Podcast Episode 54: Ironclad Spy who saved the Union – Mary Louvestre

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Mary Louveste (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.

She risked this all as a free, African American woman, at the age of 49.

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Ep54 – Ironclad Spy (Mary Louvestre)

Scott: Imagine you are living in Virginia. You were in a boarding house in the growing city of Norfolk with your spouse, and business is good with a large port so close. You get plenty of visitors day and night who come in after a long day of work at Gospel Shipyard, just across the waterway.

I had workers. Tool maintainers and men of all trades walk through your doors. And recently you’ve been hearing about this strange ship that is supposed to be made of steel. Think of it, a ship made of metal. How would that even float? And it has cannons on it too. At least that’s what those steel workers said last night.

Anyways, imagine that, but gospel is a Confederate ship here. If they have a ship like that, could the union ever stand a chance to defeat it? In 1862, the war between the union and the Confederate states of America had been going on for a year. And this is exactly the situation that Mary Louvestre found herself in.

Join us as we talk about Mary Louvestre, the Iron Cloud Spy that may have saved the union.

Welcome to Top of History. I’m your host Scott here with my wife and historian Jen. Hello. On this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels YouTube channel journey, and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there.

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Now, Jen. Obviously we’re talking about the video that just pop posted yesterday. Yeah. So, so talk a little bit about, set the stage for us on Mary Louvestre, who we’re co we’re calling the Ironclad Spy. 

Jenn: So it’s Women’s History Month and we’re kicking off Women’s History Month. Yeah. With, uh, a Union Spy, and it’s the beginning of the Civil War.

It’s 1861. and we have a woman of color living in Norfolk who is running the boarding house in Norfolk across the Elizabeth River. Right. across to the Gosport Shipyard, which today is the Norfolk Shipyard. And if you see in the video, I mean, there is naval ships actually being fixed and retrofitted and dry docked and all the things that happened to the Navy ships, um, in dock.

And so, uh, it’s a shipyard still in use today. But in April of 1861, it was undergoing a lot of changes because Virginia is gonna succeed from the union. That’s right in on April 17th, 1861, and not even three days, April 20th, 1861. Uh, the union. Is pushed out of the gospel 

Scott: shipyard. The gospel shipyard. And that’s, and that’s one thing that I, I didn’t realize because we’ve just been doing all these more civil war mm-hmm.

kind of topics recently. We just did Fort Norfolk. And Fort Norfolk is not far away. No. And Fort Norfolk was union held the entire time. No, Monroe was held. That’s what I meant for Fort Monroe. Fort Monroe. Right. It’s, it means literally just. It’s not far. Like driving wise. You could probably get from now today?

Yes. From the shipyard over to Fort Monroe. What, maybe 20, 30 minutes? Yeah, 

Jenn: definitely. But I would assume there’s no bridge. In 1861. Yeah. Like there are today. Yep. And it’s fortified as we show in the video, has a moat around it and a very small bridge 

Scott: to get across. But not, not long sale for ships at the time, not 

Jenn: long sale for.

And that’s how people basically traveled. Yeah. At the time they had a ferry. Yeah. Now Fort Norfolk, you did mention Fort Norfolk and that is another video we do as well. Uh, that was taken by the Confederacy. 

Scott: Right? And that was, that’s actually even closer. Even closer. That’s even closer cuz it’s literally, it’s almost like right across the river, basically.

Mm-hmm. . Yes. Um, but Fort Monroe is, is a little bit further away, but it’s not that far. Fort Monroe is closer basically to the ocean if it’s kind of 

Jenn: picturing in your head, which, it’s kind of interesting cuz we’re gonna talk more about Fort Monroe in, in a moment and how it’s, it never. To the Confederacy, and it’s in the southern part of Virginia, which is a Confederate state.

