They thought she was dull-witted.
But Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a freed slave who was placed as a servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond, was as cunning as a fox.
While she cleaned the house and waited on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military leaders, she read war dispatches and overheard conversations about Confederate troop strategy and movement. She memorized details and passed them along to Union spies, who coded the information and sent it to Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Butler, "greatly enhancing the Union's conduct of the war," according to the account assembled by the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.
"Jefferson Davis never discovered the leak in his household staff," reads the account, "although he knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans."
In 1995 Bowser was inducted into the Hall at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The acknowledgment of her role in the ultimate success of Union forces read, in part:
"Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War."
Exact details about Bowser's life and death are sketchy.
According to several accounts, Bowser was born about 1839 on a plantation owned by John Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond hardware merchant. When he died (some records say he died in 1843, while others put his death at 1851), his wife and his daughter, Elizabeth, freed his slaves.
Elizabeth Van Lew, who had been educated by Quakers, was an ardent abolitionist. She noticed that Bowser was quite smart and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. When war clouds gathered, Bowser returned to Richmond to work in the Van Lew household on Richmond's Church Hill and married William or Wilson Bowser, a free black.
Van Lew, who already was sending information to Union officials about Southern unrest, reportedly recommended Bowser for the servant's job in the Davis household.
What Bowser learned in the Confederate White House she would repeat or message to Van Lew or to Thomas McNiven, the Union's Richmond spymaster, who operated a bakery that became a major central exchange point for information.
Before his death in 1904, he told his daughter, Jeannette B. McNiven, about his experiences, which were written down in 1952 by her nephew, McNiven's grandson, Robert W. Waitt Jr. of Richmond.
As recorded by Waitt, Thomas McNiven credited Bowser with being one of the best sources of wartime information, "as she was working right in the Davis' home and 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 a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis' home to drop information."
Specific details of Bowser's activities and the exact information she passed to Grant are unknown because after the war the U.S. government destroyed records on McNiven, Van Lew and her agents for their protection.
Nothing is known about where she went or what she did after the war. Her date and place of death are unknown.
Papers believed to have been Bowser's diaries were discarded inadvertently by family members in the 1950s. They said descendants rarely talked about Mary Elizabeth Bowser's work for fear of retaliation from lingering Confederate sympathizers.
Her grave was re-discovered in 2000 in Richmond, Virginia.