Boyd, Belle (1844–1900)

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Boyd, Belle (1844–1900)

Confederate patriot and spy who engaged in courier and espionage activities throughout the Civil War, became revered as a symbol of Southern independence and pride, and later wrote her memoirs and gave dramatic readings of her war exploits. Born on May 9, 1844, in Martinsburg, Virginia; died on June 11, 1900, in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin; daughter of Benjamin Reed Boyd (a business owner) and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd; graduated from Mount Washington Female College near Baltimore (a finishing school); married Samuel Wylde Hardinge, on August 25, 1864 (later missing, presumed dead); married John Swainston Hammond, on March 17, 1869 (divorced, November 1, 1884); married Nathaniel Rue High, Jr., on January 9, 1885; children: (first marriage) Grace; (second marriage) Arthur, Byrd, Marie, John.

Belle Boyd grew up in the Virginia town of Martinsburg, commonly referred to as the "Northern Gateway to the Shenandoah," which was to become the center of activity during the impending Civil War; 112 military engagements would occur in the region. Combined with her family's 130-year loyalty to their homeland, Boyd could hardly have chosen more fitting circumstances to become the celebrated spy and Southern patriot, the "Siren of the Shenandoah."

Maria Isabella Boyd was born on May 9, 1844, the first of eight children, four of whom died in infancy. The Boyds owned a successful business, allowing the family a comfortable life. "I passed my childhood as all happy children usually do," she wrote in her memoirs, "petted and caressed by a father and mother, loving and beloved by my brothers and sisters." From this safe environment grew an impulsive, athletic, and headstrong girl who was a skilled horsewoman to boot.

At age 12, Boyd was sent to Mount Washington Female College outside Baltimore, a finishing school designed as much to educate as to build and polish Southern womanhood. She excelled at her school work and participated in animated political debates with her fellow classmates. Following her graduation in the fall of

1860, Boyd had her "coming out" in the city of Washington. Chaperoned by her mother Mary Rebecca Boyd , Belle experienced the excitement of the big city as only a debutante could. There were lavish parties, visits to the theater, musical performances, and a general rubbing of elbows with important government officials.

While Boyd enjoyed societal perks, serious political events were fomenting. For years the issues of states' rights, political underrepresentation, and slavery had been simmering in the South. The election of antislavery candidate Abraham Lincoln to the office of president in November 1860 brought them to a boil. South Carolina seceded from the Union the following month and, along with Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana, formed the Confederate States of America in February 1861. With hostilities seemingly imminent, Boyd and her mother returned to Martinsburg the following spring, eager to do their part to help the Confederacy. They didn't have long to wait.

As the war heated up, Union Brigadier General Robert Patterson crossed the Potomac River into Virginia and on the 3rd of July, captured Martinsburg. The Union's victory celebration was paired the following day with the observance of Independence Day, July 4. Drunken soldiers brawled among themselves and vandalized the small town. When rumors were circulated that Belle Boyd had decorated her room with rebel flags, an angry mob gathered and forced their way into her home, only to find it void of Confederate paraphernalia. (Boyd's vigilant servant had quickly burned the flags before the mob arrived). Desiring satisfaction, the troops attempted to attach a Union flag to the house. This piqued Boyd's mother; Mary Boyd told the crowd that every member of her household "would die before that flag shall be raised over us." With that, a foul-mouthed soldier insulted her. "I could stand it no longer," wrote Belle; "my indignation was roused beyond control; my blood was literally boiling in my veins; I drew out my pistol and shot him. He was carried away mortally wounded, and soon after expired." Enraged, the mob tried to burn down the house. A Federal officer arrived in time to quell the crowd.

During the forthcoming hearing, it was obvious that Boyd was guilty of the killing; surprisingly, she was acquitted and told she had "done perfectly right." Speculation strongly suggests that this decision was politically based, an attempt to keep other states from seceding from the Union. Convicting and imprisoning (or executing) a 17-year-old Southern girl would have made Belle Boyd a martyr for the Confederate cause. So, as would often happen in her dealings with the Union, she slipped through the cracks.

As a result of the shooting, however, sentries were ordered to watch her home and unwittingly fostered her apprenticeship in espionage. While engaged in banter with the Union sentries, she found that tidbits of useful military information could be extracted. Flattered by her compelling laugh, the soldiers had no idea of her more ambitious intentions. "Belle Boyd was a lively, spirited young lady, full of caprices and a genuine Rebel," wrote one young Union Major William E. Doster. He described her as "tall, with light hair and blue eyes," though her "features were too irregular to be pretty." Boyd's "air of joyous recklessness" is what made her most appealing.