I mean, it’s where Technic, it’s where the capital of the Confederacy is in Richmond. It’s where Robert Lee is from. It is like a Confederate state, but you have Fort Monroe, kind of like in the southern part of it on the coast. That is always union 

Scott: health. It’s funny, you know, even as we talk about it, , uh, what pops into my head is like, you ever play risk?

Yeah. Right. When you were a kid. Mm-hmm. and there’s like, there’s very key. Spots on the board Yeah. That you wanna hold. And for the union, Fort Monroe was one of those spots. I mean, that was like, they did everything they could to, to hang onto it. It was easily defendable. Absolutely. But they did everything they could.

So we’re, we’re kind of, so we’re going, we’re, we’re veering off here. But it’s important to the story. It is. It’s important. It’s important to the story because where we are here in Norfolk Yes. You know, we basically, we kind of just get to go. Nowadays, downtown Norfolk to visit where Mary Louvestre used to live.

Jenn: So, and Mary Louvestre’s gonna use Fort Monroe as part of her plan. So we’ll get into that. April 17th, Virginia succeeds from the Union. April 20th, the Union Burns, God’s Port shipyard. So nothing goes into the Confederates hands and the ship. The Merrimack is burned down to the waterline, and so the Confederacy takes over.

God poured shipyard on April 21st, the next day, and they take that ship that is burned down to the waterline and start to reinforce it with iron. Metal, uh, 

Scott: plates, and we show a good picture, kind of like how they, 

Jenn: how they did that. And they start to build up the CSS Virginia. So the first iron clat of the Confederacy, right across that waterway, which everyone is pretty much traveling by boat at this time because there’s no bridges like we have today, 

Scott: right?

They’re taking ferries from the, from the shipyard sting back over to the boarding house. 

Jenn: Boarding house right across the waterway. On in Norfolk is a boarding house owned by a free woman of color. Mary Louvestre, and you’ll see her name as Tu Vestry. Um, and her maiden name is Ogilvy. And you’ll see other things online that she was enslaved, but she was never enslaved.

And this research was done by, um, some Norfolk librarians who were able to put together. Her mother and her father were free people of color, and they married, and Mary was their daughter. And if you remember, A child always becomes the status of the mother and a, a child of color. And since Mary’s mother was free, Mary was free.

And so she’s born in 1812 and she’s first registered as a, uh, free person of color in 1828. So she’s 16 years old. So that’s kind of like the time you registered 

Scott: somebody. And one of the things that I appreciated about you kind of making this point that she was free the whole time, which was, which was rare, but it was.

Not so rare that it was completely uncommon. Yes. You know, you talk about the population then about a, you know what, 20, 25% of the African Americans that were in living in the Norfolk area were free. Free. 

Jenn: So you have about, it’s 1840, 11,000 people living in Norfolk. 40 per 43% are African American or black.

Um, that’s about half and of that population. 22% are free. So one fourth are free. So that’s about a thousand people. So it’s not rare to be free, but it is. Very much you, you are under the social consciousness of your surroundings. You’re living in a slave state, you’re a person of color. Enslavement is, uh, predominantly is African American, so you always have to carry your, your freedom, your certificate of freedom.

That’s why she’s registered at 16 years old and you’re always carrying paperwork that proves. Freedom. 

Scott: And, and I think you even talked about, and it didn’t make the video, it just, it didn’t fit into the story she actually ended up buying mm-hmm. like a, the, essentially like a little boy. Yep. And kind of essentially she, she took him on kind of more as a, it seemed like an act of kindness.

Took him on, kind of raised him, and then gave him his freedom when he was a little bit older that didn’t make the video. But I thought that was an interesting point that you brought up. Um, even though it didn’t make the, you know, my, my editor’s 

Jenn: cut. Yeah. So in 19, She does purchase a little boy, 10 year old boy from a local doctor.

He is from the same area as her father. Her father is a French from the, uh, Caribbean Yeah. Area. And the little boy is the same, um, background. And so she feels very drawn to him and she, um, she purchases him and he does stuff around the boarding house. And then she gives him his freedom when he turns 18.

