Mary Bowser was an amazing woman: intelligent, brave, a spy during the Civil War. And did I mention that she was born a slave? Her story is fascinating and all the more so because it is true. Not a lot is known about the details of Mary’s life but the basic skeleton is known. She was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. After Mr. Van Lew’s death she was freed by his widow and daughter (Bet Van Lew). She continued to work as a servant in their household but was then sent to Philadelphia by Bet Van Lew to be educated. At some point she returned to Richmond and it is known that she eventually took a position as a servant at the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Bet Van Lew was part of a Richmond spy ring that included several hundred people and was responsible for passing on a great deal of information to General Grant and other Union leaders. Years after the war Bet and other members of the spy ring referred to Mary as being one of the best sources for information that they then passed on. Mary apparently had a near photographic memory and by posing as a slave had complete access to Davis’ home and office.
It is an amazing story. Even more amazing to me is that I grew up in Richmond and had never heard of Mary Bowser, Bet Van Lew or the Richmond spy ring that helped defeat the Confederacy. I may have found history a lot more interesting in school if we had heard these kind of stories instead of just the names of generals and dates of battles. I first heard of Mary’s story from a friend who suggested the book Dear Ellen Bee by Mary E. Lyons and Muriel Branch for John to read this year when we studied the Civil War. Ellen Bee is the name used by both Mary and Bet Van Lew when they wrote each other letters. When searching for the book at the library I came across an adult historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.
It was interesting to read both of these books back to back. Because only the bare bones of Mary Bowser’s life are known the authors use their imagination to fill in the details in very different ways. Of the two I preferred Dear Ellen Bee. Lois Leveen’s version of Mary Bowser is older and smarter but in the end less believable. Bowser’s story is compelling just on it’s own but somehow I found Leveen’s version slow reading at times. Her Mary is just too perfect. Leveen chooses to write the story so that virtually every battle lost is due to intelligence from Mary. From the little we know of Mary we know that she was very important but I ended up thinking that Leveen’s Mary was just too unbelievably all powerful. Leveen also diminishes Bet’s role in the spy network in order to make Mary’s role more central. From the little I’ve read on the Richmond spy network, Bet herself was a pretty amazing woman. I liked that Dear Ellen Bee did a better job of recognizing both of their unique roles.
On the other hand, the Mary Bowser in Dear Ellen Bee is younger, more naive and more scared. She is still very intelligent and headstrong. Her relationship with Bet Van Lew was more believable to me also. Bet sees her as the daughter she never had and Mary reacts to Bet like a teenager would react to a mother figure. Dear Ellen Bee also has the advantage of being written in the format of a scrapbook and has illustrations on every page that make it look very much like a real scrapbook. I greatly enjoyed the book and look forward to discussing it with John when he reads it.
***As a word of caution, I think Dear Ellen Bee will be a great book for John to read but it does have a few references that you may want to preview before having a child read it. In this version Mary is rooming with a woman described as a “Lady of the Night”. This woman becomes important to the story as the Confederate generals visit her and the spies use that fact first as blackmail and later to get information. It’s not completely obvious what she does but the word brothel is used and there might be questions raised. Also, Mary makes a reference about being nervous about her wedding night (she is a young 15 year old bride) and her husband to me makes a comment about “being ready”. It’s still a really great book but I wanted to give full information to others who might be interested in it for their kids.