By William “Duke” Smither
“Miss Van Lew (Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew) was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary (Elizabeth “Ellen Bond” Bowser) was the best as she was working right in Davis’ home (Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information…”
Thomas McNiven (a white baker and Union Spy, code name “Quaker,” who supplied the ‘White House of the Confederacy’ with baked goods, during the Civil War)
Crazy, White Man’s War
Whenever I heard the phrase, “black spies” in the so-called Civil War,” from black grownups, I simply scoffed it off, thinking “…how crazy that sounds ‘cause nowadays the street folk, colored and po’ white, that I hung around with, talked about colored being dumber than a po’ azz ‘cracker’.” At six years old, in the dawning of the 1950’s Jim Crow South, that kind of silly, naive conjecture might have been more prevalent than one would care to admit. America’s peculiar brand of “Apartheid” often coughed up some screwball reasoning and pea-brain rhetoric, within the wretched vomit from racial segregation and discrimination, by blacks and whites, alike.
My working-class neighborhood peers and influences, back home in Kentucky, simply weren’t yet up to snuff on the significant contributions by African-Americans within this epic, bloody struggle which whites somehow termed a “civil” war. Contrary to my Christian upbringing (dad being a Baptist minister, my maternal grandmother, a Pentecostal Evangelist, etc.), the way us young’uns joked about the evil slavery-time goings-on, which grownups talked about, just hearing the term, “black spies,” had to be some sick, sarcastic play on words, the way we thought.
Even so, I was smart enough to know that all grownups had to be crazy as a “June Bug” if they kept calling America’s War between the North and South, “Civil…” Of course, that was long before I learned from various archives that this so-called “War between the States” caused as many American deaths as all of the other wars fought by U.S. soldiers, combined—including some 40,000 “U.S. Colored Troops” (black soldiers). Instinctively, I felt that this disgusting carnage, which my devout, ‘tent-preaching’ grandmother called a “disgrace to the human race,” sure as heck was not something “civil.” If it was anything, from what I was learning, early-on, I imagined it to be “unholy,” at best. In fact, not only did I feel that it was “unholy,” I knew this hideous conflict had to be “Un-Civil” as hell!
Yet, I became fascinated whenever I heard the term ‘black spies,’ usually associated with what my grandmother called, “the stupid white war.” After digging through the volumes of dusty, history-related journals and black newspapers I found in her basement “library,” on summer visits to my grandparent’s farm, I began to appreciate the various roles of many Union spies. It was an odd assortment of old information being stashed, or soon-to-be thrown away; but, the rummaging was magical. It brought to life the daring exploits of several black women spies. This mixed-bag “library” collection spilled out of the musty-smelling cardboard boxes, next to the coal bin and wood pile, beneath our one-story farm home. And, like crazy cockroaches, they seemed to scatter and run for cover, when the lights came on. Later in life, I often chuckled about those private, basement hunts while forming hypotheses for more qualitative historical research, during my independent studies in Ancient African- and African-American history.
Not Crazy, Just Crafty
“Crazy Bet” was one of the names I recall from those curious basement forays, and later research projects, as well as the sophisticated spy ring—the “Richmond Underground”– she created in the so-called “White House of the Confederacy,” a three-story, gray stucco house, in downtown Richmond. She was an interesting white lady—an anti-slavery advocate whose family owned slaves—at a time when owning another human being was as commonplace as springtime’s sweet smells of Magnolia, floating within the sin-sick air and fake elegance of a professed Genteel South. Her real name was Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900). When at her alter-ego’s best performance, Southern archives described her as “…always distracted and muttered when she spoke in order for people to think she was unbalanced and therefore not someone to take seriously”— thus, the nickname, “Crazy Bet.”
According to historians, a visiting Swedish novelist (Fredericka Bremer), once described a thirty-year-old Elizabeth Van Lew as “a pleasing, pale blonde” with much compassion for slaves. Sometime after the 1850s, archives reveal that she freed all the family servants, although most of them remained employed by her family. Then, “hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well,” and later issued her much quoted opinion: “Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state.”
