Mary Bowser, Elizabeth Van Lew, and The Grimke Sisters

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Elizabeth Van Lew

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Mary Bowser

In my first blog I wrote about Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina. Just like her sister, Angelina Grimke was an abolitionist and advocate for women rights.  On February 21, 1838 Sarah Grimke was supposed to speak in front of the Massachusetts state legislature, yet she was sick, so her sister did it for her. Angelina would be the first American woman to ever speak in front of a legislative group like that.  Angelina was very nervous to be speaking, and she wrote about her jitters right before she went on. I read about it in Gerda Lerner’s book The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneer’s for Woman’s Rights and Abolition .  Elizabeth Van Lew, one of Angelina and Sarah’s friends and a staunch abolitionist,  put her hand on Angelina’s shoulder for comfort.  This led me to research about Elizabeth Van Lew.  Elizabeth was not only an abolitionist, she was also a Union spy.  Part of her political activism was releasing all of her family’s slaves after her father died.  Before that, she was even able to send one of her family’s slaves away from the South to be properly educated.  That slave was Mary Bowser, and Mary Bowser also became a Union Spy.  I read about Mary Bowser in the book Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath.  I highly recommend the book.  Elizabeth Van Lew helped to get Mary Bowser placed the Confederate White house posing as a slave.  Mary Bowser’s espionage techniques included using notes sewn into dresses that she took out for alteration that were then sent on to the Union, as well as putting out certain colors of washing on the line to  convey messages to Van Lew and other agents. Perhaps Mary Bowser’s greatest act of undermining the Confederate government was to set fire to the Confederate White house, the fire ruined most of the house and Bowser managed to get away and fled North. Keep in mind, though that due to the fact that Mary Bowser was in fact a spy, she had to use several aliases and Mary Bowser might not have been her real name. My next post will focus on the complicated and maybe contradictory relationships between White Southern Women and Black Southern Women working to end Slavery during the Civil War, such as the one between Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew.

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