Confederate Spies: Belle Boyd

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South
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Belle BoydBelle Boyd is perhaps the best known Confederate spy of the American Civil War. Her career was primarily in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In fact, the majority of her work was done in her father’s hotel in Front Royal, Virginia from the start of the war until her arrest on July 29, 1862. Contemporaries noted that “without being beautiful, she is very attractive…quite tall…a superb figure…and dressed with much taste.”

Isabella Marie Boyd was born in Martinsburg, Virginia on May 9, 1843 (several biographies say 1844), the eldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd. She would later describe her childhood as idyllic, surrounded by siblings and cousins. She was a bit of a tomboy and reported that she climbed trees and took part in other unfeminine activities.

In 1856, at the age of 13, Belle was sent to Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore. After four years of education, her parents arranged a debut in Washington, where she filled the role of a fun-loving debutante. After this she returned to Front Royal and her parent’s hotel in the Shenandoah Valley town.

Front Royal was a small railroad town along the Alexandria, Orange and Manassas Gap Railroad. As such it became an important location for both armies to hold.

Her first encounter with the war took place in either Front Royal or Martinsburg, depending on the account. Union troops had occupied the area after an engagement at Falling Waters on July 2, 1861. Two days later Boyd Shot and killed a drunken Union soldier.

Boyd wrote in her post-war memoirs that he had “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. I could stand it no longer…we ladies were obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.”

She was exonerated by the commanding general Robert Patterson. Boyd noted that “the commanding officer…inquired into all the circumstances with strict impartiality, and finally said I had ‘done perfectly right.” She was 17 years old at the time.

By early 1862 her activities were well known to the Union Army and the press, who dubbed her “La Belle Rebelle,” “the Siren of the Shenandoah,” “the Rebel Joan of Arc,” and “Amazon of Secessia.” In fact, the New York Tribune described her whole attire, “…a gold palmetto tree [pin] beneath her beautiful chin, a Rebel soldier’s belt around her waist, and a velvet band across her forehead with the seven stars of the Confederacy shedding their pale light therefrom…the only additional ornament she required to render herself perfectly beautiful was a Yankee halter [noose] encircling her neck.”

Some accounts say that she frequented Union camps seeking information on troops strengths and movements. Other accounts center much of her activity around her parent’s hotel in Front Royal. She used a slave named Eliza Hopewell as a courier to the Confederate command. Early on Hopewell was intercepted and the information was discovered in a hollowed-out watch-case. Boyd was warned that she was liable to be hanged for spying and realized that she needed a better means of communication.

Boyd supposedly spied on a council of war held by General James Shields at the hotel in mid-may 1862. She was reported to have hidden in a closet and listened through a knothole. Realizing the importance of the information Boyd rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates.

She then returned to town and when the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson’s men, braving enemy fire that put bullet holes in her skirt. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that “the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.”

Jackson did and that evening penned a note of gratitude to her: “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.” For her contributions, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. Jackson also gave her captain and honorary aide-de-camp positions.

Belle Boyd’s career came to an abrupt end on July 29, 1862 when her Union officer lover gave her up to the authorities. She was transported to Washington and jailed in the Old Capitol Prison. She was held for a month and exchanged at Fortress Monroe on August 29th. She was later arrested and imprisoned a third time, but again was set free. Other accounts say that she was arrested six or seven times by Union authorities.

Arrested again in July 1863, Boyd was not a model inmate. She waved Confederate flags from her window, she sang Dixie, and devised a unique method of communicating with supporters outside. Her contact would shoot a rubber ball into her cell with a bow and arrow and Boyd would sew messages inside the ball. In December 1863 she was released and banished to the South.

She sailed to England on May 8, 1864 as a Confederate courier but was arrested yet again. She finally escaped to Canada with the help of a Union naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, and eventually made her way to England where she and Hardinge were married on August 25, 1864. In England she became an actress.

She returned to the United States after her husband’s death in 1866, a widow and a mother at 23. By then she had written her memoirs Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison some of which was exaggerated. Boyd continued her stage career after her return. She billed her show as “The Perils of a Spy” and herself as “Cleopatra of the Secession.”

On November 11, 1869. She married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans. After a divorce in 1884, Boyd married Nathaniel Rue High in 1885. A year later, she began touring the country giving dramatic lectures of her life as a Civil War spy.

While touring the United States (ironically, she had gone to address members of a GAR post), she died of a heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin) on June 11, 1900. She was 56 years old. She was buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells, with members of the Local GAR as her pallbearers.

 

 

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