Born 1843 or 1844
Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia)
Confederate spy known as
"Cleopatra of the Secession"
Belle Boyd was one of the most famous Confederate spies of the Civil War, but not necessarily one of the most successful. She carried information to Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (1824–1863; see entry) that helped him win battles in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley in 1862. But Boyd loved the thrills of spying and basked in the attention she received as a spy. As a result, she became less effective over time and eventually lost much of her value to the Confederate cause.
Home state changes loyalties
Belle Boyd was born in Martinsburg, Virginia, in 1843. This was a time of great political tension in the United States. For years, the North and the South had been arguing over several issues, including slavery. By 1861, this ongoing dispute had convinced several Southern states to secede from (leave) the United States and attempt to form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. Boyd's home state of Virginia was one of the Southern states that decided to join the Confederacy. But Northern political leaders were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides soon went to war.
Some of the earliest fighting of the Civil War took place in the western part of Virginia. Many people in this mountainous region remained loyal to the Union despite Virginia's decision to secede. They felt they had more in common with the neighboring free states of Pennsylvania and Ohio than with the slave economy of the eastern part of Virginia. By June 1861, Union loyalists in western Virginia were trying to form a new state that would separate from Virginia and rejoin the Union. Boyd's hometown of Martinsburg eventually became part of this new state of West Virginia.
Of course, not all residents of western Virginia were loyal to the Union. Boyd and her family continued to support the Confederacy, even after Union forces moved into the area where they lived. Boyd expressed her pro-Confederate feelings in a dramatic and violent way. On July 4, 1861, a Union soldier came to her family's house to replace their Confederate flag with a U.S. flag. Boyd shot the soldier, and he later died of his wounds. She was put on trial for the crime, but received only minor punishment.
Boyd becomes a spy for the Confederacy
Before long, Boyd decided to help the Confederate cause by acting as a spy. As an attractive young woman, she figured she could get close to Union soldiers in the area, obtain information about their troop strength and military strategies, and take that information to the Confederate forces. She ran her spying operations out of her parents' hotel in Martinsburg, in the Shenandoah Valley.
In March 1862, General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson entered the Shenandoah Valley with eight thousand Confederate troops. Over the next three months, he roamed across the region in a dazzling display that thoroughly baffled his Union Army counterparts. On several occasions, Jackson's army defeated much larger Union forces in battle. At other times, he and his troops seemed to melt into the valleys and woodlands of the Shenandoah region, frustrating pursuing Union armies.
Part of what allowed Jackson to avoid capture was information he received from local Confederate supporters. Boyd was one of the most valuable sources of information. At one point, she found out that the Union forces planned to surround Jackson's army and take the general prisoner. She rode fifteen miles to Jackson's camp and delivered this information to his staff personally. Another time, Boyd learned that three Union generals were combining forces against Jackson. During the heat of battle, she ran across from the Union lines to the Confederate lines to carry this information to the Southern leader. According to legend, she had bullet holes in the hoops of her skirt but was not hurt. After Confederate forces won the battle, Jackson thanked Boyd personally and made her an honorary member of his staff.
Arrest and exile
On July 29, 1862, at the age of nineteen, Boyd was arrested for spying against the United States. She was taken to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. Even after she was caught, Boyd continued to express her strong support for the Confederate cause. She waved a Confederate flag out the window of the train that carried her to prison, and while there she was often heard singing the Southern song "Dixie" at the top of her lungs. Within a few months, Boyd was released and allowed to return to the South as part of a prisoner exchange. (In the early war years, the North and the South regularly exchanged the people they had captured for their own people who were held by the other side.)
Boyd spent some time in hiding with relatives in the South. When she returned to Martinsburg in June 1863, she was again arrested as a spy. She spent six more months in prison, then was released because she was suffering from the disease typhoid. Knowing that she would return to spying when she regained her health, Union officials deported her (forced her to leave the country). She spent a few months in exile in England, then attempted to return to the United States on a Confederate supply ship. But the ship was captured, and Boyd was taken prisoner on a Union ship.
Boyd fell in love with the Union soldier in charge of prisoners on the ship, Lieutenant Samuel Wylde Hardinge. As a result of their relationship, Hardinge was charged with aiding a Confederate spy, forced to leave the Union Navy, and put in prison. Meanwhile, Boyd was sent back to England, where she became a celebrity. She appeared on stage, telling dramatic stories about her life as a spy, and even wrote a book about her experiences, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Hardinge joined Boyd in England after his release from prison. Their wedding in August 1864 was a huge social event. But Boyd soon convinced her husband to return to the United States as a Confederate spy. He was captured and died in prison, leaving her a widow at the age of twenty-one.
Turns spy life into a stage career
After the Civil War ended in 1865, Boyd returned to the United States. She continued her stage career for many years. She seemed to enjoy the attention she attracted as a former spy. In fact, she often used the titles "Cleopatra of the Secession" and "Siren of the Shenandoah" in her stage shows. Boyd married two more times over the years. She died in 1900 while making a public appearance in Kilborn, Wisconsin. The Women's Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Confederacy paid for her burial there.
Although Boyd became famous as a Confederate spy, her fame actually made her much less effective in her work. Most other spies worked behind the scenes and tried not to show their true loyalties or attract unnecessary attention to themselves. But Boyd was a daring and flamboyant (flashy) young woman who enjoyed the thrill of spying. She carried valuable tactical (military) intelligence to Stonewall Jackson during his campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, but lost her value to the Confederacy as her fame grew.
Where to Learn More
Belle Boyd House. [Online] www.travelwv.com/bellepic.htm (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Scarborough, Ruth. Belle Boyd: Siren of the South. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983.