When I first read Alyssa Cole’s An Extraordinary Union, which is a historical romance about a free black woman spy named Ellen Burns who is sent to a Confederate household in Virginia during the Civil War to work undercover as a slave, I noticed in the author’s note that Cole took much of her inspiration for Elle from the story of Mary Bowser.
There was a movie about her once upon a time, but it would be great if more could be dug up about her.
Mary Bowser was a Union spy during the Civil War and she did infiltrate Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s home in Richmond, Virginia, during the war. But her real name was not Mary Bowser; it was Mary Jane Richards Denman.
She was born into slavery around 1840 in Richmond, Virginia. Mary was effectively freed from slavery as a child when her owner died and his abolitionist daughter inherited all of his slaves. The problem was, this freedom wasn’t completely legal because by then, emancipating slaves was illegal. Still, this allowed Mary to be educated.
When the Civil War began, her abolitionist owner, Elizabeth Van Lew, recruited Mary to be part of a Union spy ring working in the South. There is not a ton known about Mary’s movements as a spy during the War (which probably means she was a good spy!), but Mary acted like a laundress and entered Jefferson Davis’ house in Richmond.
After the war, she became a teacher.