Read Belle's story
One of the most famous of Confederate spies, Belle Boyd
served the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley. Born in Martinsburg-now
part of West Virginia-she operated her spying operations from her fathers hotel
in Front Royal, providing valuable information to Generals Turner Ashby and
"Stonewall" Jackson during the spring 1862 campaign in the Valley. The latter
general then made her a captain and honorary aide-de-camp on his staff. As such
she was able to witness troops reviews. Betrayed by her lover, she was arrested
on July 29, 1862, and held for a month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington.
Exchanged a month later, she was in exile with relatives for a time but was
again arrested in June 1863 while on a visit to Martinsburg. On December 1,
1863, she was released, suffering from typhoid, and was then sent to Europe to
regain her health. The blockade runner she attempted to return on was captured
and she fell in love with the prize master, Samuel Hardinge, who later married
her in England after being dropped from the navy's rolls for neglect of duty in
allowing her to proceed to Canada and then England. Hardinge attempted to reach
Richmond, was detained in Union hands, but died soon after his release. While in
England Belle Boyd Hardinge had a stage career and published Belle Boyd in
Camp and Prison. She died while touring the western United States. (Sigaud,
Louis, A., Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy, and Scarborough, Ruth,
Belle Boyd.- Siren of the South)
Source: "Who Was Who in the Civil War" by Stewart
What an amazing woman. woman. Read her diary at
More on Belle Boyd
Belle Boyd, Cleopatra of the Secession
Belle Boyd played the role of spy as if the war were a lighthearted
game of charades. And she lived as if she were fashioning her days into the
plot of a romantic story. During her lifetime she could have read about
herself in at least two historical novels, although neither did justice to her
The zestful Miss Boyd became an espionage agent when she was
seventeen, and served the Confederacy throughout the war, in Dixie, the North,
and England as well. She matched the boldness of any man, galloping headlong
into the dark with cipher messages, or creeping into rooms to eavesdrop on
Union Army conferences. On at least one occasion (when she could persuade none
of the men to do it for her), she daringly entered battle lines to carry back
But Belle Boyd was above all overwhelmingly feminine; she made good
use of her womanly appeal, of which she had an enormous amount. Unlike others
who impersonated the inconspicuous female and made themselves up as a drab
housewife or dowdy traveler, this spy played her own personality to the hilt,
with a dramatic air and sweeping gestures, wearing rich reds and greens and
feathers in her hat. Belle had a "joyous recklessness," as one reluctant
admirer phrased it. She looked at men through her long lashes, assuring them
that she had no intentions hostile to the North, while she stole whatever
secrets were at hand and filched others practically from their pockets. Belle
possessed at least one additional asset--perhaps the best pair of legs in the
Confederacy. Even a lady must get in and out of a carriage or with a flurry of
petticoats dismount from a home; at such times Miss Boyd showed a pretty
confusion, and very fine ankles.
Her actions were puzzling to her opponents, for at times she seemed
cunning, at others naive. Always an individualist, she spied "by ear," after
her own special fashion. Belle obviously did not believe in the virtues of
silence, for what she thought, she generally said. Despite her failings, she
proved a remarkably good agent.
Belle Boyd loved the South passionately. After the war she said she
had never "had a consciousness that I was a spy. I only wanted to help my
people." Nevertheless, as Carl Sandburg has observed, she could have been
"legally convicted and shot at sunrise on the basis of the evidence against
her. Yet Belle had critics among Southerners themselves. She traveled alone,
to the horror of more conventional women. A "brilliant talker," she conversed
easily with anyone she met, and her lack of self-consciousness in the company
of men was unusual in a woman of her class.
She shocked her conservative friends by visiting camps, calling on
generals and colonels in their tents, and accepting carriage rides in the warm
afternoons. She even danced and flirted with Northerners as well as
Southerners. When she bothered to defend herself, Belle said that it was
necessary for her to be on good terms with both sides. Yet, there was no doubt
that Miss Belle liked the boys in blue as well as those in gray. And she
obviously liked spying; she performed her duty to the South and had a nice
She could always rely on a hidden weapon--male gallantry. When Federal
commanders discovered that she had given information to the South that might
wreck their plans, she would look sad, speak half gaily, half pathetically,
and Northern chivalry would prove as strong as Southern; they would release
her. Before she reached twenty-one this Virginian had been imprisoned twice,
"reported" nearly thirty times, and arrested six or seven. In one romantic
feat she persuaded her Northern captor to marry her and switch sides. Nearly
everybody liked Belle or enjoyed hearing about her. In Piccadilly, English
crowds hailed her as if she were a Sir Walter Scott heroine. French newspapers
termed her "La Belle Rebelle." It can be surmised that she approved the title.
Her birthplace was the Shenandoah Valley, whose rolling hills, "broad,
clear, rapid streams," silver maples, and rocky borders Belle pictured in
affectionate memory. Her native town of Martinsburg, then in Virginia, now
West Virginia, lay in a peaceful area which eventually exploded in action and
shifted from Southern to Northern hands.
As Belle later told a Chicago interviewer, she came of a "well known
family of Virginia," having ties among the best in the state." The Boyds
traced themselves back to an ancient Scottish clan; they had highly placed kin
in New Orleans and parts of Kentucky, and a family connection with George
Randolph, later Confederate Secretary of War. Although Belle was reluctant to
admit it, her branch of the Boyds had done less well than others. Her father
ran a store and managed a tobacco farm.
To her English admirers Belle described an idyllic childhood in a
"pretty two-storied house," its walls "hidden by roses and honeysuckle."
