Black spies played pivotal roles in the US Civil War

7 mins read

Thousands of Blacks fought or helped in a number of subversive actions in the Civil War, but have never been formally recognized. In particular, Blacks in the service industry who provided critical intelligence to the Union Army. Here are some Blacks who contributed tremendously.

A newly freed African American group of men and a few children posing by a canal against the ruins of Richmond, Virginia. Photo made after Richmond was taken by Union troops on April 3, 1865.

To date, the Civil War is the bloodiest conflict that occurred on United States soil. The fight between the Union Army of the North and the Confederate Army of the South marked a series of battles to decide the countries most profitable, but brutal economy—its chattel slave system.

In the beginning of the war, Blacks were not allowed to fight, but those enslaved provided free labor to both sides. Eventually, black men served as soldiers; however, were given unequal pay along with subpar treatment.

Like all wars, intelligence was critical. Often, the most essential information came from Blacks who supplied the Union with information on the geography of the south, including war strategies, maps and other vital details. Even though black women were excluded from fighting in the Civil War, both enslaved and free, found ways to support the Union Army.

For women to participate in war activities, and especially Black women, it was incredibly dangerous terrain. Because of the danger for Blacks who worked for the Union, much of their work either went unrecorded or was destroyed to protect them and their families.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser né Mary Jane Richards

Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia is where Mary Bowser spied for the Union Army.

As a freed woman who feigned being a house slave, Mary Elizabeth Bowser literally extracted information from one of the most important figures in the Confederate Army—General Jefferson Davis.

Bowser was born as property to John and Eliza Van Lew sometime between 1838 and 1831 in Richmond, Virginia. Once John passed, his widow was convinced by their daughter, Elizabeth, to free the family’s slaves. Following the manumission, Elizabeth financed Bowser’s education in Philadelphia and sponsored her travel to live in the US-constructed colony in Liberia, West Africa.

Unhappy with Liberia, Bowser returned, but was arrested by Virginia authorities for violating a law that prohibited Blacks from receiving an education or living in a free state.

When the Civil War broke out, Bowser returned to Richmond to join Elizabeth’s growing network of spies and scouts. Bowser who by that time, was married to William Bowser agreed to disguise herself as a less-than-intelligent domestic. Through Van Lew’s status and Bowser’s guile, Bowser earned a spot as a servant in the Confederate White House.

Davis thought that Bowser was illiterate and possessed low cognitive abilities. Consequently, he held meetings with top army commanders in the open. Since Bowser had a photographic memory, she would retell all the information verbatim, along with any plans or memos she read while cleaning the house. Additionally, she sewed messages in dresses of women belonging to the Davis household before passing them on.

One of Bowser’s attributes was her acting ability. She portrayed herself as dramatic with her role as socially and mentally challenged. In Elizabeth Van Lew’s later years, she acknowledged that that the savvy espionage of Bowser was the most vital to the Union.

Shortly after the Civil War, Bowser went on a lecture circuit speaking on her exploits, but fell invisible by the 1870s.

Mary Louvestre

There is limited information on Louvestre whose name is also argued as Mary Touvestre. According to Central Intelligence Agency report on “Intelligence in the Civil War,” Louvestre worked at the Confederate Navy seaport, the Gosport Navy Yard, in Norfolk, Virginia. Serving as a housekeeper to one of the Confederate engineers who were in the process of repairing the downed USS Merrimack, she overheard conversations of another vessel.

Somehow, Louvestre intercepted a letter with from a mechanic with plans from the Confederate Navy to build a steam, ironclad ship. The first iron ship of its kind, was made from leftover materials from the USS Merrimack.

Although she was a freed slave, Blacks who were manumitted lived a quasi-free life that was often at extreme risks during the war. However, Louvestre crossed Confederate enemy lines then garnered a meeting with Union Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. With this information, Welles immediately scrapped the Union’s ship plans to build a comparable fleet. Later, the battle of Hampton Roads was fought. It was the most important naval battle in the Civil War because it redirected the construction of war vessels.

Louvestre was recognized for her service and given pension after the war.

Christopher Taylor

During the Civil War, those who escaped slavery and made their way to Union camps were called “contraband.”

Like Louvestre, little is known of Taylor, but he served as an important part of a network of spies and scouts in the south. Taylor, a free Black, worked in the bakery of Thomas McNiven a Scott who immigrated to the United States from Glasgow in 1853.

McNiven was part of the Waldeness Society, an organization opposed to slavery that held its headquarters in Brooklyn. Along with funds given by the organization and the US Secret Service, McNiven opened a bakery in Richmond, Virginia to spy.

