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Black Women's Bravery During the Civil War: Background information when reading Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

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Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

by Sarah Bird

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird X
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 416 pages
    Feb 2020, 544 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book

Black Women's Bravery During the Civil War

This article relates to Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Print Review

Cathy WilliamsHistorian Shelby Foote called the Civil War, "the crossroads of our being." It defined humanity and the principles that govern American morality. With freedom as the one virtue worth fighting for, it is no wonder that women of color chose to walk the tightrope of danger and secrecy and participate in the war. Cathy Williams – a real-life ex-slave-turned-soldier and central character in Sarah Bird's Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen – was one of many. Three other heroes are explored below.

Harriet TubmanHarriet Tubman was a scout for the Union Army. In 1861, she volunteered under General Benjamin Butler, the only general who was a person of color. On June 2, 1863 she guided a troop of 150 Black soldiers from the Second South Carolina battalion on the Combahee River. The plan was a surprise attack on slave owners; she and Colonel James Montgomery freed 750 slaves. Tough and relentless, Tubman disguised herself and slipped in and out of the Confederate lines to get information and strategy notes, scout locations, and real-time numbers: of men dead, of men moving from one location to another, men injured and weak. But after the war Tubman was denied a pension from the U.S. Army. She learned the difficult lesson that freedom was not equality.

Mary Elizabeth BowserMary Elizabeth Bowser was part of the spy ring that was considered the most effective of the Civil War. Her code names were Ellen Bond, Mary Jones or Mary Dane Richards. Bowser's talent was a photographic memory. Word for word, she memorized entire passages from memos and documents she came in contact with. She pretended to be an illiterate slave and worked as a servant in the Confederate White House under Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis spoke about war strategy in her presence, assuming she was both loyal and dumb. Even when President Davis knew of a White House leak, he never suspected Bowser and she was able to insert herself in private spaces, getting access to troop movement, locations, Union prisoners, strategies, reports, and moods. She gave the information to Union military and then escaped the South at the end of the war. 130 years after the Civil War ended Mary Elizabeth Bowser was inducted into the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Mary Louvestre, a seamstress in Norfolk, Virginia, overheard plans for the damaged USS Merrimack to be rebuilt as the CSS Virginia, which would greatly increase the capacity of the Confederate Army at sea. Mary was bold and fearless. She stole a copy of the plans and got permission to visit her previous "owners." (The historical record is unclear but some sources say she had bought her freedom through money from her sewing.) But she went to Fredericksburg instead, and a military guard escorted her to Washington D.C. where she delivered the plans to Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. Her papers included notes from the mechanic who described the vessel and when it was to be completed. It motivated the Union to get their warship, the USS Monitor, into construction. The USS Monitor battled the Merrimack in support of the Union Army. Welles offered Louvestre employment in the North but she preferred to return to Norfolk.

Harriet Tubman, Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Mary Louvestre - and other women like them - who had both the most to lose and the most to gain, turned their back on fear to help win freedom for themselves and for those born long after they perished.

Cathay Williams illustration by William Jennings
Harriet Tubman
Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Valerie Morales

This "beyond the book article" relates to Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen. It originally ran in October 2018 and has been updated for the February 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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