Idyllic it may have been, for a relative recalled that Belle had been a
reckless tomboy who climbed trees, raced through the woods on a nettlesome
mount, and dominated brothers, sisters, and cousins. It is said that her
mild-mannered mother never disciplined her; what little Miss Boyd wished to
do, she did. There is a story that when she made a visit to Tennessee
relatives she encountered a stricter home regime and, to her surprise, liked
it, "although it was the first time in her life she ever had to conform to
family rules." She did not conform for long; in her own phrase, she preferred
to be ''on the go.
Despite their lack of money, the Boyds gave their daughter a good
education. After some preliminary schooling, she was sent at the age of twelve
to the Mount Washington Female College at Baltimore. A minister was head of
the college, hut despite his influence Belle remained "on the go." At sixteen
her training \vas ''supposed to he completed," and her family and friends
arranged a debut in Washington. Cousins made certain that the tall, graceful
girl met the proper hostesses and received invitations to the best affairs.
Secretary of War Floyd, soon to join the Confederacy, was one in whose
drawing rooms Belle became a favorite. For the impulsive adolescent the
waltzes and cotillions, the bright conversations with uniformed officers,
judges, and senators were a heady experience. The season was that of late 86o,
however, and more and more often she heard the echoes of clashes over slaverys
extension. Then came secession.
With Sumters fall Belle headed home for Martinsburg, "enthusiastic in
my love for my country, the South." There she discovered that her
forty-four-year-old father had volunteered for military service. Sedentary,
highly unmilitary, Ben Boyd nevertheless insisted on taking his part in the
war. Offered "that grade in the army to which his social position entitled
him," he had instead enlisted as a private. Beside younger and more hardy men,
Ben was to suffer greatly in the war; hut Belle reacted with hearty approval,
contributing to town funds for his regiment, the 2nd Virginia, and joining
other Confederate causes as they sprang up.
To nobodys surprise, she soon found these employments too tame and
monotonous to satisfy my temperament." When her father went to the camp at
Harpers Ferry, she helped organize a festive visiting party. Officers and men
were and joyous," she wrote, and "many true hearts" were pledged. To this
Belle added: "A true woman always loves a real soldier." Not yet seventeen,
Miss Boyd considered herself a "true woman."
So, perhaps, did others. Observers did not always agree about her
looks, for while some considered her beautiful, or at least handsome, a few
noted that she had a prominent nose, and ultimately Northern and Southern
journalists would debate the momentous issue: did Belle have freckles, or
didn't she? One man said that her face possessed "too much character in it to
be called merely pretty." Still, Belle had shining blue eyes, a heavy head of
light brownish hair, and, last but not least, a fine figure which many
commented on, despite Victorian proprieties.
Early in July 1861, Ben Boyds regiment prepared for battle, and
sorrowfully the girl and her mother bade him good-by, and returned to
Martinsburg. The 2nd Virginia met Union forces and fell back; still more
sorrowfully Belle watched as her father and his comrades retreated through the
home town. She had already met the commander, old "Stonewall," for whom she
acquired an admiration that approached, then exceeded worship. To her, General
Jackson, the bearded, reticent genius, was "that undaunted hero, that true
apostle of Freedom."
Belle promptly went to the hospitals to help the wounded, and she was
there when a triumphant Union officer entered. Waving a flag over the soldiers
beds, he referred to them as "damned rebels."
Belle snapped at him, commenting scornfully on the bravery of a man
who insulted men when they were "as helpless as babies."
The Federal soldier was taken by surprise. "And pray, who may you be,
Belle glared, and her maid spoke up for her: "A rebel lady."
"A damned independent one, at all events," remarked the Northerner as
he left the hospital. The next day Belle had what she termed her "first
adventure," when she killed herself a Yankee soldier, in a highly
Half the town of Martinsburg knew that the forthright Belle kept
Confederate flags all over the walls of her room, and word of this reached the
Union forces, who were planning a great July Fourth celebration. While the
Boyds stayed at home, the men in blue drank heavily, smashed windows at
random, and broke into houses to hunt for Southern souvenirs. One party
staggered into the Boyd place, tore down pictures, and stamped toward Belles
room. "Wheres the secesh flags?" they demanded.
As Belle and her mother stood tight-lipped, the maid slipped out and
removed the flags. The thwarted Northerners then announced that they would
make sure the damned family looked loyal, anyway, and one pulled out
a big American flag and started to climb to the roof to hoist it.
For once Belles mother lost her meekness and called out: "Men, every
member of this household will die before that flag is raised over us." The
soldier cursed and pushed Mrs. Boyd aside. According to Belle, "I could stand
it no longer; my indignation was aroused beyond control. . . . I drew out my
pistol and shot him." A near riot followed, with Union soldiers firing shots
at the house and threatening to burn it down. Then guards arrived.
The Confederates considered Belles act one of simple justice. The
Union commanding officer hurried up to investigate, held a hearing--and
exactly nothing more happened. Belle put aside her gun and employed tears and
smiles. The result was that a guard was posted at the house to make sure no
further incidents occurred, and "Federal officers called every day to inquire
if we had any complaint"! Belle recalled that in this way she first became
"acquainted with so many of them." Before long she had set a good many teeth
on edge by fraternizing with the enemy, which astonished and horrified
Belle explains, however, that she had begun to experiment in
espionage. Whatever she learned, she "regularly and carefully committed to
paper" and sent to her beloved Stonewall Jackson or to Jeb Stuart. Soon her
first mistake tripped her. A true novice, she had no cipher and made no effort
to disguise her handwriting. One of her notes reached Union headquarters, and
the colonel in command summoned her. Reading the articles of war, he asked
sternly if Miss Belle knew she could be sentenced to death?