She probably did. I, you know, I, I conjured that, you know, he was, Abused in some way. Sure. And she wanted to offer, 

Scott: you know. Yeah. I thought, I thought that was interesting. And it was just kind of an interesting piece of how it kind of builds the character that is Mary Louvestre who did this very brave act.

Yes. You know, that we’re gonna discuss here in just a minute. And it speaks really to kind of her character and, and it may explain kind of a piece of her 

Jenn: motivation. Sure. And you know, we give a lot of background of. Birth because her parents are free. Again, people of color who are free in a, in slave state, so they’re operating under those social norms.

They have to be very strong. You, you have to be, yeah. They’re not even a choice. So then to raise children and stay in a slave state and, and make a life there, she has to have. Some kind of, you know, strength and someone who is a risk taker or someone who’s very sure of themselves in both parents. So she marries a gentleman who was on a Navy ship.

He was a ship steward. Yep. And, uh, They get a license for the boarding house, and together they operate the boarding house. Uh, right off the, we, we have a, a map of it. It was on Niveen Street, which is today. You see the, uh, gold star if you’re looking at, if you’re watching this live. If not, if you’re listening to this live on the podcast, it’s where the modern day Sheridan, Norfolk Waterside Hotel is.


Scott: is, it is. On the waterfront, right. You’ll see in our video, we’re walking right in front of the Sheraton That’s right on the waterfront right there. And we literally turn around and, and the Elizabeth River is 

Jenn: right there. Yes. So they basically can see them building the ironclad. So not only is the boarding house, like they’re watching them build the ironclad, but.

Mary’s husband, Michael Lou Vestry, who we talk about their marriage in 1844, and we talk about the church that they’re married in. We talk about that for two reasons. One, there is primary source document that supports their marriage. Yep. Which is a great fine for her historian. So we wanna, you know, recognize that because there’s, there’s the marriage 

Scott: records in the church.

Jenn: Yes. But for a person of color to get married in 1840, um, they’re actually married in 1844. , that’s also rare because people don’t, at the time, don’t wanna recognize that people of color can do that. Right. Can do that kind of status of marriage. And at some points people still use her maiden name cuz they don’t wanna give her the status of a married 

Scott: woman.

Yeah. Her maiden name is Ogilvie Ogilvie. 

Jenn: Right. But, uh, Lu Vestry, uh, is her Mary name. So Michael Lure, who owns the boarding house with Mary, actually works at the shipyard. And he works in the STEAM department. He’s a tool. Uh, the steam engineering department, he’s a, actually takes care of the tools. Yeah.

Tool maintainer. Yeah. Tool keeper. Yeah. And he works with another union, sympathizer. William Lyons. Mm-hmm. . And we actually go to William Lyons’s grave. So they’re working together in the steam department of the css, Virginia, uh, ship building. And they’re coming back over to the boarding. With other ship builders and people who are building and they’re discussing changes or plans or technology updates, and they’re pulling out blueprints and they’re pulling out plans.

And Mary Louvestre is a part of all of this. She’s part of watching this. She’s part of gathering the information and. It’s between them that they decide that she is the safest person to bring this information to the union. Yeah, 

Scott: and it, I, it’s interesting to me, and I don’t know if there’d be any documentation that would kind of speak to whether or not they, like, before this started happening, they already kind of knew like, Hey, we’re on the side of the union, or they were just kind of like there living.

And then this opportunity arose and. They had that conversation amongst themselves and said, Hey, we should probably get this to the side that we believe in. Mm-hmm. , which ultimately something like that happened because they ended up doing it. Yes.

Jenn: Like I said, April 21st, April 20th, it’s burned. April 21st. Uh, the shipyard’s taken over by the Confederacy 1861. It. Very long. It’s summer of 1861 where Mary Louvestre goes to Fort Monroe for the first time and meets General Wool and says, I’m privy to information. I’m privy to. Shipbuilders of the, of an ironclad.

