A Tale From the Richmond Underground NYC Midnight 2019 Round #1

First round of this crazy contest from NYC Midnight! We are given a random category, setting and object. Then have 48 hours to write a short story of no more than 1000 words. Stories are then given points on execution. This round I was assigned a Spy story in a hospital cafeteria with a bowling ball. The following is what my mind concocted. For my efforts I was awarded 14 out of 15 points. I’m not so much bragging, as am delightfully shocked.

The thing I love about this contest is, aside from the creative challenge, you have the opportunity to learn something you never thought needed learning. This story lead me down a wonderful rabbit hole of uncelebrated female empowerment and spy-mastery during the Civil War. I am now 100% hooked on learning as much about these woman and those like them that I can. Who knows, maybe a novel or a script will come out of it.

We never know when lightning will strike. When it does, one can only hope there is a pen in hand. Metaphorically speaking, of course.



A servant in the home of the President of the Confederacy, brings vital information to a Union spy master. Based on real events.

Mornings were crisp in Richmond, Virginia, September 1862. Mary woke before the sun, lit the fire in the large iron stove and scrubbed the floor, before the cook waddled in to the kitchen. From there, she performed a series of household duties taking her to every room in the mansion. There was not a corner this servant didn’t know.

Later, while Mary served Mrs. Varina Davis and a consortium of ladies tea, a messenger brought an important missive for Mr. Jefferson Davis. As the man was not home, it was given to Mrs. Davis, who gave it to Mary to place in the President’s office.

“Is that wise?” a consortium member asked.

“Oh, Adelaide,” Varina scoffed. “Don’t be silly. That colored girl cannot read. Can you Jane?”

“No, ma’am.”

The misplaced moniker was intentional on Mary’s part, everyone in the household knew her as such. For Mary was a servant with a secret. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a spy.

Mary-cum-Jane curtsied, took the envelope — and the silver tea pot.

“Shall I refresh this, ma’am?” she asked.

Mrs. Davis nodded.

While walking the length of the hall, Mary steamed the envelope open over the spout.

Addressed to the President of the Confederate States, the letter was from none other than General Robert. E. Lee, bearing news of troop conditions within the Maryland Campaign.

Mary committed the information to memory, resealed the envelope with a brushstroke of glue and left it, as commanded, on the President’s desk.

That night she snapped a straw from a broom, and using milk as ink wrote down — word for word — the General’s letter invisibly on a slip of paper pilfered from Mrs. Davis’s secretaire.

The Union would most certainly benefit. 

Two days later, Sunday, with the copied letter tucked in the hidden seam of her apron, Mary — as was her habit — walked the length of Broad Street to spend the Lord’s Day in the kitchens of the newly established Chimborazo Hospital. A place where confederate soldiers could get the best of care and Mary could deliver information.

Chimborazo, akin to a small city, bustled with medical chaos. It was not a field hospital, but used for rehabilitation. Men were encouraged to spend their time outdoors as Dr. McCaw, the surgeon-in-chief, believed fresh air was paramount to recovery. Mary passed a group of soldiers engaged in a rousing game of nine-pins on the bowling green, then navigated the main buildings with expertise. She entered the largest kitchen and was immediately put to work in the hospital’s cafeteria. She was met by Mrs. Flora Stuart, a tight woman who greeted Mary with nothing more than a sharp look. 

“Set to wiping the tables,” she barked. “The men arrive shortly.”

Soldiers, who were not bed ridden, took their meals here. The room was airy and bright. Sturdy pine tables, flanked by long benches, stood in military formation the length of the room. At the end of each table space was made for those confined to wheeled chairs. Meals were served on heaping trays placed in the middle of the tables. Should a man need aid in cutting his meat or lifting his glass, well bred Virginian wives and daughters were always available to do so. Mary and her ilk were never allowed such graces, as they were simply pairs of hands to be ordered about.

Mary joined the other colored women cleaning tables. White women worked behind them placing plates, linen napkins and silverware. One, a wealthy spinster, known for her dedication to the wounded, a Ms. Elizabeth Van Lew, walked behind Mary at a table at the far side of the room.

Keeping her eyes on the table, Ms. Van Lew asked, “What news, Jane?”

At the sound of her voice, Mary felt the illicit letter jump.

“Only Miss,” Mary said placing a hand on her apron, “that the milk has soured.”

Ms. Van Lew dropped a napkin on the floor.

“Pick that up,” she said.

Mary bent to the floor, slipped the letter from her apron and quickly tucked it within the folds of the linen.

As she went to stand and hand the napkin back to Ms. Van Lew, chaos erupted in the hall. A soldier, no older than sixteen chased by several orderlies, burst in to the room. The boy was a sight. A long scar stretched along his cheek, around his head and to the nape of his neck. An image made worse as a crater the size of a man’s fist was imbedded in the side of his skull. The damage did nothing to slow the lad down, however. He easily leapt over two tables and came crashing in to Mary, knocking her down and sending the napkin and paper flying.

The boy bellowed and held a wooden ball over his head in victory.

Dr. McCaw rushed in.

“William! That is not the way to play nine pins,” he said. “May I have it back?”

“Mine,” William growled, then leapt over three tables and dashed out the kitchen.

Mary stayed on the floor throughout the melee, her eyes focused on the letter which had settled in the middle of the room beyond her reach — right at Mrs. Stuart’s feet.

For all the world to see, it was just a blank piece of paper. But a swipe over a candle flame would reveal the truth. A truth that would lead directly to Mary, and then to the end of a hangman’s rope.

Fortunately, just as Mrs. Stuart bent to grab it, Ms. Van Lew swept the paper up.

“There it is,” she said. “Captain Murphy asked me to scribe a letter to his mother. Poor thing fell asleep three words in. We’ll finish on the morrow.”

Ms. Van Lew, who would later be remembered as the head of one of the largest Union spy rings of the war, tucked the paper in her pocket, and resumed setting the table.

“Get up Jane,” she said. “We have work to do.”