Belle declined to be frightened. She made a full curtsy, and her eyes
swept over the officers in the room. "Thank you, gentlemen of the jury," she
murmured in irony, and swirled out. But she had to be more careful, and for a
time she used as helper an old Negro, who carried messages in a big watch from
which the insides had been removed. A certain Sophie B. also assisted her.
Lacking Belles superlative horsemanship, Sophie once had to walk seven miles
each way to Jacksons camp.
In her memoirs of these salad days of her spying, Belle gives only a
few details, but reveals something of her inspiration. One day she heard of
the exploit of Rose Greenhows famous helper, Betty Duvall, with her market
girls disguise and the dispatch hidden in her black locks. Spy inspired spy,
and Belle sought out Colonel Turner Ashby, Jacksons sharp-faced cavalry
leader, head of military scouts in the Shenandoah Valley.
Ashby was no mean spy himself when he put on civilian clothes and rode
around Union camps in the role of a dreary veterinarian. For days Ashby would
treat ailing horses, then jog back to his own lines with all he needed to know
about the enemy. From him Belle received several assignments as courier for
the Confederate forces. She learned the use of a cipher, and in the shifting
battle areas she frequently carried messages on brief runs, pounding through
back country and over short cuts on her horse. Her tomboy days were paying
Restless as ever, she worked in one town after another, until she
heard in late March of 1862 that fighting was on again at Martinsburg. Her
place was there, she felt, but as she passed through nearby Winchester an
enemy tipped off Union authorities. At the railroad station, officers begged
Belles pardon--and arrested her. She would have to go all the way to Baltimore
with them. The experience might have been terrifying to the girl, but, while
friends watched glumly, Belle adjusted a bright new beribboned hat and assured
them that nothing was going to happen to her! Theyd see.
They did. Her prison in Baltimore was a comfortable hotel, where she
held court and chuckled at, then with her captors. A week passed pleasantly as
officials puzzled over what to do about her. General Dix, who had presided at
the Greenhow hearing, found no specific evidence, and let her leave with a
fatherly warning. With another deep bow and a raised eyebrow, the junior spy
After this adventure she rejoined her family at Front Royal, forty
miles south of Martinsburg, where Belles aunt and uncle had a small hotel. To
her surprise, Union forces had taken over the building and the remaining
members of her family had moved to a cramped cottage. Such restriction made
Belles Confederate heart sink. She knew precisely where she wanted to be--in
Richmond, the heart of everything that interested her. As Belle understood
life, the way to get a thing was to ask for it, especially if the one to be
asked were a man. So she sought out the commander, General James Shields.
The good-humored Irishman beamed at the bold, pretty girl.
Ah, he clicked his tongue, if he gave Miss Belle the pass she wished,
she would have to go through General Jacksons lines. Shields shook his head in
mock regret; those Confederates had been so demoralized that he dared not
trust Miss Belle to their mercies. Then with a twinkle he added that in a few
days Jackson s men would all be wiped out, and she could go through!
So assured was the Union officer, Belle said in her memoirs, that he
forgot "a woman can sometimes listen and remember." Sensing a chance for a
real exploit, she changed her plans in a second. She would stay right here.
When she twinkled back at Shields, he grew expansive and introduced her to his
staff. A younger, handsomer Irishman seemed definitely worthy of cultivation
and quickly Belle let Captain Keily think he was cultivating her.
The spy rode out with the captain, and Keily talked freely. To him, as
she said wryly, she was "indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some
withered flowers, and last, not least, for a great deal of very important
information. . . ." Belle gathered that a major Federal drive would soon be
mounted, and her aunts hotel was a rare observation point. One night in mid
May she learned that a war council was about to be held in the hotel parlor.
Directly above was a bedroom with a closet, and, as Belle had once noticed,
the closet floor had a small knothole. Perhaps the energetic spy enlarged it a
bit for her purposes.
When the men gathered, she lay down in the closet and put her ear to
the opening. For hours she stayed there, motionless, cramped, catching every
murmur as the men, sitting over cigars and maps, argued strategy. Belles mind
filled with names, figures, placement of scattered armies. There was much she
did not understand, so she memorized most of it. The meeting ended about one
in the morning, and, after waiting for the halls to clear, Belle scurried to
her cottage and wrote out a cipher message.
She had to leave with it at once. To wake a servant was too great a
risk, so she saddled her horse and led him softly away. A few minutes later
she was galloping toward the mountains. In her pocket she had a pass left her
by a paroled Confederate. A sentry stopped her, and as she thrust it into his
hands she talked nervously of sickness in the family, her need for haste. He
let her by.
She had to rein in and chatter out her story to another guard, and he
nodded. With that she sped across fields, along marshes, past cabins. Fifteen
miles away was a house where she had been told she could send an emergency
message to Colonel Ashby, Jacksons head spy. At last, breathless, she jumped
from her horse and hammered at the door of the dark building. A suspicious
voice demanded who she was. After she gave her name, the friend opened the
door and gaped at her: "My dear, where'd you come from?"
Belle ignored his questions as male irrelevance, and asked her own.
Where was Ashby? How soon could she reach him? Told that his party was
quartered up the road, she started to turn, when another door opened, and
Ashby himself frowned at her. "Good God! Miss Belle, is that you?"
The girl told all she knew and left hurriedly, for she had to get back
home before dawn. She was nearly there when a drowsy sentry, waking just as
she rode by fired after her. But she was lying exhausted in her own bed by the
time General Shieldss forces rolled out of AMartinsburg. The next ten days or
so would see vigorous action, she felt sure.
Rumors arrived soon of Federal movements at Winchester. Feeling the
need to be "on the go" once more, Belle asked for a pass. The provost marshal
was suspicious, and put her off with one excuse after another. He sometimes
left on short absences, however, and she waited until he rode out of town.
