Black Spies Often Worked As Deep-Cover Agents During the Civil War, Gave Valuable Information to the Union

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Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a Black Union spy during the Civil War.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a Black Union spy during the Civil War.

A news report is shedding light on one of the untold stories of the Civil War — the lives of Black spies who worked undercover providing valuable information to the Union.

According to a Daily Beast article by Christopher Dickey, there was an extensive army of spies who worked as domestic workers for powerful white Southerners and reported on their loose gossip. Some of the spies worked in the Confederate White House, which was located in Virginia.

One of these spies, or “detectives” as they were called at the time, was William A. Jackson. He was loaned out by his master to work as carriage driver for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Apparently, all was not well in the Davis family. Davis privately lamented the fate of the South and the lack of support they were getting. He also had a strained relationship with his wife Varina, who was 20 years younger than him.

Jackson later escaped to the North, where he was debriefed by Union generals and feted by northern papers, who saw him as a celebrity. He was sharply critical of Varina Davis, who he described as a “devil.” Jackson also said Jefferson Davis was “pale and haggard” and complained about the performance of his generals, who kept retreating when he wanted them to advance.

Some of the backhanded compliments given to Jackson were quite shocking by today’s standards. Northern papers were also surprised by Jackson’s intelligence and communication skills.

“Jackson is as black as a Congo negro, and much more intelligent than a good many white folks,” wrote The Tribune.

In modern intelligence terms, some of the spies were deep-cover agents who were sent to perform dangerous missions. One such spy was Mary Elizabeth Bowser. A biracial educated woman, Bowser was sent by her mistress, Elizabeth Van Lew, to work as a servant in the Confederate White House and secretly report on activities.

Like other domestic servants, Bowser was able to be invisible. White Southerners looked down on their Black workers and didn’t consider them to be human beings, so they probably talked about important affairs of state and troop movements in front of them. This made them the perfect spies.

According to The Daily Beast, Bowser played an active role in supporting the Union war effort by hiding soldiers who had escaped from Confederate prisons, meeting with Union sympathizers and plotting with other spies and couriers for the federal army.

The last record of Bowser, whose true story has been lost over the years, is a letter she wrote to the superintendent of education for the Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867. In her letter, she said that even after the war, the climate was still difficult for Black people.

“I wish there was some law here, or some protection,” she wrote. “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.”

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