Belle Boyd (1844-1900)

Belle Boyd Belle Boyd, between 1855 and 1865
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-01989 Belle Boyd, born on May 9, 1844, is one of the most famous of female spies and has been called the “Cleopatra of the Secession.”  Her parents, Benjamin Reed Boyd and Mary Rebecca Glenn Boyd, named her “Isabelle,” but she shortened her name to “Belle.” She grew up in Martinsburg, Virginia (later West Virginia), which was one of the first towns to fall to Union forces during the Civil War. Her family was affluent enough to send her to school at the Mount Washington Female College of Baltimore at age 12.   After graduating at 16, she moved back to Martinsburg, which fell to the Union the next year, on July 3, 1861.

Her career in espionage began shortly thereafter:  when a Union soldier invaded their home and assaulted her mother, Belle fatally shot him.  She found that her actions garnered her favor, rather than punishment. Acquitted of the crime, she decided to serve the South.  At 17, she became a messenger for Confederate Generals Pierre Beauregard and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, carrying information, delivering medical supplies and confiscating weapons.  She became more daring with each act, as Union soldiers did not suspect a girl to be an effective intelligence agent.  Even when her messages were intercepted before making their way South, federal officers took no action beyond reprimanding what they assumed was an innocent teenager.

By the time she was 18, she was something of a national celebrity, and a hundred cavalrymen are said to have escorted her to her first major prison sentence in Baltimore. She was only imprisoned for a week and upon her release, moved to Front Royal, Virginia to continue her espionage.   On May 23, 1862, she was staying at a local hotel with her mother, where several Union officers also were lodged. Boyd listened to their plans via a knothole in their room and then rode conspicuously in her “dark blue dress and fancy white apron, crossed on for the gap between the two armies in range of Union rifles and artillery, and breathlessly delivered her message to a staff officer.” Later, according to her memoirs, Boyd received a thank you note from Jackson for her “immense service.”

On July 29, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally issued a warrant for her arrest.  She was taken to Old Capitol Prison – now the site of the U.S. Supreme Court – and a month later, was formally banished to the Confederate capitol of Richmond.  Still defiant, however, she was back in northern Virginia the next summer; arrested again in July of 1863, she remained in prison until December of that year. Once more exiled to Richmond, she sailed for England in March of 1864, but her ship was blocked and she was again arrested. After confinement in a New York prison, she was “deported to Canada under pain of death should she return to the United States.”

Not content to stay in Quebec, she headed for England, where many Confederates tried to persuade that nation to enter the war on the side of the South.  There she married Samuel Hardinge, the Union naval officer who had taken command of her previous ship to England. They had one daughter, Grace, before he died in 1866.

While in England, she published Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison (1865).  Although it exaggerated her exploits, the book sold well and has remained in print.  To support herself as a widow with a child, she also undertook a new career: acting.  She pursued this both in England and America, returning after her husband’s death in 1866.  She was not particularly successful on the stage, however, and retired in 1869, after marrying John Swainston Hammond, again a former Union officer.

They had four children: Arthur, Byrd, Marie, and John, and divorced after fifteen years of marriage in 1884.  The following year, she married for the third time, to Nathaniel High, who was 17 years her junior.  She returned to the stage in 1886, this time to reenact her Civil War life.  She died as dramatically as she lived, while on stage in Wisconsin, on June 11, 1900, at age 56.

Boyd was not particularly pro-slavery, nor even much of an ideologue for the Confederate cause.  She married two Union men; four of her pallbearers were Union veterans; and her postwar lectures urged unity between the North and South.  Instead, she was an adventurer who enjoyed her three years of Civil War notoriety.  Belle Boyd was daring in a highly visible way that scorned the era’s standards for ladies, and she took great advantage of the common assumption that a woman could not be dangerous:  arrested six times, imprisoned three times, and exiled twice, she sent a record for any spy.  If a male spy had behaved similarly, he probably would have been executed.

The Index, a Confederate newspaper that was published in London, wrote of Belle Boyd in 1864: “Probably the history of the world does not contain a parallel case.  Her adventures in the midst of the American War surpass anything to be met with in the pages of fiction.”  The childhood home of Belle Boyd is now a museum and part of the Civil War Discovery Trail.  It can be visited in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

 

Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History

Works Cited:

  • Hay, Thomas Robson. “Belle Boyd,” in Notable American Women:  A Biographical Dictionary.  Volume 1.  Cambridge MA:  Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Horan, James D.  Desperate Women.  New York:  Putnam’s, 1952.
  • Leonard, Elizabeth.  All the Daring of the Soldier:  Women of the Civil War Armies.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1999.
  • Noland, Jeannette Covert.  Belle Boyd:  Secret Agent.  New York: Messner, 1967.
  • Sigaud, Louis A.  Belle Boyd:  Confederate Spy.  1944.
  • Weatherford, Doris.  American Women’s History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events. New York, NY:  Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994.