observed, “With a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything.” She concluded, however, “Do not think I am frightened and laugh at my letter,” adding yet a further detail to her biographic record: “Anyone that has spent 4 months in Richmond prison [would] not be so easily frightened.”

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008 a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center .

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama : A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.

Slaves, freedmen: Civil War's forgotten spies

In the Confederate circles he navigated, John Scobell was considered just another Mississippi slave: singing, shuffling, illiterate and completely ignorant of the Civil War going on around him.

Confederate officers thought nothing of leaving important documents where Scobell could see them, or discussing troop movements in front of him. Whom would he tell? Scobell was only the butler, or the deckhand on a rebel sympathizer's steamboat, or the field hand belting out Negro spirituals in a powerful baritone.

In reality, Scobell was not a slave at all.

He was a spy sent by the Union army, one of a few black operatives who quietly gathered information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot. These unsung Civil War heroes were often successful, to the chagrin of Confederate leaders who never thought their disregard for blacks living among them would become a major tactical weakness.

"The chief source of information to the enemy," Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, "is through our negroes."

'Rarely do they receive glory'
Little is known about the black men and women who served as Union intelligence officers, other than the fact that some were former slaves or servants who escaped from their masters and others were Northerners who volunteered to pose as slaves to spy on the Confederacy. There are scant references to their contributions in historical records, mainly because Union spymasters destroyed documents to shield them from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the war and vengeful whites afterward.

"These kinds of spies and operatives come up over and over again, many of them unnamed and rarely do they receive glory," said Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, who lectures on the Civil War's African American spies.

Jones and other experts are hoping the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will include some measure of remembrance for these officers.

Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service at the onset of the Civil War, detailed his recruitment of black spies in his autobiography, including a couple of successful missions by Scobell and the extraction of valuable papers from a Union defector. Scobell in particular, Pinkerton said, was a "cool-headed, vigilant detective" who easily duped the Confederates around him by assuming "the character of the light-hearted, happy darkey."

"From the commencement of the war, I have found the negroes of invaluable assistance and I never hesitated to employ them when after investigation I found them to be intelligent and trustworthy," Pinkerton said.

Harriet Tubman is the most recognizable of these spies, sneaking down South repeatedly to gather intelligence for the Union army while also leading runaway slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, she led several spy missions into South Carolina while directing others from Union lines.

Another spy, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was born a slave to the Van Lew family, who freed her and sent her to school. Bowser then returned to Richmond, where Elizabeth Van Lew was running one of the war's most sophisticated spy rings.

Somehow, Van Lew got Bowser a job inside the Confederate White House as a housekeeper. Bowser then proceeded to sneak classified information out from under Confederate President Jefferson Davis' nose.

According to the memoirs of Thomas McGiven, the Union spymaster in Richmond whose cover was that of a baker who delivered to the Confederate White House, Bowser "had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis' home to drop information."

Vast network
Stories about Bowser, who is also known as Ellen Bond, Mary Jones or Mary Jane Richards, show up as early as May 1900 in Richmond newspapers, and her name was revealed in 1910 in an interview with Van Lew's niece, according to Elizabeth Varon, author of a book about Van Lew.

There is no proof that Bowser existed beyond these recollections. Van Lew, like Pinkerton before her, requested that Union forces turn over all her intelligence records at the end of the Civil War and destroyed them, leaving no proof of her vast network.

Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina, publicly denied that a black female spy could have infiltrated their White House.

But Varon's book suggests that Bowser's true name was Mary Richards, she survived the Civil War and married a man named Garvin. Richards even writes in an 1867 letter that during the Civil War she was "in the service . as a detective."

Others are not as well-known.

Take, for example, the three slaves who escaped the Confederate army on Morris Island, outside Charleston, S.C., in 1863 and went to Union Brig. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore with crucial information.

"They were officers' servants, and report, from conversations of the officers there, that north and northwest faces of Fort Sumter are nearly as badly breached as the gorge wall, and that many of our projectiles passed through both walls, and that the fort contains no serviceable guns," Gillmore said in a report to his army superiors.

Using African American troops, Gillmore later ordered the attack on Fort Sumter that was fictionalized in the film "Glory." The Union retook Fort Sumter in February 1865, almost four years after the Civil War began with the Confederates firing on the federal facility and taking it over.