Then Belle applied prettily to a young cavalry lieutenant in the provosts
office. She, a girl cousin, and her maid were anxious to make the trip, and
surely he wouldn't object. The lieutenant hesitated, and Belle moved closer. .
. . Well, he had to go thereabouts himself, Miss Belle, and hed just ride
along. Though she had not expected quite that arrangement, she took full
advantage of it. For the young Union officer the trip was a gay adventure. He
escorted the girls through the lines and they stayed briefly at Winchester.
There, unexpectedly or perhaps not so unexpectedly, a new opportunity
opened to the alert Miss Boyd. A "gentleman of high social standing" found her
and murmured an anxious message: He had several papers that should go to
General Jackson or one of his subordinates. He shoved them into Belles hands.
They all dealt with the impending clash between Confederate and Northern
forces and were of varying importance. The first packet she examined was
vital, and Belle slipped it to her maid, reasoning that the Federals would
probably not search a Negro. A paper of less import the girl dropped casually
in a small basket; another of the same sort she gave the bemused lieutenant to
hold. A final document, of great significance, she held in her own hand. The
blithe party started back.
They did not get far, for they had just reached Winchesters outskirts
when a pair of detectives flagged them down. They were all under arrest. At
headquarters the colonel in charge asked a direct question: was Miss Boyd
carrying any disloyal messages? The lieutenant was flustered. Belle knew that
the less important packet in her basket would quickly be found, so she
promptly passed it to the colonel. In her hand she still held the most vital
of the papers. "Whats that?" the colonel demanded.
Belle employed elementary psychology. "This scrap? Nothing. You can
have it." She moved forward as if to give the note to him; had he reached out,
she said later, she would have swallowed it. Instead, the colonel turned his
attention to the lieutenant. From his pocket that luckless man fished Belles
paper, and caught the brunt of the older mans rage. What did this
mean--carrying messages for the secesh! Didn't the unwitting fool know. . .?
To the girls regret, the lieutenant stayed under arrest. Belle
herself, according to a newspaper of a few days later, "with her usual
adroitness and assumed innocence, got clear of the charges of treachery." She
had not only kept the essential note in her hand, but also the valuable one in
her maids possession!
In May of 1863 Jackson had launched perhaps the most astonishing
action of his career, his first Valley campaign, which bewildered and
terrified his Northern opponents. He started several times in one direction,
and the Union shifted forces to meet him; a day or so later he reversed
himself in a long, secret march in the opposite direction, and fell on other
units of the unprepared enemy, smashed them, and moved on to repeat the
performance. Each time the Federal military leaders declared that the maneuver
was incredible, impossible-- yet there it was.
Jackson had fewer than twenty thousand men in the Valley; the Union
had several times that number, at different points, under Generals Banks,
Fremont, and McDowell. McDowell was preparing his army to join McClellan in a
mighty drive to take Richmond. But now Stonewall had gone to work to wreck
that plan. Furthermore, he was making such a powerful movement toward
Washington that the Union would have to divert thousands of men from the push
In Front Royal, Belle Boyd was puzzled: what could she do with her
accumulated information? Then, on May 23, 1862, she found a way to make proper
use of it.
As she sat in her living room, her reliable maid announced excitedly:
"Rebels comm!" From the door Belle saw Northern soldiers running in every
direction. When she called out to a friendly officer, he told her nervously
what had happened:
Southerners under Generals Jackson and Ewell had surprised the Union
pickets. Stonewall was within a mile or so of town before the Federals had
wind of an attack!
"Now," explained this talkative fellow, "were trying to get the
ordnance and quartermaster~s stores out of reach."
"And the stores in the big depot?" Belle asked quickly.
"Well burn 'em!"
"Suppose Jacksons men come too fast?"
"We'll fight as long as we can show a front. If we have to do it, well
draw back on Winchester--fire the bridges as we cross, and join General Banks.
. . ." As he disappeared, Belle snatched up opera glasses and ran to the
balcony. The Confederate advance guard was about three quarters of a mile from
town. She thought of her poor father, trying to hold his own with younger men,
advancing with that army, and all at once her hopes overcame her fears.
She went over her assorted information: the messages handed to her in
Winchester, the military conference overheard at the hotel, and data gathered
on her visits to the camps. It added up to a great deal. In her own words, she
knew "that General Banks was at Strasbourg with 4,000 men; that the small
force at Winchester could be readily reinforced by General White, who was at
Harpers Ferry, and that Generals Shields and Geary were a short distance from
Front Royal, while Fremont was beyond the Valley; further, and this was the
vital point, that it had been decided all these separate divisions should
co-operate against General Jackson." The Confederates had to be
advised of these facts. . . . She hurried downstairs.
Out on the street Belle spoke to several men whom she knew were
Southern sympathizers. Wouldn't one of them carry her information to General
Jackson? "No, no. You go!" they urged her gallantly.
Snatching up a sunbonnet, she went. She edged her way through the
Union soldiers, past heavy guns and equipment. Finally reaching the open
fields, Belle was fired on by Union pickets. She felt the rifle balls "flying
thick and fast" around her in a cross lire between Confederate and Northern
A Federal shell hit the earth twenty yards ahead of the girl and just
before it burst Belle threw herself to the ground. A moment later she was
dashing on again, in terror and determination: "I shall never run again as I
ran ... on that day." She scrambled over fences, crawled along the edges of
hills and fields, and at last approached the oncoming Southern line.
