New research reveals a more complete, complex life story of Civil War spy Mary Louveste

A diagram of the CSS Virginia, with details that Mary Louveste might have relayed to the Secretary of Navy to help the Union win the war. The document was photographed at the Slover Library in Norfolk on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.


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 Norfolk, Va., during the Civil War. She got her hands on details of the Confederates’ armored ship and smuggled them to Washington and Union authorities.

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 Ebony magazine article describes her as Louvestre, an enslaved woman who took the last name of her “kindly” masters. Her owner was a supplier at the Portsmouth shipyard where the CSS Virginia was being built. Mary got into his office and copied the plans. The story was make-believe, but many have read it as fact.

Reenactments and books love painting Mary as slogging for days through frigid weather in her journey to Washington. To that, one Newport News educator says, “B.S.”

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 African American women. She died with money. She also might have had a hand in furthering the cause of freedom more than history previously knew.

The Louvestes

The myths of Mary all start with one real fact — a letter from U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. In his 1872 dispatch, Welles recalled that Mary came to his office in the winter of 1861-62 “at no small risk” to bring him information about the enemy ship.

Troy Valos is a special collections librarian with the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Slover Library in Norfolk. Late last summer, he got a research request from a patron wanting more about Mary. Valos was stumped. Could he find her and put some flesh to history’s bare-bones? Valos, whose nickname is “The Bloodhound,” studied Welles’ letter, picking out references to Mary being a Mrs. and her unusual last name. He hit census records.

He found a Michael Louveste, a mulatto, meaning he was mixed. Michael also was a free man and from the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe. The 1850 and 1860 census showed he indeed had a wife named Mary. Valos knew the French were typically Catholic, so he checked marriage records at Norfolk’s St. Patrick’s Church, now the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Valos found the couple. They were married on June 1, 1844.

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 Louis Ogilvie, who hailed from St. Domingue, present-day Haiti. The family was probably part of the massive influx of refugees in the 1790s — whites with their enslaved, free Blacks and mulattos — following a 1791 slave revolt on the island.

Lewis married Sukey, who was born free in York County around 1778. Under Virginia law, children took on the status of their mothers. Sukey was free and so were her children.

Norfolk required free Blacks to register. Valos found the parents, Mary and three of her four siblings — Louisa, Joseph and Jane — in several of the city’s court documents, beginning in 1828. Another sister, Susan, would be born later. In 1834, Mary Ogilvie registers for the first time as a free adult. It is one of several times that she is listed as mulatto. With the documents and her ages in census records, Valos estimates her birthdate around 1812.

In 1838, a Mary Ogilvie got her first business license for “private entertainment,” which is probably a restaurant or bar, Valos said.

Meanwhile, a team of staff and volunteers at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News have had Mary on their radar for years. Lauren Furey, manager of visitor engagement, said Michael left Guadaloupe through the U.S. Navy. The Navy didn’t care about U.S. citizenship, Furey said, and Michael worked as a captain’s steward aboard the USS Vandalia. The Vandalia made frequent stops in Norfolk.

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 Portsmouth and Norfolk and Valos found references to a M. Louverte of Norfolk reporting the deaths of two children, Ophelia and Robert, on the same day. It is the only reference Valos found to a child named Robert, but he believes “M. Louverte” is Michael. He found a census report that places Susan in a Baltimore boarding school during this time.

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 Norfolk

Tommy L. Bogger, a retired archivist and professor at Norfolk State University, has traced the Louvestes off and on for decades. He was too busy teaching in the 1980s to pursue them as a project, he said. But he then talked to a contemporary who was interested and felt it was in good hands: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley, who wrote the groundbreaking “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

Haley died in 1992 and his widow, My, published the novel “The Treason of Mary Louvestre” with Virginia Beach’s Koehler Books in 2013.

Bogger has authored his own works, including “Free Blacks in Norfolk, Virginia, 1790-1860.”

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.

