Mary Louvestre (1812-1883) was a woman of extraordinary courage and determination who lived in Southside Hampton Roads, Virginia during the American Civil War. She was a spy for the Union Army, risking her own life to help the cause.
1812: Mary Louvestre is born
1861: The American Civil War begins
1862: Louvestre begins her service as an Ironclad Spy for the Union Army. She is tasked with scouting out Confederate positions and gathering intelligence on the enemy.
1863: Louvestre is captured by Confederate forces, but manages to escape.
1865: The American Civil War ends
1883: Mary Louvestre dies at the age of 71. She is remembered for her bravery and service to the Union cause.
Civil War spy setting: 0:11
Who was Mary Louvestre?: 1:40
Historic marriage chapel: 2:38
Louvestre boarding hosue: 3:21
How a black woman spied for the Union: 3:48
After the war: 7:05
Louvestre burial site?: 7:31
William H. Lyons grave: 8:13
Episode 98 – Ironclad Spy
Jenn: Join us today as we talk about the Civil War Ironclad Spy from Norfolk, Virginia.
I’m Jen of Walk With History, and today I’m real excited to tell you about the story of Mary Lou Vestry because she is a woman of color. Who takes her agency upon herself during the Civil War to deliver the plans for the CSS Virginia, the ironclad to Washington dc and she does it from Norfolk, Virginia across as the shipyard, uh, where the CSS Virginia was made.
Uh, this was the Gospel shipyard. It’s now the Portmouth Naval Shipyard, but over here you have Norfolk on this side, and then you have Portmouth on this side. Separated by this waterway and right across here is where the ironclad was built. Now, God Sports Shipyard was a union held shipyard, and when, uh, the Confederates were coming in, they burned everything at the shipyard and they burned the Merrimack down to the waterline.
Well, they were able, when the Confronter took over the shipyard, they were able to salvage their Merrimack, and that is what is gonna become the ironclad css Virginia. They’re gonna build it. From that water line up, they were able to salvage what was left of the ship and use it to reinforce with iron plates and make it the first ironclad of the Confederacy.
When Mary makes her way to Washington, DC she, she makes her way in February of 1862 and she’s able to get in front of the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon. So who is Mary Lou Vestry? Who is this woman? This is such a strong woman. I am super impressed by who? So she’s born Mary Ogilvy in 1812 in Norfolk, Tolu and Suki.
Ogilvy Lewis was a free mulatto from French San Domingo, and Suki was a free African American woman from York County, Virginia. So Mary is always a free woman of color, but what does that mean to be a free woman of color in. 28 in 1834. So in 1840, Norfolk has about 11,000 white and African American residents.
43% were black. The majority, 78% are enslaved. And most of the 22% who were black and free were mulatto. Uh, light-skinned French-speaking immigrants were likely elevated to a higher class and more accepted among. And the, uh, Ogilvy came to Norfolk with particular social consciousness. Behind me is 2 32 Chapel Street in downtown Norfolk, Virginia.
And this church is the basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. But in 1844, when Mary Lavery married Michael, Lavery here. Uh, it was St. Patrick’s, uh, cathedral, and this is the oldest parish community in the Richmond area. It came into existence in 1791. How pretty it is as St. Patrick’s Church and the marriage records here showed June 1st, 1844.
Michael Lavere. Mary Ogilvy, can you think of a more perfect location for Mary Lou Vestry to do her spying? Her boarding house is here at the Sheridan Waterfront, and as you can see, right across the water, right across the Elizabeth River here is the God’s Sport Shipyard, where the CSS Virginia is being built.
Is where Mary Lou Vestry had her boarding house and she ran it with her husband Michael, and they board a lot of the ship builders here across in the shipyard. And Michael also works in the shipyard here helping the Confederacy to build the css. Virginia. Michael is a tool keep in the steam engineering department, but when people come back to the boarding house, Mary is able to hear what they have to say.
She’s looking at their plans and somebody has the plan for the CSS, Virginia, and because her husband is working over here and he’s working with another union sympathizer, William H. Lyons and Lyons and Michael are both working in the STEAM department, but together they come back and bring their fellow people over to the board.
Talk about plans, have the paperwork, and Mary is able to hear all of this, be a part of all of this. And this is how she gets the plans for the CSS, Virginia, and she’s able to take that information up north to Fort Monroe. And at Fort Monroe, she’s giving a pass, a freedom pass, which are rare. Now she’s a free woman of color, but even a freedom pass in Virginia.
Confederate held Virginia to get to Washington DC and to get that information into the hands of the Secretary of the Navy.
It was a Union General Wool who was stationed at Fort Monroe in the summer of 1861, who In December. That’s who Mary visited At Fort Monroe, we have a video from Fort Monroe. It is the fort that is closest here to Norfolk. He gives her a government pass called a flag of Truces that allowed her to travel freely.
The reason for travel giving on Mary’s, Was Colored woman. Why do they use Mary as their confidant? And I think they look at Mary and she’s kind of like the least noticeable. You’re a woman, you’re, you’re not gonna stick out. You’re the least noticeable people. You’re the least on the totem pole. So honestly, you can be the best one to carry secrets.
It is estimated, it would’ve taken Mary 70 hours to make it to Washington. C and she’s able to get in front of the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells. And, um, when Mary got to Well’s office, she wouldn’t talk to anyone but him. Makes her way to dc, takes her many hours. She, people are like, well, what do you’ve got?
What’s your plans? And she’s like, no, my orders are to speak directly to the Secretary of the Navy. And she does. And when she speaks directly to the Secretary of the Navy, she pulls out. Of the css, Virginia.
So after the war, after Mary’s able to get those plans, she definitely made an impression on Wells. So he visited the area in 1868. He. Norfolk and he inquires about her. There’s letters at the Library of Congress. On September 3rd, the commander of the Naval Station, Norfolk, wrote to Wells after he had returned to Washington, and he said that he had found her.
And, uh, she was still at the shipyard. She was still running the boarding house here when Michael and Mary eventually pass away. People are an unsure of where their graves are even today, but they think they might be buried in. Catholic Cemetery. So this is the cemetery here at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, what is now the basilica of St.
Mary, and there are some graves here, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the final resting place of Mary and Michael the vestry.
So I am at the grave of William h Lions, and you can see here 18 30, 19 11. William H. Lyons is late to rest here at Magnolia Cemetery off of Lancaster Street in Norfolk, Virginia, and he becomes an informant. For Wells Secretary of Navy Wells, uh, he provides wells with the confidential information regarding the changes made to the CSS, Virginia, as well as hiss plans to attack the union vessels.
Um, William acted as an informant from December of 1861 until February of 1862 and possibly longer. He did not act alone more than one instance. He worked with a free black woman named. Lavery,
so thank you. William h. Lions. We’re honored to be here today to honor you and to uh, to visit your grave.
People like Mary Lave. Show their bravery at a time when America is in such turmoil. It’s just amazing. Thank God for people like Mary, uh, vere and her husband Michael, and for William Lyons. Thank you for watching this Walk with History. I hope you learn something about. Not only espionage, but women who are operating inside the confines of war.
I always talk about during the Civil War how it’s impacting everybody in America. It’s an American war, and it’s not just the soldiers, it’s the families, it’s the children, and it’s the women. So, uh, onto my next walk of history.