In order to expedite the removal of the Federals from Martinsburg, Boyd began sending covert messages concerning camp talk she had overheard. Her plan worked briefly, until one of her secret dispatches was intercepted. Boyd had made the amateurish mistake of writing the note by hand and not using code or cipher. Though her lack of remorse or repentance infuriated the Union officer overseeing her investigation, yet again she was released.

Later that July, at the battle of Bull Run, the Union line was pushed back to the Potomac River, defeated. It was a major turning point in the war. Boyd took this opportunity to travel to Manassas to visit her father who had enlisted in the Confederate army. During her stay, she worked as a military courier and assisted, among others, General Stonewall Jackson and General Pierre Beauregard with their communications. She had discovered her true calling; the use of her talents to further the Southern war effort.

While staying in the Union-controlled town of Front Royal, she was courted by an eager Union officer, Captain Keily. After being showered with flowers, gifts, and the needed information, she promptly left the man heartbroken. In another incident, Boyd lacked the proper passes to take an out-of-town trip. Feigning helplessness, she convinced a Union lieutenant to escort her; she even had him carry one of her packages. When stopped by authorities, the packages were found to be Confederate dispatches, labeled with the friendly Union officer's name (a deed Boyd had secretly accomplished). Suspicion was turned to the officer, and she was once again released. The unfortunate lieutenant was later court-martialled and dismissed from the service.

In May of 1862, Union forces assembled for an offensive strike in the Shenandoah Valley, while Confederate general Stonewall Jackson marched north toward Front Royal. When he reached the outskirts of town, the occupying Union army was caught off guard. Boyd could see the Confederates in the distance and realized that, if Jackson attacked now, he could take the town. With no thought of herself, she dashed out on foot to inform the Southerners. Sporting a white sun-bonnet and a blue dress covered by a white apron, Boyd made an inviting target. Yet she endured musket and cannon fire from the town, while also braving the Confederate crossfire. The image of a young Southern lady risking death while running to assist her nation was nothing short of heroic. Upon reaching the soldiers and catching her breath, Boyd instructed them to attack the town immediately, and the Confederates, led by Jackson, fought and captured Front Royal. Boyd received a "thank you" letter from Jackson, and all marveled at the bullet holes which peppered her dress but never touched her. Several days later, however, the town was reoccupied by Union forces, hot on the heels of the retreating Jackson. Even so, a legend had been born.

Curiously, the Federals tolerated Boyd's presence in Front Royal, despite her acts against the Union and new-found status as a symbol of Southern pride. Their restraint was made clear when she was caught giving messages to two "Confederate" soldiers. In fact, the men were Union spies who had devised the scheme to entrap her. This time there was no escape; the secretary of war had ordered her into custody, to be delivered to Washington. In July of 1862, Boyd was brought to the Old Capital Prison in Washington, which was used primarily to house inmates guilty (or presumed so) of offenses associated with the war. Though government officials attempted to coerce her to swear allegiance to the Union, she stood her ground. While interned, Boyd's prison experience was mitigated by gifts of food from well-wishers and an accommodating warden who promised "whatever you wish for, ask for it and you shall have it." After a month of confinement, she was released in a prisoner exchange and sent south to Richmond.

Belle Boyd was a "most dangerous rebel, and a malignant enemy of the Federal Government."

—Annie Jones, informant

Boyd's reputation preceded her. When she renewed her acquaintance with Jackson, she "received my commission as Captain and honorary Aide-de-camp." Her position included all the perks of an officer, and her example was to be an inspiration to the troops. But in the spring of 1863, after several months of touring the South, Boyd received a harsh blow. Jackson, her hero and mentor, had died from wounds received in the battle of Chancellorsville. Stunned and confused, she longed for consolation from her family. Support would come at some risk, however, as Martinsburg was again held by the Union. Damning the odds, she headed for home.

On arrival, Boyd learned that her mother was pregnant and in ill health and that her father was home on medical leave from the military. Perhaps to stall until further orders, the Union officers allowed her to care for her parents. Finally, in the late summer of 1863, she was arrested and again sent to Washington. This time, Boyd was kept in the Carroll Prison, not far from her former accommodations. By now the "Rebel" was accustomed to prison life and easily adapted to the routine. Her pluckiness was not the least diminished. While the prison superintendent was in an adjoining room, she bribed a guard for his bayonet and used it to gouge a hole in her cell wall in order to communicate with her neighbor.

After prolonged delays over several months, Boyd was sentenced to "banishment to the South—never to return North again during the war." Upon her departure, contraband consisting of Confederate letters of introduction, "twenty thousand dollars in Confederate notes, five thousand in greenbacks, and nearly one thousand in gold," was discovered hidden in her dress.