And, but I want people to understand this is new technology for ship building. No one’s done this really iron on the side of a ship and it’s not gonna sink. Like it’s, it’s unheard of. And so this is, this is important intel. I can’t even distress like it is when people think of the civil war and ship technology.

It’s the battle of the Ironclads that changes 

Scott: the world. Yeah. And, and we talk about that in our ironclad video. Like th this was kind of a, a seminal moment for the globe, for the globe, for everybody. 

Jenn: Ship building changes in that moment. Right? And so this, this espionage, this secret that she has is like top tier secret, right?

And so she goes to general rule in the summer and tells him I have this information. So by December he gives her a. And he gives her a pass to travel. So if you can imagine in the Civil War, Virginia is Confederate state. Fort Monroe is a union fort and he’s giving her a pass to travel through the state.

And so they did this during the Civil War because it’s America, it’s still operating. Yeah. And so people 

Scott: still need to live and trade still kind of happened a little bit. It’s 

Jenn: called a flag of truths. Yep. And people could use it to travel to see family. Uh, cuz you know, brother versus brother and really the most unassuming person that people don’t think are doing anything is women.

And mostly colored women. So she is the perfect person 

Scott: for Espina. And, and this is, this is another place where you kind of point out the accurate details where as I was searching online and we encourage folks listening and those, watching the live stream, you know, you have to be careful about when you search up online because the first couple hits in Google when you, when you look up, her name is old kind of.

Blogs or, or posts or something like that. And they’re incorrect when they say like she was given a pass to go visit her old master. She never had an old master. So that’s not accurate. Yeah. So you have to be careful when you’re doing this kind of research and that’s one of the things that I think that you bring to the channel and that you bring to this podcast is a historian who does thorough research and that, and that’s important because, um, some of the stuff that you dug a little bit, and obviously you weren’t looking at the primary source document.

Yourself, but you found the, the articles about, about other historians who found those 

Jenn: documents and there and, uh, general Wolf’s paper still exists at Fort Monroe. Yeah. And that tra travel, that flag of Truce Travel Pass still exists. Oh, I didn’t know that. And his reason for her traveling. Is colored woman.

Right. So he doesn’t even have a reason. . Right. Really like, I don’t know if he even expects someone to look at it. , they, they 

Scott: probably don’t. And, and then, and you bring that up on the video, she’s the perfect spy. Unassuming, no one’s gonna like, really, 

Jenn: what’s this lady doing? 

Scott: And you know, and one of the things that clicked for me, and I don’t even think it had clicked for you, but in, when I was looking at the timeline, she was 50 when she did this.

Jenn: Yeah. Cuz she’s born in 1912. So she’s like 49. Yeah, she’s, so, she’s, I mean, 18, 

Scott: 12. Yeah. 1812. So yeah, she’s, she’s 49. About to turn 50,000. 50. I mean, that’s, that’s pretty wild, right? So here’s, here’s a woman who’s, you know, black at the time, even though she’s free, also being a woman, also being a bit older, obviously nobody’s gonna be like, oh yeah, there’s a union spy over there.

That’s not 

Jenn: what they’re thinking. They’re not, but they’re thinking. There is the chance, if she is captured, what do you think the future holds for her? She would be immediately enslaved. That’s a great point. By the south, like if she is caught and found to be a union spy, which I don’t even know if they would give her that agency, but they would just, they would just.

Make her enslave her. And so she’s risking her freedom doing this. She’s risking her life doing this. So in December, she gets the, the pass from General Wool at Fort Monroe, and she actually makes the trip February of 1862, so about two months later. Wintertime, usually a lot of battles aren’t going on in the wintertime.

People are traveling. It’s not crops in the field, and so she makes it up to Washington DC So we show Norfolk to DC is 70 hours for her to travel by foot by boat. By wagon. 70 hours, she gets up to Washington, DC and she only will speak to the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, nobody else. So imagine woman of color walking into Gideon Wells’ office and all the people between him and her secretaries, chief of.