Her Confederate spirit leaped within her, and she waved her bonnet to
the soldiers as a sign to press on. Astonished at the sight of a woman at this
exposed spot, Hays Louisiana Brigade and the First Maryland Infantry cheered
and quickened their pace. (Three years later Belle still heard in her dreams
"their shouts of approbation and triumph.") Exhausted, tearful, she fell to
her knees, then rose as the main body of men moved toward her. She recognized
an old friend, Major Harry Douglas. In his own memoirs Douglas, taking up the
story, explained that Stonewall Jackson had been trying to take in the
situation facing him, when: I observed, almost immediately, the figure of a
woman in white glide swiftly out of town on our right, and, after making a
little circuit, run rapidly up a ravine in our direction and then disappear
from sight. She seemed, when I saw her, to heed neither weeds nor fences, but
waved a bonnet as she came on, trying, it was evident, to keep the hill
between herself and the village. I called General Jacksons attention to the
singular movement just as a dip in the land hid her, and at General Ewells
suggestion, he sent me to meet her and ascertain what she wanted. That was
just to my taste, and it took only a few minutes for my horse to carry me to
meet the romantic maiden whose tall, supple and graceful figure struck me as
soon as I came in sight of her. (Even at such moments Belles proportions were
not to be overlooked!)
As I drew near, her speed slackened, and I was startled, momentarily,
at hearing her call my name. But I was not much astonished when I saw that the
visitor was the well-known Belle Boyd, whom I had known from her earliest
girlhood. She was just the girl to dare to do this thing.
"Great God, Belle, why are you here?" He asked the same question that
others often put to her. Trying to catch her breath, the girl spoke in gasps.
I knew it must be Stonewall, when I heard the first gun. Go back quick
and tell him that the Yankee force is very small-- one regiment of Maryland
infantry, several pieces of artillery and several companies of cavalry. Tell
him I know, for I went through the camps and got it out of an officer. Tell
him to charge right down and he will catch them all. I must hurry back.
Goodbye. My love to all the dear boys--and remember if you meet me in town you
havent seen me today.
Harry Douglas raised his cap, Belle kissed her hand to him and started
back. While he stood talking over her message with Jackson, she waved the
white bonnet and re--entered the village. Some of what she told Douglas the
Confederates had already heard; but she confirmed the facts, and she gave them
new data on which to act. Now they moved on with brilliant effect. While
Maryland and Louisiana troops raced forward, Jackson "with a half smile"
suggested that Douglas might see if he could "get any more information from
that young lady."
More than willing to try, Douglas galloped off. A bit later he met
Miss Boyd in conversation with Federal officer prisoners and a few
Confederate Army friends. Forever Belle! "Her cheeks were rosy with excitement
and recent exercise, and her eyes all aflame. When I rode up to speak to her
she received me with much surprised cordiality, and as I stooped from my
saddle she pinned a crimson rose to my uniform, bidding me remember that it
was blood-red and that it was her 'colors."
Spurred by Belles information, Jackson and his men pounded through the
town. According to plan, the Union troops set fire to the bridge, which had
begun to blaze when Jackson galloped up. The Confederates defied the smoke and
flame, burned hands and feet as they pulled and kicked at the scorching
timbers and tossed them into the water. They succeeded in saving the bridge
and pushed on in another of Jacksons unorthodox performances.
To Bankss amazement two days later, on May 25, Jackson hit his column
near Middletown, smashed it in half, and chased it in a rout back to the
Potomac. In this campaign Jackson had taken three thousand prisoners,
thousands of small arms, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stores
that the Federal army lacked time to destroy. In years to come, men of both
sides would study with admiration this military performance.
As Stonewall intended, Washington officials felt a flash of terror.
The Union capital itself was endangered; Lincoln sent out peremptory orders,
and hastily the Federal armies took action to save the situation. Tens of
thousands of men had to be pulled out of the drive on Richmond. On May 29
Stonewall could draw back satisfied. He snatched a moment to express his
regard for Belle and her work:
I thank you, for myself and for
the Army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.
Hastily, I am your friend,
T.J. Jackson, C.S.A.
A week later, Southern forces abandoned Front Royal. A Union
sympathizer (a woman, of course) stepped forward to denounce Belle as a
dangerous enemy, and an officer arrested her in her house and surrounded it
with sentries. Then General Shields, the Irishman who liked her so much, rode
up, and, regardless of what his fellow Northerners thought, he released her.
Belle found herself famous. Northern newspapers, while admitting her
cleverness, sneered at her as "notorious," "abandoned," "a camp follower." One
account claimed she had helped Jackson by "playing Delilah to General Banks,"
dancing before him at a ball, draping "a large and elegant secesh flag over
her fatuous admirer, while Stonewall was supposedly fooling Samson Banks with
a surprise attack. In another story "La Belle Rebelle" had caught up a sword
and led the whole Confederate charge!
A Federal writer found her "the sensation of the village." "The
intensely loyal Confederates idolized her and . . . she had a large following
of Federal officers who were ready to do her homage." Apparently Belle had not
been greatly stirred by any of the men she captivated, but a change was on its
way. She was to betray herself in love and in war as well.
One day Belle saw a prepossessing young man in Southern uniform. He
interested her strangely, and she learned he was a paroled Southern officer
waiting for a pass to Dixie. She invited him to dinner with her and the
family, and he later accompanied her to a party at which Belle played "The
Bonnie Blue Flag." The handsome fellow stood beside her and they sang a duet;
presumably that proved him worthy of full trust. Smiling at him, Belle made a
whispered request: when he left to go South, could he take a dispatch to
Stonewall for her? He promised gladly.