She was a known “Union sympathizer” who opposed slavery and the war, while many Richmonders considered her as fanatical and hysterical, or just plain silly, due to her open support of the North and Union soldiers, according to Civil War archives. Yet, she was quick to point out that she was “…not a Yankee.” Instead, she would explain that she was merely a “…a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .” Apparently, her devious, calculating ways—in plain sight– served her well, as she used a sophisticated system of code names within her elaborate network of spies, bribing farmers and sweet-talking clerks, to earn the reputation as the “best (spy) inside the Confederate capital,” according to Northern generals (Spies for the Blue and Gray, “Grant’s Spy in Richmond” by Harnett Kane, Garden City Publishing, Hanover House, 1954).
“Ellen Bond”—the Black Spy
According to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) journals (Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War), “Crazy Bet” also coined the nickname, “Ellen Bond,” for one of her secret agents that worked as a servant for the Jefferson Davis house, with an effective alter-ego character of her own: “…a slow-thinking, but able servant.”
Civil War archives reveal that many Union spies were black. Some of the best were black women, as they copped a happy-go-lucky attitude, faked a broad smile, appearing unconcerned, as they secretly gathered valuable intelligence. Secret “Maroon Societies” (runaway slaves and Black Seminoles) also provided valuable information to Union Army commanders, including the location, strength and disposition of Confederate troops. Their intimate understanding of nearby roads, rivers and trails, as well as the general lay of the land, assisted their many unheralded roles as Union couriers, guides for Union raids and leading escaping Union prisoners through the zigzagging lines of Rebel troops.
Within the collective heap of untold stories of “black spies,” the little-known, secret-agent story of “Ellen Bond” is just as unique and gripping. She was an African-American, named Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c.1839- date of death, unknown) and was once a slave, owned by “Crazy Bet’s father (John Van Lew). At the death of John Van Lew, she was one of the slaves that the family freed, but stayed on with the household as a free domestic worker. That’s where “Crazy Bet” became aware of her keen intellect and unique ability to recall information and images exactly as they were. Perfect for “Crazy Bet’s” needs, with the help of various friends of the Union, “Crazy Bet” was able to get Bowser hired full-time by the wife of Jefferson Davis (Varina Davis) at “Confederate White House” functions, during the war years. It was seen as “Crazy Bet’s” biggest espionage accomplishment, according to some historians.
Since slaves were trained to be “invisible,” or not noticeable, Bowser’s alter-ego performances and photographic memory allowed her to obtain huge amounts of information, important to the North, by simply following her normal work routine. The prevailing White Supremacy landscapes, and bogus superiority complex assumptions within slaves being unable to read and write, let alone understand “complex political conversations,” further bolstered “Ellen Bond’s” successes. The extensive education she received at Philadelphia’s “Quaker School for Negros,” after being set free by the Van Lew family, strengthened her cunning intrigue, even more, as she relayed much of the happenings within the “White House of the Confederacy” back to “Crazy Bet” and the Union Army.
Life Becomes Art, on Stage
Much further down the path of my own life journey, with my thinning, speckled-gray hair and “progressive-lens,” bifocal eyeglasses– in my reflective retirement years– just a couple of months back, my wife and I attended a stage-production, at the University of Richmond Modlin Center for the Arts, on the super-resourceful, war-time roles of Mary Bowser (a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”) and Elizabeth Van Lew (a.k.a., “Crazy Bet”). As we sat there waiting for the lights to dim, I really couldn’t recall, from my childhood basement forays, exactly who was black or white, free or slave. Yet, the fuzziness quickly dissipated, as much of what I remembered magically sprang to life again, on stage, in the “Lady Patriot” (as presented by Francis-Emma, Inc., in association with Lange Productions, of Los Angeles, California).
The production was part of the Francis-Emma, Inc. (owned by the sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) initiative to raise restoration funds for the Belmead Mansion, on the former site of the famed St. Emma Military Academy, located at 5004 Cartersville Road, Powhatan, VA 23139 (www.FrancisEmma.org). Built in the 1890s, it housed the storied past and rich legacy associated with educating Native Americans, African-Americans and Europeans on land, containing two schools, located on adjacent plantations (owned by Philip St. George Cocke, a wealthy Virginia Planter), atop a hill overlooking the James River.