Hidden document
One such informant was Marie Louvestre (sometimes spelled Touvestre in historical records), a former slave working for a Confederate engineer who was transforming the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Realizing the importance of her employer's breakthrough, Louvestre took some of the paperwork, headed north and requested a private meeting with Navy Secretary Gideon Wells.

The Union navy was working on a similar ship, the USS Monitor. Louvestre, Wells said in an 1873 letter, "told me the condition of the vessel, and took from her clothing a paper, written by a mechanic who was working on the 'Merrimac,' describing the character of the work, its progress and probable completion."

The Union navy intensified its construction of the Monitor and sailed it down to Virginia, leading to the world's first ironclad naval battle, a stalemate that kept the rebel navy from breaking the federal blockade of Norfolk.

Union forces weren't the only ones operating a black spy network in the South.

Black abolitionists also ran a vast private network called the "Loyal League," "Lincoln's Legal Loyal League" or the "4Ls," which spied for the North and spread word about the war among the black slaves. Scobell was a member of the 4Ls, Pinkerton said, and used the network to get information to Washington, D.C.

"I traveled to about the plantations within a certain range, and got together small meetings in the cabins to tell the slaves the great news. Some of these slaves in turn would find their way to still other plantations — and so the story spread. We had to work in dead secrecy," with "knocks and signs and passwords," said George Washington Albright of Holly Springs, Miss., in 1937.

Utmost secrecy was needed for these spies because of the consequences for those who were caught.

James Bowser, a free black from Nansemond County, Va., decided to help the Union army by spying on the South, according to Virginia Hayes Smith of Norfolk, Va., an elderly black lady who related Bowser's story to Virginia Writers Project field interviewers in 1937. Her recollections were subsequently published in the book "Virginia Folk Legends."

'Ghastly example'
Bowser's white neighbors, some of whom coveted Bowser's farmland, heard rumors of his activities, Smith said. A mob of planters attacked Bowser's house at night and dragged out Bowser and his son.

"After severely beating both father and son, the horde made Bowser lie on the ground and stretch his neck over a log like a chicken on a chopping block," said Smith, "Then someone cut his head off. The plan was to kill the boy in the same manner, but the more thoughtful ones disagreed. They suggested that he be left to carry the news of this ghastly example back to the other Negroes. The mob gave in."

Another Virginian, a free black bricklayer named Martin Robinson, was killed on the spot.

Robinson was considered "faithful and reliable" by the Union hierarchy, and already had helped Union officers escape from the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, wrote Louis M. Boudrye, chaplain of the 5th New York Calvary.

Union forces wanted to attack Richmond in 1864 to free Union soldiers and spies held by Confederates at Belle Isle, a small island in the middle of the James River. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was to cross the James River eight miles to the south and press north into the city while other Union forces attacked from other directions. Robinson, who lived in the area, was sent by the Bureau of Military Intelligence to take Dahlgren's troops and horses to the best place to cross the river.

When they arrived, the river was impassable. Robinson panicked. Dahlgren decided Robinson had deliberately deceived him. However, the river normally would have been passable had it not been for flooding from heavy rains, Confederate veteran Richard G. Crouch said in 1906.

"The colonel ordered him to be hung — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch hanging by the roadside," Boudrye said.

She Was Born Into Slavery, Was a Spy and Is Celebrated as a Hero—But We're Missing the Point of the 'Mary Bowser' Story

T he telegram sizzled with promise. “Have got the name of Slave who worked in Jefferson Davis house,” it declared.

The “Slave” in question was actually a Union spy who infiltrated the Confederate president’s household, obtaining intelligence no white espionage agent could. William Beymer, the recipient of the 1910 telegram, was preparing an article for Harper’s magazine in which the slave-turned-spy would at last be publicly identified. After the war, this black woman’s contributions had faded to rumor &mdash while Bet Van Lew, the white Virginian who was her former owner and a fellow spy, had been commended (and financially rewarded) by the federal government. But there was a problem: the name the sender of the telegram had uncovered, “Mary Elizabeth Bowser,” was inaccurate.