You know, people are like, oh, just give it to me. Just give it to me. No, she refuses. A woman of color refuses every white. And says, no, I’m gonna speak directly to Secretary of 

Scott: the Navy. It’s not like she just kind of walked in with nothing. She did have the, the pass from the general, from the general rule, but that’s all she had.

That’s all she has. She’s not showing anything else. And, and back then, most would expect her to be like, oh yeah, here’s the secret thing that I’m carrying. Please deliver it to the Secretary of the Navy. And she said, absolutely not. 

Jenn: Absolutely not. I need to speak to him. Right. She’s not even telling him what she has, just that she needs to speak to him directly.

And because no one knows what she has. She gets right in front of him and when she gets in front of him from her dress. From her dress, like all the petty coats, she pulls out the blueprints of the CSS, Virginia. So it’s, it’s that moment that she has everything. This is what they’re building, this is what it looks like.

This is the technology that you’re using. Any updates they’re making, she has all of it. She leaves such an impression on wells, and we talk about this, that when he comes back to Norfolk in 1868, after the war, he inquires about her. Where’s that woman that came to see me? 

Scott: Yeah. I think he wrote a letter to like a, a local military official Yes.

In the Norfolk area. To check on her. To 


Jenn: on her. He wanted, he wanted to find 

Scott: her, couldn’t find her. And the, and the local official, like to kind of tracked her down, he’d like, Hey, I found her. So he, so there’s, there’s correspondence. Yeah. Spread again, those, those letters. That’s the library of Congress.

Yeah. Those letters exist as well. And so they’re like, oh, hey, I found her. And so I think he, she’s still at the boarding house, right. So I think he, didn’t he come to visit? Did he come to visit her? Is that right? He, he came down 

Jenn: to Norfolk and tried to find her and couldn’t. Okay. And that’s when. The letter.

Can someone find her? Mm-hmm. , and then they find her and let him know that she’s okay. But this is 1862. This is February of 1862. The Battle of the Ironclads is going to happen, uh, March 8th and ninth of 1862. So really it’s like a month later. 

Scott: So, yeah, so they take these plans, they’re like, Hey, go . 

Jenn: Can you show the, show the picture of the ironclad?

So if you’re watching, um, this live and I’ll talk about it. The Virginia is, you can see how it’s built above the water line. It’s kind of, looks like they have stacked metal leaned in against each agenda. It’s almost like a tent feature and they have candidates coming out of the monitor is quite different.

The monitor real, the metal doesn’t really. Go above the water line, except for one kind of round, I think it’s almost like a turt, right? That’s up there with a, a gun that goes 360. So it makes the monitor, in my opinion, harder to hit because it’s so flat and the Virginia is a little bit easier. It’s more of a target since it’s out of the water.

But this is what the two ironclads look like. And if you know anything about the Battle of the Ironclads, the, the css, Attacks first, and it’s attacking union ships that are wooden and they are just foundering and one of them kind of runs 

Scott: the ground. . Yeah. It’s basically save itself. It basically just kind of rolls through and like mows ’em all down.


Jenn: And run runs the ground to save itself. And this Virginia goes back to Fort Norfolk for the night and that ship stays, it’s, it’s burning and it stays lit, but they’re able. Uh, word up to DC that they have released their ironclad. And so the monitor comes down the coast and that’s why they say the battle is March 8th and ninth.

The monitor makes it down that night and it sees the fire of that ship that has run a ground. Yeah. And the Virginia is coming back to kind of end that ship. It took them, you know, went back for the night rested. It’s coming back in the morning to kind of end the people and that ship. Obliterate that ship and it, that’s when it meets the 

Scott: monitor.

