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Telling Secrets, Spying Freedom: A Novel Account of Mary Bowser's Civil War Espionage

In the following account historian and novelist Lois Leveen describes how she came to write her critically acclaimed novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, the account of a black woman who served as a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the American Civil War.

Born into slavery in Virginia, Mary Bowser was freed and sent North to be educated, only to return to Richmond on the eve of the Civil War, where she spied on behalf of the Union by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House.  She undertook this astounding work as part of an espionage ring run by Elizabeth "Bet" Van Lew, the white woman whose family had owned Bowser.

I first learned of Bowser in the late 1990s while working on my Ph.D. in English with a specialty in African American literature, when I came across a brief reference to her espionage in A Shining Thread of Hope:  The History of Black Women in America by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson.  Bowser"s activities exemplified the thesis of my dissertation, which examined how the design and occupation of American domestic space has been used to assert or contest ideas about race and gender.  By pretending to conform to slaveholders" expectations of an enslaved black woman in domestic service, Bowser rendered herself not so much above suspicion as below it.  Playing on the foundational belief of slavery—that blacks were not fully human and therefore incapable of intelligence—she became an intelligence agent who successfully undermined the institution of slavery.

As I wrote and taught about slavery and the abolition movement after completing my degree, Bowser"s story continued to intrigue me.  Why would she give up her freedom and risk her life in a war that she couldn"t be certain would end slavery?  What was the emotional cost of pretending to be a slave?  How did Bowser and Van Lew"s unusual relationship affect each of them?  Most importantly, how might Bowser"s extraordinary accomplishment as a spy serve as a hook to draw twenty-first century attention to the contributions

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