Taylor who was the baker made British baked goods. Known for their shortbreads, tea cookies and scones, Taylor cooked the desserts along with bread then delivered them to Southern customers. Elizabeth Van Lew and Jefferson Davis were customers, leading to Taylor and McNiven getting information from Van Lew who worked in clandestine for the Union Army. As well, Mary Bowser, a domestic at the Confederate White House would feed information.

Dabney and wife (unnamed)

During the Civil War, a couple who escaped slavery made it to a Union Army camp in Rappahannock, Virginia. While there, Danny told officials that he served as a cook and barber to Confederate soldiers and heard information about their plans.

After sharing intelligence, his wife, whose name is unknown, volunteered to re-enter Confederate territory to work as a washerwoman. She found a job as a laundress to a prominent general. While working in his headquarters, she memorized important information that she overheard then sent it to Union allies by a communication code developed through the way she positioned and hung clothes on a laundry line.

Susie King Taylor

Taylor (no relation to Christopher Taylor) was the only Black nurse who wrote about her experiences servicing hundreds of thousands of troops in the Civil War.

Wife to Edward King, a sergeant in the Colored regiment, on paper, Susie served as a nurse, cook, laundress and educator who taught children and adults how to read and write. While she did that, soon, she learned how to clean and reload guns and shoot.

In the heat of battle, women often picked up arms. In Taylor’s memoir, her tent was stationed by the general. This location was one of the most dangerous, so she said on alert. More over, being a nurse with troops meant that she was caught in battles too, as she cared for the wounded and sick.

Lucy Berington and Ann Stokes

Thousands of Blacks worked for the Union Army, but Berrington and Stokes were the only women who worked aboard a naval ship during the Civil War who had a title other than contracted service.

Although, Berington worked as a washerwoman in the U.S. Naval Hospital in New Bern, North Carolina, she was enlisted as a first-class boy, a designation for enlistees who were young or inexperienced. Usually the Navy contracted laundresses, but the reason why they listed Berington as a first-class boy remains unknown.

Stokes worked as a nurse. Her husband, Gilbert enlisted as a first-class boy seven months later in Memphis, Tennessee. She was aboard the U.S.S. Red Rover when the Confederate fell in its last battle in Vicksburg. Discharged in 1864, Ann Stokes applied for military pension in Illinois in 1890 when she was 60-years-old.

At first, she was denied, but in an appeal, awarded pension.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (far left) with Blacks she helped escape slavery.

By far, Harriet Tubman is the most noted Black woman to serve in the Civil War. Born in to slavery in Maryland in 1821 or 1820, she rose to prominence for escaping slavery then making 19 more trips down south to help approximately 300 others run away.

Her knowledge of the terrain of the south during the Civil War proved to be invaluable. She, like many others, provided the Union Army with mapping of areas that were not surveyed. At first, much of her work was as a nurse, cook and helped slaves who ran from plantations, go to Union camps.

Her most notable contributions is serving as a spy and leading a regiment of soldiers into an important battle. Since her days as a fugitive for liberating hundreds of enslaved folk, Tubman was a master of disguise. Often she presented herself as lowly, subordinate slave or in some cases a man. As a result, her impersonations assisted in Tubman moving between Union and Confederate lines.

Tubman is celebrated for being the first woman to lead US soldiers into combat. After learning of a Confederate stockpile of ammunition and supplies in South Carolina, she and a regiment of colored troops went down the Combahee River on June 2, 1863 into battle. They burned down most of the large slave plantations, thus freeing 750 people.

While in combat, she only was paid $200. To survive, she setup a small bakery to sell baked goods and root beer to escaped slaves, soldiers and residents.

Years after the war, Tubman filed for veteran’s pension for her three years of service, she was told that she could only get a widow’s pension. Her second husband, Nelson Davis, served in the Civil War too, but died in 1888. Her veteran’s benefits of $200 a month were denied, but she was promised $25 monthly for the widow’s pension. She was only given $20 hence her being on the $20 US bill before Trump Administration pushed to remove the change.

Tubman lived the rest of her life caring for people, and subsisting off of selling vegetables, raising pigs, speaking arrangements and donations.

These women are part of a very long list of Blacks who contributed to finally pushing through Union victory, and eventually the abolition of slavery. Due to laws, they are not officially recognized as veterans, but are noted as service persons who played significant roles in a war that changed the US. So much so, the impact is still felt today.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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