Yeah. And, and if you ever, uh, we show it briefly on this video mm-hmm. . And if you go back and watch our Battle of the Iron Clouds video, we show it a lot in a little bit longer, a little more detail. Like, I mean, these, these ships are circling around each other for hours and hours and hours. It’s like you keep trying to shoot each other and cannonballs are bouncing off and they’re not doing anything, and they’re like, this is brand new.

Jenn: We don’t know how to do this. So it’s, it’s kind of like a stalemate, right? I think it’s like for three hours they chase each. Back and forth and all around. And both of ’em are firing. Both of, uh, their, you know, artillery is, is bouncing off of the metal. And we say that this is such a, a world experience because people are watching this battle.

Yeah. And it just, the word just travels this, these ships are invincible. Yeah. And so ship building, this is when I used can in the picture, you’ll, you see an old wooden ship in the background cuz it really is. That’s it. , they don’t make wooden ships anymore. It’s done. Now all ships are gonna be metal from here on out.

Uh, as and today, military ships are all metal as today. So that, this is the moment that does that without those plans from Mary Louvestre, and of course William Lyons and of course Michael Louvestre, who risked their lives to get them. The union would not have been prepared for that. It would not have known what they were doing or what they were making.

And so it was just, it’s so paramount in that moment that it, it really was a, a secret that really saved the union and in that regard, and in 

Scott: that battle. Yeah. It was really just such an incredible story and it, it was. It’s a fun one to make because that’s, that’s a, that’s an exciting story, right? That’s, that’s a successful, exciting story.

And again, from, from a production standpoint, which is what I like to talk about, because I don’t know the history, but from a production standpoint, it’s fun to make, right? You kind of get to pick the music and kind of set the mood and kind of increase the, the intensity. And then at the end you show the, the pictures, you know, that we’ve all seen in, in history books and stuff like that of the Battle of the Ironclads, and yes.

The reason there was a battle of the Ironclads is because of 

Jenn: what she did. Because of what she did. And it’s a woman. It’s a woman who, who did this. And not only just a woman, but a woman of color that did this. And I think. For anybody to kind of, uh, foil the Confederacy. Yeah. Not only a, a woman but a person of color to do it.

It just makes me very proud. And we always talk about, um, peop you know, history people, what’s happening to. , everyone in time when a war is happening and the Civil War. We do talk about the battles and we do go to the battlefield, but we want to remind you it’s not just impacting soldiers, it’s impacting families, it’s impacting children, it’s impacting women, and every American is gonna be touched by the Civil War since it is a war of America.

For a woman to do this, For me, I, I just admired her so much. I wanted more of the truth of her story to come out. And it’s being researched slowly. Uh, and like I said, there’s more primary sources that are being uncovered, but I think she needs to get credit for what she has done. And, uh, and we, we were just really proud to bring her 

Scott: story.

Yeah, it again, it was, it was super fun. If you haven’t watched the video, go, go check out the video. Um, if you’re listening to the podcast, I will absolutely link to that video in this podcast notes. So bravery comes in all forms, but in 1862, during the. Thick of the Civil War. Mary Louvestre displayed the most classic version of bravery, the kind that stories are told of throughout history, taking on a secret spy mission for something that she believed in a cause that was bigger than herself and more important than her livelihood as a free black woman living in Virginia, if she hadn’t made it to the Secretary of Navy, Gideon Wells.

Would the union have ever ma made the u s s monitor? Could they have defeated the Confederate? See without this revolutionary steel ship building is this one act, the one that turned the tide of the Civil War. Luckily, we have Mary Louvestre’s actions to thank for accomplishing that vital mission for the union and possibly for the board itself.

Now if you enjoyed this podcast, you may like our past episode that we talked about on Battle of the Ironclads and our upcoming episode about the Confederate Spy Rose Greenhouse, whose work was credited for the South’s success at the first Battle of Bull Run. So thank you for listening to the Talk with History podcast.

If you know someone else that might enjoy this podcast, please share it with them. We rely on you, our community to grow, and we appreciate you all every. We’ll talk to you next time. Thank you.

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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