As a result, the article would obscure rather than secure her place in history.

The person who supplied the erroneous name was Van Lew’s niece. Pressed for details about the espionage in the Confederate White House, the niece could provide none, noting that she was a young child during the war, never privy to clandestine information. The ensuing five decades must have further clouded her memory, as nearly all the biographical details she provided about “Mary Elizabeth Bowser” were incorrect. But Beymer, focusing on Van Lew in his Harper‘s article, relied unquestioningly on the niece’s account. (The telegram and notes from the niece’s interview are held at the Briscoe Center for American History).

Today, as growing interest in African American and women’s history has brought increased attention to “Mary Bowser,” what circulates often remains distorted at best, and patently false at worst.

The woman&rsquos real name, in fact, was Mary Jane Richards Denman. Born into slavery sometime around 1840, Mary Jane was briefly married to a man named Wilson Bowser, although only his surname, not hers, appears in the 1861 church annals listing their nuptials. Researchers seeking “Mary Bowser” could find no other trace of her. Not until nearly a century after Beymer’s article did historians ascertain that before and after the war, she used the surname Richards, allowing us to better reconstruct her life. Now, newly discovered documents reveal that around August 1867, she took another husband and began using the name “Mrs. John T. Denman” she continued to identify herself as Mary Jane Denman after their relationship ended. My research regarding these newfound documents yields fascinating details &mdash such as her struggle to support herself after the war, even as Van Lew received compensation from the government &mdash that we couldn’t learn without her correct name.

As a historian and novelist, I understand both the power and the danger of a compelling story. In my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I use the hook of the slave-turned-spy to teach readers about how activism by 19th-century African Americans shaped U.S. history. Fictional accounts based on real people artfully alter events and invent characters (as movies like BlackkKlansman and Vice demonstrate). As a novelist, I creatively departed from my rigorously researched nonfiction recounting of her life. But as a historian, I’ve grown concerned that our impulse to celebrate a black spy in the Confederate White House is impeding us from getting history right, in troubling ways.

In Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, a meticulous biography of Van Lew, historian Elizabeth Varon documents the participation of many free and enslaved blacks in Richmond’s pro-Union underground. Yet the attention paid to “Mary Bowser” paradoxically obscures their contributions, because many books, articles and internet posts wrongly attribute to Mary actions undertaken by other African Americans (such as using needlework to smuggle messages, or escaping to the North during the war).

Our desire for cloak-and-daggery disregards how the pro-Union underground operated. Research by Varon and other historians shows that from 1861 to 1863, the underground’s efforts primarily involved aiding Union soldiers crowded into Richmond’s makeshift prisons with food, medicine and opportunities to escape. Only in 1864 and 1865, with battles raging nearby, did the focus expand to smuggling military and political intelligence to Union generals. Mary Richards Denman’s postbellum speeches and letters dwell more on her work in the prisons and her eavesdropping in the Confederate Senate than her foray into Davis’ household. Exaggerating the duration and impact of the latter feeds sensationalism in ways that undermine our ability to understand the past&mdashand the present.

It’s thrilling to unearth previously unknown historical documents related to such a compelling, elusive figure. But it’s disheartening that the emerging facts must compete with outlandish new claims about her espionage in the Davis household, which have recently begun to circulate in books, articles and online posts, yet which cannot be true, given what historians have already documented about the underground, and what we know from Mary Richards Denman herself. The ease with which this new misinformation circulates underscores that Americans must hone our ability to evaluate sources, recognize reliable research and maintain skepticism about dubious claims, whether the topic is history or current perils like climate change, election manipulation or anti-vaccination rhetoric.

Focusing only on Civil War espionage also effaces the disturbing breadth of American racism. When Mary Richards was a child, Van Lew expatriated her to Liberia, reflecting a disturbing belief shared by pro-slavery and anti-slavery whites that free blacks had no place in this country. Although a small portion of African Americans embraced the idea of creating a new nation removed from American racism, many emigrants to Liberia, including Mary Richards, eventually returned, preferring to strive for full citizenship here.