The girls maid warned her. Miss Belle had better watch out; shed seen
that man among the Yankees, and mighty friendly with 'em, too. Ever direct,
Belle asked him bluntly: was he a Northern agent? He said no, and for
her that settled it. Actually he was C.W.D. Smitley, a scout for the 5th West
Belle became still more enamored. When the next party broke up after
midnight the other officers envied Smitley, who walked her home in the
moonlight and paused with her in the dark for a long good-by. The next
morning, however, Belle suddenly began to sense danger. Hurrying to Smitleys
boardinghouse, she frantically demanded the truth about the rumors that he was
a Union agent. Again he denied the rumors flatly. Then he promptly reported to
his superiors, who communicated with Secretary of War Stanton, and Stanton
Union officers appeared to arrest Belle and take her to Washington,
among them a squat, ugly man called Cridge. (Could Dickens have thought of a
better name? Still, Federal records show that Belle did not make it up.) Belle
and her relatives were lined up against a wall, but her better-than-fiction
maid succeeded in running off with handfuls of records and burning-them. The
men broke open a desk and found other papers, however. Finally Belle, white
with anxiety, was led away through a crowd of people, some of whom had come to
sympathize, some to jeer.
The girl wept on the way to Washington. This was no situation to be
escaped by flirtation or bravado. Moreover, in her first real love affair, she
had been completely taken in.
In the national capital, as the chill walls of the Old Capitol loomed
before her, she shivered. The doors were swung open by Superintendent Wood,
Lafayette Bakers partner in the handling of malefactors: "And so this is the
celebrated rebel spy. ... I am glad to have so distinguished a personage. .
Standing with hands clenched at the window of her cell, Belle had a
view of Pennsylvania Avenue, and she made out the former home of Secretary
Floyd, where she had danced at her happy debut. She felt more alone and
frightened than ever before in her life.
Soon Belle was confronted by Superintendent Wood and Lafayette Baker
himself. At the sight of the stony-faced director of the Federal detectives,
her rage welled up. In his customary fashion Baker took the lead, and she
later quoted him, a bit unkindly: "Aint you pretty tired of your prison aready?
Ive come to get you to make a free confession now of what youve did agin our
After a long silence Belle made a contemptuous reply. "When youve
informed me on what grounds Ive been arrested, and given me a copy of the
charges, Ill make a statement." Baker "harangued her" and offered an oath of
allegiance. "Remember, Air. Stanton will hear of all this."
Belles reply was withering. "Tell Mr. Stanton for me, I hope when I
commence that oath, my tongue may cleave to the roof of my mouth. If I ever
sign one line to show allegiance, I hope my arm falls paralyzed to my side."
Then she ordered Baker out of the room: "Im so disgusted I cant endure your
presence any longer!"
Cries of "Bravo" roared through the jail, for her fellow prisoners had
been listening with delight. Superintendent Wood took Bakers arm. "Wed better
go," he said. "The lady is tired." --a masterpiece of understatement. Belle
had won the first encounter. Baker came again, but she answered none of his
questions and told him nothing at all. . . . That first evening she heard a
cough, and a small object rolled across the floor of her cell. It was a
nutshell with a Confederate flag painted on it; from inside she drew a note of
sympathy. Belles eyes filled; even in Yankeedom her people were with her!
Young Major Doster, the provost marshal, became a grudging admirer.
"The first time I called on her," said Doster, in his record of the Boyd
affair, "she was reading Harpers and eating peaches. She remarked
that she could afford to remain here if Stanton could afford to keep her.
There was so much company and so little to do." Never did he find her in bad
humor, he noted.
Editor Dennis Mahony of Dubuque, Iowa, who was in the Old Capitol for
siding with the South, described how he heard her sing "Maryland, My Maryland"
with "such peculiar expression as to touch even the sensibilities of those who
did not sympathize with the cause." In a silence that spread over the prison,
the girl threw her "whole soul" into the words of devotion to the South,
defiance to the North.
Another inmate declared: "When Belle sang, it made you feel like
jumping out of the window and swimming the Potomac." If she walked the narrow
yard for exercise, fellow prisoners craned their necks to see her. Editor
Mahony recalled her passage "with a grace and dignity which might be envied by
a queen." On Sunday, if she gave inmates "a look or a smile, it did them more
good than the preaching."
Belle made a different impression on her guards. In her favorite song
she often emphasized the line, "She spurns the Northern scum"! At
that point they stormed in one day to stop her, and as they went out, she took
up a broom to sweep up after them. They could never fathom how she obtained
the small Confederate flags which she wore in her bosom or waved on sticks
from her window!
One story Belle omitted from her own recollections was her prison
courtship by Lieutenant McVay, an appropriately good-looking young man with a
properly romantic background. He had known Belle in his boyhood, but they had
not met for some time, and now his war record intrigued her. The lieutenant
told her, when they had a chance to talk, how he had been badly injured in the
battles before Richmond and left for dead by his Confederate comrades. When
the Union army moved in, attendants lifted him into a basket for corpses.
Lieutenant McVay moved, and they brought him to Washington, where he slowly
His cell was across the hall from Belles; the circumstances and
setting combined to stir her affections. Whenever they were allowed, the pair
sat together in the yard or whispered across the corridor; eventually Belle
announced her engagement to McVay. They planned a wedding as soon as they won
their freedom, and gaily Belle asked permission to buy her trousseau in
Washington. The War Department coldly denied the request.
The girls confinement in prison had begun to tell on her. Because she
put up a picture of Jefferson Davis, smuggled into the prison by a friend, she
bad to spend stifling summer weeks without leaving her cell. She was listless
and thin. Major Doster declared that "open air and horseback exercise were in
her case constitutional necessities." In a pathetic talk with her doctor, she
asked when she could get the medicine he prescribed-- freedom.
