New research reveals a more complete, complex life story of Civil War spy Mary Louveste
By DENISE M. WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 21, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — For more than a century, the little that has been known of Mary Louveste has been just enough to tantalize:
Mary was a Black woman living in
From that, writers filled in the gaps. A CIA report about espionage called her Mary Touvestre, a freed slave working for a Confederate engineer. It said she stole blueprints from him. That isn’t true.
A lengthy 1964
Reenactments and books love painting Mary as slogging for days through frigid weather in her journey to
Local historians have discovered the real Mary and want others to see her as she is. There are no known photos of Mary, but researchers can now paint a portrait of her that is much more compelling than any tall tale. She had children. She lost children. She was someone’s wife. She was a businesswoman when few women were, particularly
The myths of Mary all start with one real fact — a letter from
He found a Michael Louveste, a mulatto, meaning he was mixed. Michael also was a free man and from the French Caribbean colony of
The Bloodhound then picked up on another scent, Mary’s maiden name, “Ogilvy.” Valos could then look for her parents.
“So then one thing starts another starts another starts another,” Valos said. “Then there’s simple drudging through every single volume and finding all the Ogilvies or the Louvestes and you build it. Is this her? Is it not her? Is it a relative?”
Valos had much to sift through.
Deciphering 19th-century, often illegible, cursive can be migraine-inducing. Recordkeepers then weren’t known for their spelling, either. The varying names made searching databases excruciating. Valos came across at least 10 spellings including “Loureste,” “Lonest,” “Lovitt,” “Lowveste” and “Lowresle.” Her maiden name was sometimes “Ogilvie,” “Oyilvis,” “Ogilbe,” or “Ogleby.’'
This is the family cluster Valos feels pretty confident about: Mary was the daughter of a Lewis or
Lewis married Sukey, who was born free in
In 1838, a
Meanwhile, a team of staff and volunteers at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in
Like Valos, Furey has documents that show that Mary and Michael had at least two children, Susan and Ophelia.
In 1855, yellow fever tore through
Valos came across another young person tied to Mary, but back in 1838, the year she got her business.
The boy was a 10-year-old named Mark, and he was her enslaved.
Life for the Louvestes in
Haley died in 1992 and his widow, My, published the novel “The Treason of Mary Louvestre” with Virginia Beach’s
Bogger has authored his own works, including “Free Blacks in
He has an idea of what life was like for the Ogilvies, Louvestes and how Mary would have been in a position to become a spy in 1861.
Mary and Michael would have easily found each other in this insular world and Micheal had obviously made inroads with the establishment. The two men listed as witnesses on their marriage certificate are white. One of them, a
Mary and Michael for years ran a business that at times is referred to as a restaurant, bar or boarding house. It appears they lived in apartments above it.
“My only problem with that is if local whites perceived them as nonthreatening,” Bogger said, “they must have maintained some social distance between the other free Blacks and slaves.”
Still, even as privileged free Blacks, Mary and Michael surely weren’t ignorant to the realities of race.
Slave ships carrying chained men, women and children to New Orleans’ markets were within sight of their doors. State law prevented Blacks from buying alcohol to sell, Bogger said. But Michael, as a barkeeper, got the necessary three white justices of the peace to give their blessing.
Mark DeMortie was born enslaved in
Valos can’t find another
Bogger said it was common for free Blacks to buy the enslaved for humanitarian reasons.
DeMortie headed to
Valos wishes he knew. It does appear, Valos found, that DeMortie would later come to the rescue of the Louvestes.
The making of a spy
The war came to
Gosport sat just across the river from the Louvestes’ boarding house.
Valos, Bogger and Furey believe the boarding house is central to Mary’s famous deed. Shipyard workers likely stayed there, popped in and out for a bite and a drink and talked, allowing Mary, who tended the shop, to know what was going on.
“Loose lips sink ships,” Furey said.
Valos’ research showed Michael working in the steam engineering department at Gosport. Gosport also had plenty of Union sympathizers, including a machinist named
That the ironclad was being built was no secret. Newspapers were reporting that as well as other Union spies, Furey said. What the Union needed was intel on its completion and its number of cannons. The Union was building its own armored answer, the Monitor, and wanted to attack the
Mary gained someone’s confidence enough to be trusted with such a task.
“Personally, I think they looked at Mary and said you are the least scary, least noticeable person; you’re a woman, and you’re not going to stick out as a Black man traveling,” Furey said.
The Mariners’ Museum has the papers of Union Gen.
Still, Furey burst into tears when she read the document.
Furey said Mary didn’t have to sew plans into her skirts or get secret societies to hide her, nothing as dramatic as stories have described. She likely put the letter in her bag and hopped on a boat that traveled regularly between
“It’s 12 hours by steam-powered boat,” Furey said.
Mary got to Welles’ office and wouldn’t talk to anyone but him. That took nerve on Mary’s part and Welles had to take that seriously, Furey said.
Welles wrote another account of Mary’s visit beyond that 1872 letter. He explained that a “Negro woman” and “others” had closely watched the work upon the
The Union’s Monitor was nowhere close to being finished. The sneak attack was out of the question.
The “Battle of the Ironclads” commenced on
But Mary and Michael appeared to be having their own battle.
After the war
Mary apparently made an impression on Welles. According to a letter, he visited the area in 1868 and asked about her. Valos found a trove of Welles’ letters at the
Valos was shocked when he read further. He found a letter written by Mary, the day after the commander’s letter.
“I take this opportunity to tender you my sincere thanks for thus remembering my humble efforts to serve ‘Our Navy’ and rescue its ‘heroic defenders,’ she wrote. “In reply to your enquiries (sic) respecting my whereabouts, I must inform you that I am still living in this city, and would have written to you ere (sic) this concerning my circumstances (which are bordering on complete destitution) but delicacy prevented me from appealing directly to the Government for relief, emboldened by your kindness I now venture to say that any assistance which your kindness may suggest will be kindly and gratefully received by, Your humble servant, Mary Louveste.”
Valos and Furey are still trying to find what she received. Furey is sure she received something.
City records show Mary and Michael continued to hold a hotel license. Valos found that Michael in 1869 applied for citizenship, but the law only allowed free whites to become citizens. His petition was presented in
Two years later, a Michael “Louresta” took an oath of allegiance in
In 1873, Mary and Michael’s daughter Susan, who had married just two years before, died. Months later, the husband,
Michael died in 1880. A blurb in The Norfolk Virginian stated he died at home, 4\u00bd o’clock in the a.m., in the “64th year of his age.”
Then, three years later, the newspaper ran a story on
But its headline read: “Death of a Respected Old Colored Woman.”
“Mary Louveste, an old and respectable colored woman, was found dead in her bed on yesterday morning in her house at the corner of Newton’s Lane and
The article mentioned her late husband as it went on: “the two always bore excellent characters (sic) and stood well in the community by reason of their thrift and polite bearing. ... The old woman possessed some property and recently sold her house for upwards of $2,000. Efforts were lately made to get her to go to the hospital to spend the rest of her days, but she refused to go.”
Valos said it seemed a satisfactory end to a full life. He will continue searching for more of Mary.
“She was a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a successful businesswoman, a free woman of color and a patriot,” Valos said. “Mary must have had a spine of steel to overcome the obstacles she faced and do the remarkable things she did in her life. I consider her to be the indomitable Mary Louveste!”
Special collections librarian Troy Valos poses for a portrait in the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Slover Library in Norfolk on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. During the pandemic, Valos has been researching Mary Louveste, a free Black woman who smuggled Confederate plans for the CSS Virginia to the Union.
HANNAH RUHOFF, THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT/TNS