Mary Bowser was one of the most remarkable un-sung heroes of the Civil War. Bowser, a former slave, infiltrated the household staff of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Virginia to gather intelligence for the Union during the Civil War.
As author Lois Leveen points out in her informative New York Times online commentary "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," there is little direct historical evidence about Mary Bowser's life and work and much of what has been published about her over the years has been heavily embellished. It is not even known if the woman in the photograph on the left, which is often claimed to be a portrait of Mary Bowser, is really her.
However, what is clear is that Mary Bowser played an extremely valuable role in helping the Union Army obtain intelligence about the Confederacy. She was one of many African Americans contributing what the Union military referred to as "Black Dispatches," intelligence on Confederate forces supplied to the Union by African American operatives, both slave and free.
Leveen has written a fictional work based on Bowser's life titled The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is available at your Milwaukee Public Library.