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For over a century, not much was known about Mary Louveste other than she was Black and she helped the Union. There are no known photos of the woman. Some called her a spy. Many stories have been told about her, some fabricated.
The truth starts with a letter from U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that reveals Louveste brought him information about an enemy ship in the winter of 1861-62. Local researchers, including librarian Troy Valos, Lauren T. Furey, and Norfolk State University Professor Tommy L. Bogger, discovered new information about this so-called spy.
Mary Louveste was born Mary Ogilvie in Norfolk City, Virginia, about 1812. She was the daughter of freed slaves. Since the city required free Blacks to register, she went before Norfolk City’s Hustings and Corporation Court to register as a free mulatto adult for the first time on Sept. 24, 1834.
In 1844, Mary met and married Michael Louveste. They had two children who apparently died during the spread of yellow fever in 1855. However, records reveal another name attached to Mary in 1838, Mark DeMortie. He was born in Norfolk in 1929 as an enslaved child of mixed race. Mary purchased him in 1838, freeing him in 1850 before his 21st birthday.
After his emancipation, DeMortie moved to Massachusetts and became a successful businessman heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement. After the war, he returned to Norfolk and entered the world of politics. However, before he began his political career, he worked with the Underground Railroad. The Elizabeth River was a popular railroad station located just a block from the Louveste home. Was Mary working with the young man she emancipated?
Mary Louveste’s Hometown Fell to the Confederacy
The Confederacy came to Norfolk in 1861. As a result, the Union abandoned the Gosport Naval Yard in Portsmouth, burning most of the compound before their retreat. The naval yard was across the river from the Louveste boarding house.
Confederate soldiers rebuilt Gosport and focused on the remodeling of the USS Merrimack. They used the steam frigate’s ironclad base to create the CSS Virginia. Historians believe that some of the workers who spent their days in the shipyard stayed in the Louveste boarding house, where Mary overheard interesting and valuable conversations.
Records show that Michael Louveste worked in the shipyard’s steam engineering plant. He became friends with William Lyons, one of the machinists and a Union sympathizer. These men likely conspired to find the information helpful to the Union, which was developing its ironclad ship called the Monitor.
The information they gathered about the CSS Virginia contained details of armament and the expected completion date. It is believed that Mary was given the task of delivering this information by General John E. Wool while stationed at Fort Monroe in the summer of 1861.
In December, Union General Wool gave Mary a government pass called a “flag of truce,” which guaranteed her free passage during the war. The reason for her travel was listed as “colored woman.”
Controversy Over How the Blueprints Arrived in Washington
Contrary to tales about Mary Louveste, historians do not believe that she walked to Washington, which would have required 70 hours of arduous travel, not including eating and sleeping. Instead, many think that she traveled 12 hours by steamboat.
Little secrecy was needed because she was a Black woman who posed no threat to the Confederate cause. In February 1862, Mary delivered the plans for the CSS Virginia directly to Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, where she gave him the blueprints of the CSS Virginia and other intelligence about the ship.
The Union planned a surprise attack on the CSS Virginia before the ship was completed. However, the timing ruined their plans. The blueprints revealed weaknesses in the Confederate vessel, and in March 1862, they fought to a standoff. The CSS Virginia destroyed two Union ships before running aground near Hampton Roads.
U.S. Navy Secretary Welles Asks About Mary
When Welles traveled to the Naval Station Norfolk in 1868, he inquired about Mary. The commander at the base wrote him after finding her. On September 3, he 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.
Historians have yet to discover what type of reward, if any, was offered to Louveste. After learning of Welles’ interest in her well-being, and his desire to express his gratitude, she wrote the following 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.’ 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.
Michael died on Jan. 4, 1880.
Three years later, on November 8th, the Norfolk Virginian newspaper, which rarely wrote about Black Americans, displayed a headline, “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.”
America could use more real patriots like the men and the one courageous woman in this story.
Contributed by James Turnage
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
The Virginian Pilot: Who was Civil War spy Mary Louveste? New research reveals a more complete, complex life story. By Denise M. Watson
Local Wiki: Southside Hampton Roads; Louveste, Mary (Abt. 1812-1883)
Featured and Top Image by Defense Visual Information Distribution Service Courtesy of PICRYL – Public Domain License
First Inset Image by Library of Congress Courtesy of PICRYL – Public Domain License
Second Inset Image by The British Library Courtesy of Wikimedia – Public Domain License
Third Inset Image by Erik Heyl for the U.S. Navy Courtesy – Wikimedia – Public Domain License