But after the war, Mary, like most formerly enslaved people, struggled financially and physically to create a life in freedom. She repeatedly spoke and wrote about the violent racism of Southern and Northern whites. Racial intolerance likely put an enormous strain on her relationship with John Denman, who was white during their brief marriage, the couple lived in Georgia, an exceptionally hostile place for interracial couples. Her only surviving correspondence with Van Lew, written five years after the war, shows that emancipation didn’t beget opportunity: the woman who worked surreptitiously to end slavery couldn’t secure sustained employment in freedom.

Politically and socially, Americans today remain the inheritors of the failures of Reconstruction, as conflicts over voting rights, reparations or removing Confederate statues evidence. We can best honor Mary Richards Denman by being unwaveringly honest about America in her era, and our own.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present

Lois Leveen is the author of the novels The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse. She is at work on a book-length biography of Mary Richards Denman. Her latest research on Denman’s life appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

This freed slave infiltrated the Confederate White House without anyone suspecting it

Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspected a mole somewhere in his government, leaking information. It was the height of the Civil War in the early 1860s, and his army was struggling against the Union, which was getting mysteriously better and better at predicting his moves.

He became very paranoid — rightfully so — there was, indeed a mole. He just wasn’t looking in the right places.

The mole was a servant at the Confederate White House in Richmond — a freed slave with a photographic memory who, in addition to caring for his wife’s dresses, slipped the North valuable secrets from Davis’s own desk.

Bowser’s is one of the great but infrequently told spy stories in American history — a shame, say historians and others who write about the Civil War, because it is a tale with an enduring, important lesson.

Bowser used the assumption that she was far less intelligent than her white employers against them.

“By playing to that stereotype, she becomes an intelligence agent and, therefore, proves the value of black intelligence at undermining the institution of slavery itself,” Lois Leveen, a historical novelist who based one of her books on Bowser, said while discussing the spy’s legacy in 2013 during a panel discussion at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

“This is a humdinger of a tale," said another panelist, University of Virginia historian Elizabeth Varon.

Varon detailed Bowser’s life and spy capers in her 2003 book, “Southern Lady, Yankee Spy.”

The book is primarily a biography of Elizabeth L. Van Lew, a well-known Richmond society figure and daughter of prominent slave owners. Van Lew is the second humdinger in this story. She abhorred slavery. And when the war broke out, she decided to do something about it.

Van Lew stayed in the family mansion with her mother during the war, according to Karen Abbott, the author of “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.” From there, she ran a spy ring known as the Richmond Underground. Her spy methods were not particularly sophisticated, but the information her agents provided to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant — especially during the siege of Richmond — was crucial.

One of those spies was Bowser.

She was born around 1840 while her parents were enslaved by Van Lew’s family. The Van Lews had conflicted feelings about slavery, though. Elizabeth sent Bowser north to be educated during her teenage years. Later, she did missionary work in Liberia.

When she returned to Richmond, Bowser was arrested. It was illegal to return to a slave state after living in a free one.

Van Lew bailed her out. At some point, she brought Bowser into her spy network, helping her get a job as a servant at the Confederate White House.

The tradecraft was simple, Abbott said. A family friend of the Van Lews worked for a seamstress near the Confederate White House. Bowser brought the first lady’s dresses there not just when they needed work but also to send important messages to Van Lew.

The dresses held the messages. Bowser sewed them into the fabric.

This was perilous work — especially for Bowser, who probably would have been executed if she were caught.

But she was too good to be caught.

As for Van Lew, the Confederates began closing in on her in 1864, but by then the war — for Virginia and the South — was pretty much lost. When Grant’s army rolled into Richmond in 1865, Van Lew wrote in her journal, “Oh, army of my country, how glorious was your welcome!”

Grant was so pleased with her work he awarded her an official job: postmaster of Richmond.

As for Bowser, she moved to Georgia to become a teacher. And she spent the rest of her life telling the story of her time as a spy — down South and up North. Why?

“For a purpose,” Varon said. “For the purpose of saying: ‘We need our rights protected. We’re still vulnerable. The work’s not done yet.’"

