For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 3/1/2012, 3:38 p.m.
There was much more to this house servant than just serving tea. She was one...
For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

"Everything she saw on the rebel president's desk, she could repeat word for word. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis' home to drop information," he said.

During the last days of the Confederacy, it was finally suspected that Bowser was the mole. She fled the scene in January 1865 but not before making an unsuccessful attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. No one saw or heard from her again. There is no record of her life or death after she left Richmond. She simply disappeared.

Just how good was the information she provided? When the city of Richmond fell during the Civil War, Union General Ulysses S. Grant said to Bowser over a cup of tea, "You are the one person who has sent me the most useful information I have received from Richmond during the war."

"Crazy Bet" paid dearly for her Union loyalty. Her inheritance was gone and she was ostracized for her actions against the Confederacy. She died in poverty in 1900.

Government records detailing Van Lew's activities and Bowser's information were destroyed for the pair's protection and a journal that Bowser purportedly kept was inadvertently thrown out by her family in 1952.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was honored for her contributions with an induction into the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.


  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the Confederacy, 13 states whose attempt to secede from the Union led to the American Civil War. Learn about the key battles of the war.
  • Talk about it: Why were Bowser and Van Lew successful in their plans? How would you have planned and carried out such a mission?
  • Write it down: Strategy is crucial in achieving any goal in life as well as solving problems. Write an essay on the importance of planning and executing a strategy. Choose a problematic situation and create a plan for solving that problem.

This Week in Black History

  • Feb. 27, 1933: Maria W. Steward becomes the first American woman to give public speeches. She gave four lectures that focused on education and political rights for Blacks.
  • Feb. 27, 1869: Charlotte Ray graduates from Howard Law School, becoming the nation's first African-American lawyer.
  • Feb. 29, 1940: Hattie McDaniel becomes the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in the movie "Gone With the Wind."
  • March 3, 1932: South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba is born in Johannesburg.