Black Spies Helped Union Cause in Civil War

Historians say they deserve greater recognition
By Sarah Whitmire,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 25, 2011 11:47 AM CDT
Black Spies Helped Union Cause in Civil War
The sun sets over cannons arrayed on the Civil War battlefield at Manassas, Va.   (AP Photo/Chris Sullivan)

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, experts on African-American history are hoping that a group of under-appreciated spies will finally get proper recognition for years of dangerous service, reports the AP. Some of the most useful intelligence-gatherers during the Civil War were black men and women posing as slaves. Because Confederates believed them to be illiterate, ignorant, and inferior, black men and women were able to live and work among high-ranking officers and even in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s own home.

Harriet Tubman is one high-profile figure who ran spy operations for the Union army while running slaves on the Underground Railroad. Another, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, got hired as a housekeeper in the home of Davis. "She had a photographic mind," says the records of a Union spymaster. "Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk she could repeat word for word.” Many others were not as well-known, and the risks were high. One freed black man in Virginia, James Bowser (no relation), spied for the North until he was attacked outside his home and beheaded. It occurred in front of his son, who was allowed to live only so he could tell others what happened as a warning. Click for the full story. (Read more Civil War stories.)

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