Mary Bowser: A Brave Black Spy in the Confederate White House

A photograph formerly assumed to be of Mary Bowser. Wikipedia Commons

By the late 1860s, Mary relocated to various parts of the South as a teacher with the Freedmen&rsquos Bureau. In early 1867, she founded a new school in Saint Mary&rsquos, Georgia, in which she taught almost 200 students. Through her letters to Gilbert L. Eberhart, the superintendent of education for the Georgia Freedmen&rsquos Bureau, we see what it was like to teach at a freedmen&rsquos school directly after the Civil War in the South. She complains that the school doesn&rsquot have the resources that it needs to be successful, as the funding was inconsistent. Mary also feared for her safety and the safety of her students, citing threats of violence against them by whites.

By the middle of 1867, in her final letters to Eberhart, she wrote to him that she married and that her new husband returned to Havana, Cuba. By the end of June, she was instructed to close the school, and in her final letter, she asked for the remainder of the salary she was owed so that she could travel to meet her husband. Whether or not she did this is unknown, and all evidence of Mary disappears from the historical record. Given her knack for fading into the background and forming new identities, it isn&rsquot surprising that she disappears like this. Maybe one day, we will find her.

There was a picture that circulated for years of a woman named Mary Bowser, dressed in early twentieth-century clothing, surrounded by early twentieth-century furniture. Author and historian Lois Leveen challenged its authenticity because the woman in the photograph is much younger than the real Mary Bowser would have been when the picture was taken in 1900. Plus, why would a woman who completely disappeared from the historical record, without so much as a mention, suddenly show up in a photograph, almost thirty-five years after she disappeared? While the name of the woman in the picture is indeed Mary Bowser, it is not a picture of the woman who was a spy in the Confederate White House.

The growth of the study of women&rsquos history and African-American history reminds us how difficult it is to study these subjects comprehensively because the historical record remains incomplete. What we know about Mary, her contributions, and her movements is mostly through the historical record left by others. Would we even know who Mary Bowser was if Elizabeth Van Lew hadn&rsquot enjoyed a close relationship with her, or would she be lost to history, like so many others? Mary Bowser remains a fascinating figure in the study of the Civil War espionage because she is so mysterious. We don&rsquot even have a picture of her.

A White Woman Posed as a Black Man to Infiltrate Confederate Lines

In 1862, Confederate authorities captured a Union spy in Richmond, Virginia and executed him. The agent’s death created a job opening in the secret.

In 1862, Confederate authorities captured a Union spy in Richmond, Virginia and executed him. The agent’s death created a job opening in the secret service of the United States—one that the unlikeliest candidate ultimately filled.

The Union’s new spy was a woman and an expert of disguise named Emma Edmonds. In the spring of 1862 she infiltrated Confederate lines by dyeing her skin black with silver nitrate, donning a wig and posing as a male slave.

Edmonds was Canadian. Born in 1841, in 1861 she enlisted in a Michigan infantry unit while disguised as a man. The secret woman soldier was on the front lines around Fortress Monroe, on the Virginia coast, when she learned of the spy’s execution in Richmond.

She applied to fill the agent’s position—a gambit she recounted in her bestselling 1864 memoir Unsexed, or the Female Soldier. Historian Philip Van Doren Stern included a chapter from Unsexed in his 1959 book Secret Missions of the Civil War.

Edmonds had an ulterior motive in wanting to be a spy. During the fighting around Fort Monroe, Confederate sharpshooters had killed a Union lieutenant named James Vesey. Edmonds was “obviously in love” with Vesey, Stern wrote.

She wanted revenge. And to get it, she would pretend to be a male slave and enter Confederate territory.

First, she had to prove to Union spymasters that she was loyal … and could use a firearm. She attended her interview in her “normal” disguise as a man. “My views were freely given, my object briefly stated, and I had passed trial one,” Edmonds wrote.

Next she demonstrated her prowess with a weapon. “I sustained my character in a manner worthy of a veteran,” she crowed.

Federal spymasters gave her three days to prepare for her first mission into Confederate-held Virginia. “I purchased a suit of contraband clothing, real plantation style, and then I went to a barber and had my hair sheared close to my head.”

With silver nitrate she dyed her “head, face, neck, hands and arms” black. To test her disguise, she approached a Union postmaster who knew her as a white man.

Edmonds asked the postman to bring her a wig from Washington. The postman did not recognize the apparent black man standing before him and demanded to know what the whig was for.

