Thoughts on the novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser and the Civil War from Dr. Jessie Fields
The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a sensitive historical novel that highlights the participation of African Americans enslaved and free, in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was an enslaved young woman who was freed, lived in Philadelphia where she went to school, studied, read widely and was courted by but ultimately rejected the wealthy scion of a free black Philadelphia family. Mary returned to Richmond to care for her ill father and to work for emancipation. She posed as a slave in the Confederate White House and passed valuable information to the Union.
The novel is divided into three sections called books, Book One and Book Three take place in Richmond, Book Two in Philadelphia.
Mary’s mother, is the enslaved Minerva, a name that refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, and to the Greek goddess Athena. During the years before slavery was ended by gradual emancipation in New York she was separated from her family and brought by the Van Lews to Virginia. Minerva teaches Mary to make riddles which includes lessons in being quick witted and observant. The ultimate riddle that Mary lives is her work as a spy communicating information in code straight from the desk of Jefferson Davis to General U. S. Grant and the Union Army. But Mary is not simply a spy for the preservation of the Union, she conveys or holds back information to ensure that the war is not ended without ending slavery.
One of the many features of the novel that deeply moved me was the portrayal of Mary’s family and how though enslaved they manage to make a home in Richmond, their relationship to each other is one of enduring closeness and deep love. Her parents sacrificed greatly to allow their daughter to be free and she was determined to do all she could to end slavery.
In Philadelphia Mary boards with an illiterate mother and daughter who refuse her offer to help them learn to read, she observes the poverty of many of the free black population, as well as the racism of the north where blacks were segregated, denied access to any except the most menial jobs, evicted from public vehicles, and were not accorded equal citizenship rights. Mary observes all this from her perspective of having lived in slavery and having family still enslaved. Eventually she becomes a key member of the Philadelphia underground anti-slavery network centered around the establishment of Alexander Jones, the undertaker and father of her closest friend Hattie. Mr. Jones funeral business is a stop on the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves transported in coffins.
Wilson Bowser who Mary marries was a driver on the Underground Railroad from Richmond to Philadelphia, and he enlisted, as many African American men did, in the United States Colored Troops. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Also enslaved men, women and children contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy by leaving the plantations as soon as Union troops arrived.
Mary overhears many conversations in the Confederate White House (nicknamed the Gray House). Including conversations between Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis who Mary and others name Queen Varina and the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, who is from Louisiana and to whom Varina mangles the French expression tant pis. Mary names Benjamin “Aunt pis”. In one conversation between Varina Davis and Judah Benjamin on the likelihood that Queen Victoria will side with the Confederacy in the Civil War Varina says , “Britain needs us as much as we need her. Why, without Confederate cotton, what use are English mills?” Benjamin responds, “You might say the same for the New England mills, yet the Yankees make war with us.”
They go on to discuss Lincoln’s offer to the border states of financial compensation for each slave in exchange for gradual emancipation. This proposal never ended up passing into law. Varina Davis defends the argument of the Confederacy that they were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights to govern themselves. Benjamin responds, “You are correct. We do not fight for slavery. Neither does Lincoln (fight to end it). We fight to win, and so does he. But he is willing to sacrifice slavery in the process, while we are not.”
Mary took this conversation as substantiation of her mission to make the preservation of the Union contingent on emancipation from slavery. Slavery was the fatal flaw of the nation that cut violently into the soul of the country. Four score and seven years after the American Revolution it took a Civil War to end it.