A Slave and A Spy

Good afternoon! Today’s Women’s History Month tribute is of Mary Touvestre.

Touvestre, a former slave, worked for one of the Confederate engineers transforming the USS Merrimack into the CSS Virginia. While at work, Touvestre overheard her employer discussing the ironclad and its importance to the southern war effort. Realizing the threat that the Virginia posed to the northern blockade, Touvestre stole the ship’s plans and fled to Washington, DC. Walking from Portsmouth, VA to the capital, Touvestre risked severe punishment if rebel authorities captured her with the plans. Upon arriving in Washington, DC, Touvestre gained an audience with the Department of the Navy and was able to reveal the plans to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. With this new intelligence, the Union Navy sped up the construction of its own ironclad: the USS Monitor. Some scholars believe that had not Touvestre warned Washington, the CSS Virginia would have gone unchallenged for weeks and thwarted the blockade.

To learn more about Mary Touvestre and other (African American) spies, please read “The Black Dispatches: Intelligence During the Civil War” and “Intelligence in the Civil War” by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Image Credit: Naval Historical Center’s Online Library of Selected Images.

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