“No matter, that’s my order,” Edmonds recalled saying. The postmaster agreed to fetch it. Edmonds was confident her disguise would work. Pocketing a revolver, she slipped through the Union picket outside Fortress Monroe and strolled into Confederate lands.

After a cold, sleepless night, Edmonds encountered a group of slaves carrying coffee and supplies to rebel pickets. She fell in with the slaves and wound up as part of a work party building fortifications for the Confederate army.

For two days no one saw through her disguise. While working, Edmonds noted the positions of the Confederate artillery. She sketched a map of the rebel defenses and slipped into her shoe for safekeeping.

On the third day, one of the slaves in Edmonds’ work party looked at her curiously. “I’ll be darned if that fella ain’t turning white,” the man commented. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, Edmonds realized with horror that her silver nitrate skin dye was wearing off. She hurriedly reapplied her disguise.

Returning to Confederate positions, Edmonds observed rebel soldiers gathering around a civilian man. She recognized the man’s voice—he was a peddler who also frequented the Union Fort Monroe.

“There he was, giving the rebels a full description of our camp and forces,” Edmonds recalled. The peddler boasted that he had tipped off rebel snipers to Vesey’s position. “They lost a splendid officer through my means,” the peddler said.

Finally, Edmonds could have vengeance, by warning the Union of the peddler’s betrayal. “I thanked God for that information,” the spy wrote. Handed a rifle and commanded to stand guard, Edmonds instead seized the opportunity to slip away into the forest … and return to her own army.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser: A Black Spy in the Confederate White House

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.
Her wartime career is all the more astounding because her espionage depended on the very institution that was meant to subjugate her. Chattel slavery was predicated on the belief that blacks were innately inferior — leaving a slave woman not so much above suspicion as below it — yet Bowser demonstrated the value of black intelligence, in every sense of the term. But the truth about the woman who went from slave to spy is fascinating and revealing precisely because it remains incomplete.
Bowser began her life as property of the Van Lews, a wealthy, white Richmond family. Although her exact date of birth is unknown, on May 17, 1846, “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized in St. John’s, the stately Episcopal church for which the elegant Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond is named, and in which Patrick Henry delivered his 1775 “give me liberty or give me death” speech. It was extremely rare for enslaved or free blacks to be baptized in this church. Indeed, other Van Lew slaves received baptism at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, indicating that Mrs. Van Lew, the widowed head of the household, and her daughter Bet singled out Mary for special treatment from an early age.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Some time after being baptized, Mary was sent north to be educated, although it is unclear precisely when or where she attended school. In 1855, Bet arranged for the girl, then using the name Mary Jane Richards, to join a missionary community in Liberia. According to Bet’s correspondence with an official of the American Colonization Society, however, the teenage Mary was miserable in Africa. By the spring of 1860, she returned to the Van Lew household, and eventually to St. John’s Church, where, on April 16, 1861 — the day before the Virginia Convention voted to secede — Wilson Bowser and Mary, “colored servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew,” were married.

The Confederate White House in Richmond, Va.

As these scant biographical traces suggest, much of what historians have documented about the life of Mary Bowser comes from sources that focus more fully on the Van Lews, especially the pro-Union Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew. During the Civil War, Bet’s loyalty to the North prompted her to care for Federal prisoners in Richmond and to smuggle information to Union military commanders. Although the official military correspondence involving Van Lew’s espionage was destroyed at her request after the war, the generals Benjamin Butler, Ulysses S. Grant and George Sharpe all cited Van Lew as a critical source of intelligence from within the Confederate capital.
Van Lew, in turn, credited her family’s former slave as her best source, writing in the private diary she kept during the war, “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.”
But it was not until 1900, when Van Lew was dying, that a Richmond newspaper’s account of her life included a description of an unnamed “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who was educated in Philadelphia and then placed in the Confederate White House as part of Van Lew’s spy ring. It was another decade before Bet Van Lew’s niece identified this black woman as Mary Bowser (sadly, the niece, only 10 years old when the war ended, could provide few other details regarding Bowser). The first publication of Bowser’s name came in a June 1911 article in Harper’s Monthly about Van Lew, which became the source — usually uncited and heavily embellished — for nearly all subsequent accounts of Bowser’s exploits.
But the former spy had already told her own story, publicly and privately, in the period immediately following the war, as recent research has revealed. Nevertheless, her own accounts don’t amount to straightforward autobiography, because she deliberately concealed or altered aspects of her life, as she carefully constructed her own identity and positioned herself in relation to the larger black community.
On Sept. 10, 1865, The New York Times published a notice for a “Lecture by a Colored Lady“:

Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

There can be little doubt that this was Bowser. And yet, as the use of a pseudonym suggests, she was consciously constructing a public persona. Reporting on the talk, the New York-based newspaper the Anglo African described Richards as “very sarcastic and … quite humorous.” The audience might have been most amazed by her description of collecting intelligence in the Confederate Senate as well as the Confederate White House, and aiding in the capture of rebel officers at Fredericksburg, Va. But her acerbic wit shone best when she described her time in Liberia, where “the Mendingoes … never drink, lie, nor steal,” making them “much better than the colored people are here.” (She concluded by admonishing young people to pay less attention to fashion and more to education.)
Slaves, like spies, regularly relied on judicious deceit. But even with the war over, Bowser, speaking in the guise of Richmonia Richards, practiced deliberate dissimulation. “Richmonia” recounted returning from Liberia to Virginia in 1860 to visit “her foster-sister,” whom she referred to as “Miss A–,” though the woman in question must have been Bet it was a convention of sentimental abolitionist literature to use the phrase “foster sister” to describe the relationship between a sympathetic young mistress and her slave. But Richmonia Richards was more critical. She claimed that because Miss A– confiscated her free papers “for safekeeping,” she was arrested, given five lashes and “finally sold into slavery.” But in truth, although Mary Richards was arrested in Richmond in 1860, rather than being sold, she was returned to Bet’s mother, who was fined for letting her slave go out without a pass.
Why the prevarication? Mary’s freedom was likely de facto, not de jure, at least until after the war: both Virginia state law and stipulations in her husband’s will impeded Mrs. Van Lew from legally manumitting any of her family slaves. For the teenage Mary, the shock of being openly deemed property after having experienced personal liberty in the North and overseas must have been disturbing. And for “Richmonia,” the specter of whipping and forced sale was rhetorically powerful.
Mary’s twin commitments to racial uplift and to creating a story to suit her audience remained in evidence in 1867, when she met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Rev. Charles Beecher and the Rev. Crammond Kennedy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The trio was traveling through St. Mary’s, Ga., when they encountered “a most interesting school taught by a colored girl — quite a character,” who at that time went by the name Mary J. R. Richards. Beecher’s diary entry provides the only known physical description of the slave-turned-spy: “a Juno, done in somber marble … her features regular and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp, her form and movements the perfection of grace.”
As impressed as the travelers were by her efforts as a prewar missionary and postwar teacher of former slaves, it was Bowser’s work as “a member of a secret organisation in Richmond during the war … a detective of Gen’l Grant,” that prompted Kennedy to muse, “She could write a romance from her experience in that employment.” One wonders what story she would have penned, given that she told these visitors that her father was part Cuban-Spaniard and part Negro, and her mother was white, a dubious claim in light of the social mores of antebellum Virginia and the extant documentation that Mary was born a slave, which the child of a white mother would not have been.
Why lie about her parentage? The answer may stem not from the intentional deceptions she practiced during the war, but what she experienced in its aftermath. During her New York lecture, Richards recounted the arrest, torture and threatened execution of a black man who dared defend his wife from physical attack by Union forces occupying defeated Richmond. And while Kennedy described Richards as “this sister of ours, whose history … brought tears to all of our eyes,” Beecher referred to another African American in St. Mary’s as an “old darky.” If even seemingly sympathetic white Northerners could express overt racism, disguising one’s heritage might have been a calculated gesture of self-protection.
In the only direct words of hers we have (her 1867 correspondence with the superintendent of education for Georgia’s Freedmen’s Bureau), Mary emphasized the pull of race, expressing deep concern for the millions of slaves she helped liberate: “I felt that I had the advantage over the majority of my race both in Blood and Intelligence, and that it was my duty if possible to work where I am most needed.” After a month as the sole teacher to 70 day students, a dozen adult night students and 100 Sunday school students, however, she despaired, “I am I hope willing to do what I can, but I fear that in the end it will not prove much.”
The slave-turned-spy now faced an especially insidious enemy, as she wrote in one of her last missives before leaving the school and slipping out of the historical record:

I wish there was some law here, or some protection. I know the southerners pretty well … having been in the service so long as a detective that I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is … that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil … with a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything … Do not think I am frightened and laugh at my letter. Anyone that has spent 4 months in Richmond prison does not be so easily frightened.