In late August great news ran through the prison. Belle and some
others would be sent South on exchange. Much stronger action might have been
taken against her; but in the Civil War nobody shot eighteen-year-old girls,
even though they were secret agents. There was only one drawback in the
exchange order: Lieutenant McVay could not go with her. They had long talks,
and promised to meet again at the first possible moment. Superintendent Wood
in a burst of friendliness bought her trousseau and sent it after her, under a
flag of truce!
Belles departure was a triumph. She looked tearfully out of the
carriage window as crowds pressed forward, calling her name. In the
Confederate capital the celebrated Richmond Light Infantry Blues drew up to
present arms in her honor. Generals visited her, women stopped her on the
streets to praise her. She appeared in a gray riding costume, that of an
"honorary captain" of the Confederacy, and sat happily on horseback at troop
reviews. When her trousseau arrived, Belle excited the ladies with glimpses of
For Belle and her lieutenant, however, there was misery ahead. Months
passed and he stayed on in prison, whereas Belle moved all over the South.
Their letters became infrequent. Slowly their interest cooled, and the
engagement ended. If they met again, it is not known.
The Union caught up with Belle a second time when she returned to
Martinsburg. A Belle Boyd within Federal lines was a serious hazard. Soon
after Northern units swung into the town, Secretary Stanton ordered her
arrested. In July of 1863 she was at Carroll Prison, involved in a
mysteriously romantic experience. One twilight she felt an object brush past
her foot; startled, she discovered an arrow on the floor, with note attached.
"C.H." wanted her to realize she had many sympathizers. Thereafter he would be
in the square opposite on Thursdays and Saturdays, to communicate with her!
Miss Belle must not worry, C.H. added. "I am a good shot." She was to
obtain India rubber balls, insert her messages, and toss them out as
energetically as she could. Somehow she did get the balls and carried on a
lively correspondence, receiving clippings, confidential word about the
Federals, and admiring messages. She also assisted the Confederacy when a
fellow inmate, a Southern mail runner, planned an escape. At the crucial
moment she asked the superintendent to come to her cell. Several prisoners
cried, "Murder, murder!" And in the excitement the mail runner crawled to the
roof, slid down, and got away.
Once more summer heat and close confinement told; after three months
of being caged, the volatile Belle became ill. As before, she was sent to
Richmond, but with a sharp warning: let her show herself again inside Federal
lines, and she would be in the worst trouble of her life. There followed a sad
time for the girl; after several sieges of sickness brought on by the war, her
father died, and as she grieved her own illness dragged on.
Doctors told her she needed a long trip, and Belle had an inspiration;
she would improve of necessity if she carried Southern dispatches to England.
Starting on one of her most flamboyant exploits, she went to Wilmington, the
North Carolina port where Rose Greenhow met death--but for Belle the trip
produced the great love affair of her war days.
On the night of May 8, 1864, the three-masted schooner Greyhound,
her decks piled with cotton bales, moved out to sea, lights covered, crew
and passengers tense. For Belle, who had assumed the name "Mrs. Lewis," the
risk was heavy; the Federal Government looked with particular disfavor on
bearers of Southern messages to European powers. With lookouts stationed at
vantage points, the Greyhound hoped to avoid the Federal fleet which
lay somewhere nearby. Hours later, when the darkness lifted, there was a
shout: "Sail ho!"
The Greyhounds frantic captain increased her steam pressure,
set more sails, but the pursuing Federal vessel drew closer and closer. As
Belle and the other passengers rushed aft, the Northern gunboat began firing
on the Greyhound. One source says that Miss Boyd sat calmly on the
highest cotton bale, the better to see the show. The first shells landed in
the sea with a smothered roar, but the Union aim became steadily more
The crew threw valuable cotton overboard, and when the captain hurried
past Belle, he called: "If it weren't for you, Id burn her to the waters edge
before they could take a single bale!" La Belle Rebelle shrugged. "Dont think
of me. I dont care what happens, if only the Yankees dont get the ship." As
the U.S.S. Connecticut moved in, the crew tossed over a keg of money
containing twenty-five thousand dollars, and Belle burned her dispatches.
As the girl watched with growing concern, Northern officers removed
the Confederate captain for questioning, and a prize master, young Ensign
Samuel Hardinge of Brooklyn, took over the Greyhound. Belle made no
secret of her first impression of Mr. Hardinge:
"I saw at a glance he was made
of other stuff than his comrades. . . . His dark brown hair hung down on his
shoulders; his eyes were large and bright. Those who judge of beauty by
regularity of feature only, could not have pronounced him strictly handsome
. . . but the fascination of his manner was such, his every movement was so
much that of a refined gentleman, that my "Southern proclivities," strong as
they were, yielded for a moment to the impulses of my heart, and I said to
myself, "Oh, what a good fellow that must be."
When Ensign Hardinge asked
permission to enter her cabin, Belle replied pertly: "Certainly. I know I am a
prisoner." He was now in command, he said, but, "I beg you will consider
yourself a passenger, not a prisoner." Belle took Sam precisely at his word,
and apparently he was as romantically bemused as she.
The Greyhound, astern of the Connecticut, started
north for Fortress Monroe. A more cozy atmosphere spread over the
Greyhound; Belle, the ensign, and the Confederate captain got along
increasingly well. One night the three sat together as the moon lighted the
ocean, "just agitated by a slight breeze." Waves lapped the vessel, and the
young Hardinge raised his voice in a gentle song. Later Belle wrote in relaxed
mood of the "soft stillness" and "sweet harmony."
When the Confederate captain made a tactful withdrawal, the ensign
quoted Byron and Shakespeare; "and from poetry he passed on to plead an
oft-told tale. . . ." Soon Sam was asking her to marry him; hut Belle
indicates that she hesitated. Twice before she had been hurt by love, and the
fact that Ensign Hardinge was a Yankee had to be considered.
