Mary Touvestre: Civil War Intelligence

Red and Black Ink, LLC.  Civil War

Some 200,000 African Americans served in the Civil War as soldiers and sailors, but not much is known about the many men and women who provided intelligence to the Union, during the war.  Mary Touvestre was one such person. 

Mary Touvestre was a free (formerly enslaved) housekeeper of a Confederate engineer, during the Civil War.  Before the war, the U.S. Navy had a significant naval base in Norfolk, VA.  When the war began, the military ordered the destruction of ships in that base, so that they wouldn't fall into enemy hands.

Not all of the ships, however, were completely destroyed and Confederate forces were able to salvage enough of the USS Merrimack to begin rebuilding that ship.  The plan was to turn the Merrimack into the first Confederate ironclad.

An ironclad was a ship outfitted with iron and steel, which made it easier for the ship to ram a wooden ship and this obviously made it more difficult for an ironclad to be destroyed.

At the time, the United States had set up a blockade that prevented much needed supplies from getting to cities like Richmond and Norfolk. 

Mary Touvestre worked for one of the engineers who was refurbishing the Merrimack into the ironclad, the Virginia.  She overheard him talk about the ironclad and realized what that might mean.  If the ironclad was successful, it could ram through the wooden ships of the Union blockade and allow needed supplies to be brought through.  It could also give the Confederacy a significant advantage at sea, since there were no other such ships patrolling the waters.

This engineer brought a copy of the ship’s plans home to work on them.  Mary Touvestre took a copy of his plans and brought them to Washington, D.C.


This was a dangerous trip of espionage—a black woman carrying secret Confederate blueprints and plans to Washington, by way of Virginia.  She did it, despite the danger she faced.

It is unclear how she made it, but when she arrived in D.C., she asked for a meeting with the Department of Navy.  They looked at her plans and heard what she described about the progress of the ship.  Officials then decided to speed up the construction of their own ironclad (which was underway, but not nearly as far along as the Confederate ship), the USS Monitor.

In what became one of the most famous naval battles of the Civil War the Virginia and the USS Monitor met in combat. 

On March 8, 1862 the Virginia (the Confederate ship) launched a surprise attack on several U.S. ships.  In just under an hour it sank the USS Cumberland and later damaged the USS Congress.  It then attacked the USS Minnesota before stopping the assault, because of darkness. 

That night, March 8th, the USS Monitor arrived and sailed into place.  At about 7:30 am, when the battle ensued, the Monitor went out to meet the Virginia as it came back to finish off the Minnesota.  

The two ships met and for hours they fired upon each other...neither one doing enough damage to sink the other.  The battle ended in a draw and the Virginia was not able to break the U.S. blockade.  This battle, called the "Battle of Hampton Roads", was the first time two ironclad ships met in such a contest and it paved the way for the construction of iron ships for use in war.  

Mary Touvestre’s remarkable courage was a very important part of this story.

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Central Intelligence Agency.  “Black Dispatches:  Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War.”  Accessed 1-2016.

Central Intelligence Agency. Intelligence in the Civil War.  Public Affairs, Central Intellegence Agency:  Washington, D.C., 2007.

CWSAC Battle Summaries:  Hampton Roads.  The American Battlefield Protection Program.  Accessed 1-2016.

NOAA. Battle of Hampton Roads.  USS Monitor:  Preserving a Legacy.  National Ocean Service. Accessed January 2016.

Danita Smith