Shortly after her release, her father passed away. Because of her "banishment" from Union occupied territory, she was unable to visit her family and fell into a depression lasting several weeks. Still burdened by her father's death but wanting yet again to contribute to the war effort, Boyd decided to act as a courier of Confederate dispatches to the capitals of Europe. However, the vastly superior Union navy had done a thorough job of blockading the Southern ports, strangling the South's trade and making sea voyages hazardous. Ignoring the risks, Boyd traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, in May of 1864 and boarded the blockade runner, Greyhound. Despite precautions, including a night-time departure, the ship was discovered and pursued by a Union warship. The luckless Greyhound was then boarded, confiscated, and put in the command of a Union officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge. In her autobiography, Boyd admits to an immediate attraction to the handsome and dashing officer, which was soon to be returned. Two days after their meeting, Hardinge proposed marriage. Even though enthralled, Boyd was still on duty. "If he felt all that he professed to feel for me," she wrote, "he might in future be useful to us." She kept the love-struck lieutenant in suspense as he escorted the Greyhound to Boston. Once there, in an unusual twist, Boyd agreed to marry the Yankee officer.

Her loyalties were immediately put to a test. While the Greyhound was at anchor, its Confederate captain had somehow escaped to shore and eluded capture. Along with several others, Hardinge was charged with having assisted in the escape. His "wife to be" pleaded ignorance when in fact she had helped plan and execute the scheme. Though cleared of complicity, Boyd was in violation of her previous parole agreement, never to return North. Through the intervention of friends and family, she was exiled to Canada with the knowledge that "if I was again caught in the United States, or by the United States authorities, I should be shot." Boyd departed, leaving her fiance to fend for himself.

Not long after her arrival in Canada, Boyd was certain she was being followed by Federal agents. On the advice of friends, she boarded a ship for England. There she met with Hardinge, who had been suddenly dismissed from the navy (why he was not prosecuted is unclear). Following a joyous reunion, they were married in London on August 25, 1864. Shortly thereafter, Hardinge returned to the United States, ostensibly to get acquainted with his new wife's family. Modern historians speculate that he may have been involved in Boyd's espionage work, for he was arrested and jailed. Stories conflict as to his fate: some say he was released and returned to London; others say he drowned at sea or died in prison. In any event, one thing is certain; several months after being arrested, Sam Hardinge disappeared forever without a trace.

Alone, pregnant, and stranded in a foreign country, Boyd wrote and published her memoirs and began an acting career, debuting in the (Manchester) Theatre Royale's rendition of The Lady of Lyons. After giving birth to her first child (by Hardinge), she returned to the postwar United States in 1866.

Belle Boyd had lived a lifetime in a short 22 years and was now ready to take a slower pace. She continued her touring theatrical career, often billing herself as "The Rebel Joan of Arc" or "The Cleopatra of the Secession." At the age of 24, she retired to marry businessman John Hammond in March of 1869. The couple had four children and often relocated according to Hammond's business dealings. After 15 years, they divorced, and she married Nathaniel Rue High, Jr., an actor. By necessity, Boyd returned to the stage; this time, she gave dramatic readings of her Civil War exploits entitled "North and South, or, The Perils of a Spy." She died on June 11, 1900, while on tour in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin.

Though her work was not as strategically oriented as that of other spies because she lacked the anonymity required to obtain such information, Belle Boyd's noteworthy accomplishments were two fold. First, she was able to gain practical, short-range military information from a direct source—the soldier. Second, and probably most significant, she was a symbol of defiance and pride. While originally supporting the Confederate cause, in later years her image would represent the newly rejoined Union. Northerners identified with her staunch patriotism and loyalty and adopted Belle Boyd as a common nationalistic symbol. Ironically, the woman who fought the Union tooth and nail was now its hero.


Bowman, John S., ed. The Civil War Almanac. NY: World Almanac, 1983.

Boyd, Belle. Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Cranbury, NJ: Thomas Yoseloff, 1968.

Current, Richard N., ed. Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Vol. I. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Denney, Robert E. The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of the Life of a Nation. NY: Sterling, 1992.

Faust, Patricia L., ed. Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. NY: Harper & Row, 1986.

Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. I. NY: Scribner, 1964.

Markle, Donald E. Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War. NY: Hippocrene Books, 1994.

Scarborough, Ruth. Belle Boyd; Siren of the South. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983.

Sobol, Donald J. Two Flags Flying. NY: Platt and Munk, 1960.

Van Doren Stern, Philip. Secret Missions of the Civil War. NY: Bonanza Books, 1990.

suggested reading:

Sigaud, Louis A. Belle Boyd; Confederate Spy. Richmond, VA: Dietz, 1944.

Matthew Lee , Colorado Springs, Colorado