News--- Jeff Davis's White House Infiltrated By Union Intelligence Network

Slave in Jefferson Davis' Home Gave Union Key Secrets, Barbara Starr and Bill Mears, CNN, February 20, 2008

William Jackson was a slave in the home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis during the Civil War. It turns out he was also a spy for the Union Army, providing key secrets to the North about the Confederacy. Jackson was Davis' house servant and personal coachman. He learned high-level details about Confederate battle plans and movements because Davis saw him as a "piece of furniture" -- not a human, according to Ken Dagler, author of "Black Dispatches," which explores espionage by America's slaves. "Because of his role as a menial servant, he simply was ignored," Dagler said. "So Jefferson Davis would hold conversations with military and Confederate civilian officials in his presence."

Dagler has written extensively on the issue for the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence . In late 1861, Jackson fled across enemy lines and was immediately debriefed by Union soldiers. Dagler said Jackson provided information about supply routes and military strategy.

"In Jackson's case, what he did was . present some of the current issues that were affecting the Confederacy that you could not read about in the local press that was being passed back and forth across local lines. He actually had some feel for the issues of supply problems," Dagler said. Jackson and other slaves' heroic efforts have been a forgotten legacy of the war -- lost amid the nation's racially charged past and the heaps of information about the war's historic battles. But historians over the last few decades have been taking an interest in the sacrifice of African-Americans during those war years.

Jackson's espionage is mentioned in a letter from a general to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell refers to "Jeff Davis' coachman" as the source of information about Confederate deployments. Dagler said slaves who served as spies were able to collect incredibly detailed information, in large part because of their tradition of oral history. Because Southern laws prevented blacks from learning how to read and write, he said, the slave spies listened intently to minute details and memorized them.

"What the Union officers found very quickly with those who crossed the line . was that if you talked to them, they remembered a great more in the way of details and specifics than the average person . because again they relied totally on their memory as opposed to any written records," he said. Jackson wasn't the only spy. There were hundreds of them. In some cases, the slaves made it to the North, only to return to the South to risk being hanged. One Union general wrote that he counted on black spies in Tennessee because "no white man had the pluck to do it."

No one was better than Robert Smalls, a slave who guided vital supply ships in and out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. He eventually escaped and provided the Union with "a turning of the forces in Charleston Harbor," according to an annual report of the Navy secretary to President Lincoln. "A debriefing of him gave . the Union force there the entire fortification scheme for the interior harbor," Dagler said.

One of the most iconic spies was Harriet Tubman, who ran the Underground Railroad, bringing slaves to the North. In 1863, she was asked by the Union to help with espionage in South Carolina. She picked former slaves from the region for an espionage ring and led many of the spy expeditions herself. "The height of her intelligence involvement occurred late in 1863 when she actually led a raid into South Carolina," Dagler said. "In addition to the destruction of millions of dollars of property, she brought out over 800 slaves back into freedom in the North."

As the nation marks Black History Month in February, Dagler said that history should include the sacrifices of the African-Americans who risked their lives for their nation. Many paid the ultimate sacrifice. "They were all over the place, and no one [in the South] considered them to be of any value. Consequently, they heard and saw virtually everything done by their masters, who were the decision-makers," Dagler said.

Whatever happened to William Jackson, the spy in Jefferson Davis's house?Unfortunately, that remains a great unknown. "He simply disappeared from history, as so many of them have."

CNN's Wayne Drash contributed to this report.

CWL: It seems likely that William Jackson's intelligence collection began and ended in 1861. More important Elizabeth Van Lew's intelligence network that began in late 1862 and early 1863. Van Lew was communication with several Richmond blacks close to the Davis' home.

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