A "very practical thought" also suggested itself; if Sam really loved
her, "he might in future be useful to us." Us, of course, was the Confederacy.
She replied that the matter involved serious consequences, and he must wait
until the trip ended. She admits that at the same time she and the Southern
captain were studying ways to arrange the latters escape!
Her alias of "Mrs. Lewis" gave her no protection; the truth slipped
out, and at New York and Boston newspapermen panted for interviews with Belle.
She had become more lustrous than ever, and newspapers described her every
move, quoted every word of hers that could be caught. As some Yankees fretted
over this females prominence, or merely gaped at her silks, one excited
correspondent proclaimed her the Confederacys Cleopatra.
By then Belle had seen enough of Ensign Hardinge to make up her
mind--this time she had found the man she really wanted, and she would marry
him. True, their politics differed, yet "women can sometimes work wonders,"
she remarked. She promptly managed a neat bit of wonder-working, when she sent
Sam on an errand and helped the Confederate captain to get away. She had
helped the South again, but her fiance was in trouble. There was an official
inquiry into the escape. Very much under her spell, Sam appeared more
interested in Belles plight than his own. While officials pondered his case,
he made a trip to Washington in an effort to secure her release.
Belle told the Northern authorities that she wanted to go to Canada,
and Sam Hardinge applied for a months leave, to join her there. Instead, he
was arrested, tried, and dismissed from the Navy for neglect of duty. Deeply
humiliated, Sam had just one consolation. Belle had been sent north, and if he
ever got out of the United States, he could go to Canada and claim the bride
for whom he had risked so much.
American agents in Canada watched Belle closely, to guard against any
fresh mischief, until she sailed for England. There she could at least work
for the Confederacy. Sam ~vent to London after her and learned she was not
there, raced on to Paris, only to discover she was in Liverpool. At last they
met and their marriage was a great event for Southern representatives in
London, the newspapers, and a delighted part of the public--American, British,
At St. Jamess church in Piccadilly the ceremony took place on August
25, 1864, "in the presence of a fashionable assemblage of affectionate and
admiring friends." As one Englishman declared: "Her great beauty, elegant
manners and personal attractions generally, in conjunction with her romantic
history . . . concur to invest her with attributes which render her such a
heroine as the world has seldom if ever seen." An American account claimed,
erroneously, that the Prince of Wales himself attended the wedding.
One excited correspondent revealed that Belle had "succeeded in
withdrawing her lover from his allegiance to the United States flag, and
enlisting his sympathies and support for the South." Sam intended to leave
England with his bride, run the blockade, and join the Confederacy! Belle had
demonstrated indeed that "women can sometimes work wonders."
If the new Mrs. Hardinge went back home, however, the Union might make
good its many threats against her. Belle had to stay in London, and Sam,
therefore, returned alone. It was said that he carried Confederate dispatches.
He was a brave man, or at least a foolhardy one. He slipped into Unionist
Boston, visited his family in Brooklyn, and went on to Virginia to "meet
Belles family" or to perform a Confederate errand, or both.
Promptly the Union trapped its former ensign, arresting him as a
Southern spy, and again the country had a Belle Boyd sensation. A wild,
baseless story spread about the country to the effect that Belle herself had
sneaked back. As poor Sam went from one prison to another, over in London a
saddened Airs. Hardinge received funds from friends and sympathizers, but in
the last days of the Confederacy Belle had unending trouble over money.
In prison Sam Hardinge fell sick, and Belle had to sell first her
jewelry, then her wedding presents. British papers carried one or two accounts
of her "very great distress of mind and body," and many of her London admirers
rallied around. She wrote her memoirs, which appeared at the wars end and had
a large audience for a time. Sam returned to her, but only for a few months.
The young man who had given up so much for her died of ailments growing out of
his imprisonment, and Belle was a widow at twenty-one."
Before long her joje de vivre returned, and she went on to a
theatrical career in England and America. She lived out a full life, surviving
until the year 1900. Death came on a speaking tour in Wisconsin, and she was
buried far from home. A Southerner put up a tombstone, "erected by a comrade,"
which proclaimed her officially "Confederate Spy." In many ways she was the
most appealing one of the war.
Source: "Spies For the Blue and Gray" by Harnett T. Kane
CHARACTER NAME: Maria Isabella Boyd
BIRTH PLACE: Martinsburg, Virginia
BIRTH DATE: May 4, 1844
EDUCATION: Mount Washington Female College of
Baltimore, age 12 to 16.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Belle was from a typical Southern
family. Father Ben was a store merchant and grocer. Several brothers died before
the Civil War. Belle's father joined the Virginia Cavalry. Belle was left with
her sister Mary Jane, age 10, her brother Bill, age 4, her mother and
1861. Soon after the start of the Civil War, Belle was organizing parties to
visit the troops. At that time she also shot and killed a Union soldier who had
pushed her mother. She was acquitted of the crime. Shortly thereafter, she
became a courier for Generals Beauregard and Jackson, carrying information,
delivering medical supplies and confiscating weapons. Belle made a few heroic
rides through battle fields in order to get her "secrets" across the lines to
During the War she was imprisoned three times. In 1862 she was imprisoned in
old Carroll Prison in Washington, D.C. for one month.
In 1864 she went to England carrying information for the confederates. There
she married a Union naval officer.
PLACE OF DEATH: Kilbourne City, Wisconsin now known as
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. She is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in
DATE OF DEATH: 1900
Women in History. Belle Boyd biography. <http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/boyd-bel.htm>.