Bogger said Lewis Ogilvie established himself in Norfolk and developed a degree of status. Records list him as free, sometimes labeled colored or white, and owning a business as a shoe and bootmaker.

In 1840, Norfolk had about 11,000 white and African American residents of whom 43% were Black. The majority — 78% — were enslaved. Most of the 22% who were Black and free were mulatto, Bogger said. Lighter-skinned, French-speaking immigrants were likely elevated to a higher class, so to speak, and more accepted among whites. Bogger said the Ogilvies came to Norfolk with a particular “social consciousness,” too.

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 John Dodd Jr., entered into a leasing agreement with Michael for a property on Nivison Street, where the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel now sits.

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 Norfolk in 1829 and listed as mixed; at least twice he would be called a “Frenchman.” His roots are linked to refugees from St. Domingue, the same as the Olgilvies.

Valos can’t find another Mary Ogilvie in the area, so he feels certain that this Mary bought him from a white Norfolk doctor when Mark was a child. Was she drawn to him because of their similar Creole background? Were they related? Did she buy him to save him from another fate?

Bogger said it was common for free Blacks to buy the enslaved for humanitarian reasons. Virginia law also made it better for Mary to keep him enslaved. Once freed, he would have to leave the state within the year. Where would the young boy have gone?

On March 25, 1850, Mary emancipated him, though, a few weeks before he turned 21.

DeMortie headed to Massachusetts where he became a businessman and a well-known anti-slavery activist. He returned to Virginia after the war and jumped into politics. But, before then, he worked on the Underground Railroad and chanced his freedom by helping the enslaved escape. The Elizabeth River, a mere block from the Louvestes’ home, was a popular railroad station. Did he start his work there with the Louvestes? Would Mary know the untold numbers of people he would free? Was she proud of him?

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 Virginia in April 1861. Federal forces abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, burning buildings and ships in their wake. Confederate engineers moved in and picked over the remains. They started converting the Merrimac into the ironclad that they renamed the CSS Virginia.

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 William Lyons. Did Michael and Lyons conspire?

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 Virginia while it was still in Portsmouth.

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. John E. Wool, who was stationed at Fort Monroe in the summer of 1861. That December, Wool gave Mary a government pass called a “flag of truce” that allowed her to travel freely. The passes, Furey said, were commonly given when people visited family or moved about during wartime. The reason for travel given on Mary’s paper said “colored woman.”

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 Hampton Roads and Washington. Furey has done historical interpretations and has worn the bulky clothing Mary would have worn. Furey calculated it would take 70 hours just to walk to Washington, not including sleeping, resting or bad weather.

“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 Merrimac. She, by “their request,” brought a letter from a mechanic stating that it was almost done. She pulled it out of the bosom of her dress, he wrote.

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 March 9, 1862, in the Hampton Roads harbor. The battle was a draw. Three years later, the Union defeated the Confederacy, thus ending the war.

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 Library of Congress.

On Sept. 3, the commander of Naval Station Norfolk wrote to Welles after Welles had returned to Washington. He wrote that he had found the woman Welles had inquired about. Lyons, who was still at the shipyard, said it was Mary. The commander wrote, “From what I have learned of her circumstances I should suppose that any reward which her services might be thought to merit would be very acceptable.”

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 Congress by Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, who had been famously attacked in the Senate chamber for his anti-slavery stance. Sumner argued to change the law. Valos couldn’t figure out why a northern senator would help a Norfolk man. He then found the connection. DeMortie, whom Mary owned when he was younger, knew Sumner.

Two years later, a Michael “Louresta” took an oath of allegiance in Norfolk City Court.

In 1873, Mary and Michael’s daughter Susan, who had married just two years before, died. Months later, the husband, Robert Francis, died. Mary and Michael took in their grandson, Robert.

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 Nov. 8. Valos said it was surprising because the white press rarely wrote about an African American unless the person was a national figure like Frederick Douglass.

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 Nivison Street.”

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!”

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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.