I first heard about this famous institution, before moving to Virginia, from friends and relatives, a few who once attended St. Emma. One friend, Robert A. Walker, Jr., whom I met after moving to Virginia, not only attended the school as a cadet, he wrote the history of its storied past in “The Black Military Academy on the James River” (Published by Robert A. Walker, Jr., Richmond, VA, 2006; available at email@example.com) and performed a lot of the leg-work associated with marketing the play’s recent performance in Richmond, VA. Another friend, Ed Davis, Photographer & Graphic Designer (and, Photo Restoration Services at www.goldeneyepix.com; firstname.lastname@example.org), designed the playbill-advertising and program cover for this event. These two high-energy friends also sing with me in a local gospel group and form part of an informal, retiree and military veterans’ “breakfast club” where we occasionally break bread and share stories, together. They were also in attendance at the play, as well as other ceremonies associated with the stage production.
As for the play, “Lady Patriot” (written & directed by Ted Lange, formerly “Isaac,” the bartender on “Love Boat,” and produced by Mary Lange) seven highly skilled and experienced, film-and-stage actors breathed life into the ‘missing pages’ of history associated with the so-called Genteel South’s “White House of the Confederacy,” home to Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, between 1861 and 1865. Now a museum (Museum of the Confederacy, 1201 Clay Street, Richmond, VA), created in `1894, my previous tours of this three-story, historical landmark did not prepare me for the way “Lady Patriot’s” talented cast and crew brought to life the refined, well-bred and mannered slice of the rebellious and secessionist side of Dixie—not exactly the way I expected. In fact, I didn’t recall anything about black spies in the Confederate White House, during those tours.
Within two hours, two acts and 18 scenes, from the Jefferson Davis White House garden and kitchen to its office and state room, the Southern take on our ugly past, below the Mason-Dixie Line, leaped from the pages, still missing, from America’s classroom history books. Truthfully, while somewhat intellectually palatable, certain reminders of our nation’s slavery and Jim Crow past remained difficult to swallow, for someone like myself. There’s a seething rage of bitter racial animosity and unfounded fear, stemming from this period, which continues to poison America’s toxic political atmosphere, even now, as an African-American president occupies the nation’s White House, in Washington D.C., in my opinion.
However, the play’s cast of characters, featuring Chrystee Pharris (as Mary Bowser, a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”), Lou Beatty, Jr. (as “Old Robert”), Gordon Goodman (as Jefferson Davis), Anne Johnston-Brown (as Varina Davis), Paul Messinger (as Judah P. Benjamin, Robert Pine (as Mr. Slydell) and Connie Ventress (as Elizabeth Van Lew, a.k.a., “Crazy Bet”), gave a powerful, commanding performance within their interpretation and execution of the play’s overall theme.
In addition to the cast, blue-ribbon creativity and professionalism of Mylett Nora (Costume Designer), Wendell Carmichael (Wardrobe Master) and Jezelle Beatty (Asst. Stage Manager/ Prop Master), was clearly evident in moving the plot along, considering the production’s tortuous timeline and scene constraints. But, special kudos should be extended to Chrystee Pharris (Mary Bowser/ “Ellen Bond”) and Lou Beatty, Jr. (“Old Robert”), as well as Ted Lange (Playwright & Director) who in my opinion captured the composite intricacies and essence of “black spies” in America’s “Un-Civil” War, often lost in the foggy footnotes and ‘missing pages’ of America’s classroom history books, framing them for present and future generations to examine.
As the U.S. Army’s famed, corncob-smoking, 5-Star General, General Douglas MacArthur, once quoted an old Army ballad in his 1951 “farewell speech” to Congress, “…old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Mary Bowser’s “last act as a spy” (and “soldier”), according to Civil War archives, “…was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. She was not successful.” No record exist of Bowser’s life (or death) after 1867.
However, a U.S. government honor conferred on her, in 1995, for her undercover work during the America’s “Un-Civil” War Between the States, assured that the service of Mary Elizabeth Bowser (a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”) would be remembered. Fittingly, she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, as “…one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.” Thus, like old soldiers of famed “U.S. Colored Troop” regiments, she simply faded away to glory, the way I see it. Hooah, Mary Bowser!