Thursday, July 21, 2011

Belle Boyd: Siren of the Shenandoah

She was called the ‘Siren of the Shenandoah’ and the ‘Joan of Arc of the South,’ by her beloved Confederacy. To the North, she was ‘The Most Overrated Spy,’ and ‘The Camp Follower.’ The French called La Belle Rebelle. By the time of her 18th birthday, Belle Boyd had pulled a pistol on a Union soldier who had threatened her mother (he died but to everyone’s surprise, Belle got off), used her feminine wiles to find out information on Union troop movements which she passed along to Stonewall Jackson and been arrested and imprisoned as a Confederate spy who fell in love with her captor.

Maria Isabella Boyd was born in 1844, the oldest of three surviving children. Her father managed a small tobacco farm and country store in the town of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). In her memoirs, she wrote that she came from a tightly knit family who were responsible and protective of one another. Headstrong and charming, she managed to get her own way most of the time. “I passed my childhood as all happy children usually do, petted and caressed by a father and mother, loving and beloved by brothers and sisters.” Told that children weren’t allowed at dinner parties, Belle once rode her horse into the dining room, declaring that her horse must be old enough to attend. Her parents were embarrassed and angry, but one of the guests interceded on Belle’s behalf. “Surely so high a spirit should not be so thoughtlessly quelled by severe punishment. Mary won’t you tell me the name of your little rebel?”

The little rebel in the making was promptly shipped off to the Mr. Washington Female College, a boarding school in Baltimore where she learned French, music and classical literature. While at school, Belle kept up with the news, often debating the subject of slavery with her fellow classmates who came from both the North and the South. Four years later, the hoyden had blossomed into an elegant, refined young lady, at least on the surface. Blue-eyed Belle, with her cascading golden brown curls, was a hit with the local swains who buzzed around her like drones vying for the attention of the Queen Bee. A fashion plate with a perfect figure, Belle soon had the other young women seething with jealously over her flashy dresses in bright red and green. They thought she was too vivacious; her dresses too tight and short, showing off her delicate ankles.

Belle made her debut at during the winter of 1860-1861 in Washington, DC. Belle and her mother spent most of their time with her aunt and uncle, living in a huge house where they entertained frequently. She later wrote that she waltzed her way into society ‘with high hopes and thoughtless joy.’ Belle was soon hob-knobbing with congressmen, senators, and even the Secretary of War. Despite the gaiety, there was talk about the dire political situation. A died in the wool Southerner, Belle couldn’t resist slipping away to listen to the men engaged in intense political debates. But the parties couldn’t last. In March 1861, Abraham Lincoln took office as President. A few weeks later on April 11th, a group of Southerners attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. A few days later Lincoln declared “a state of insurrection.”

Soon the southern states had seceded from the Union, Virginia seceding 3 weeks before Belle’s 17th birthday. The northern part of the state split off and became the new state of West Virginia including Belle’s hometown of Martinsburg. At 44 years old, Belle’s father was one of the first to enlist in the Confederate army, later serving under Stonewall Jackson. When war was declared, Belle threw herself heart and soul into the Confederate cause. She considered herself an adult, ready to take on the Union army and the world.

Now that Martinsburg (the town changed hands no fewer than 30 times during the War) was under Union control, Belle soon realized that she could help the Southern cause more by charming them, rather than shooting them. She shocked people by waving to soldiers on the street, both Union and Confederate. At dinners and dances Belle circulated amongst the men, affecting the persona of a brainless bimbo. She would visit the military camps, accepting rides from enemy officers and soldiers. While not conventionally beautiful, she had a way with me, especially those in uniform, who became her willing slaves at a glance. Belle would flutter her eyelashes, assuring them that had no hostile intentions towards the north. Captivated, officers spilled secrets into her waiting ears which she sent via one of the family’s slaves, her maid Eliza (who carried them in a watchcase) to Jeb Stuart and Stonewall Jackson. However Belle was a total amateur at the spy game, she knew nothing about codes and ciphers, not to mention disguising her handwriting. Before long, she was caught but left off with a warning that the next time. Cheeky in the extreme, Belle saluted the officer with a mocking “Thank you, gentlemen of the jury!”

After that incident, Belle learned the skills that she needed to be a spy via the head of military scouts for the Shenandoah Valley. An expert horsewoman, she even trained her horse to kneel, which came in handy while hiding from Union soldiers in the woods. She managed to wiggle once again out of an arrest, relying on the fact that officials often let female spies off because they believed that they were relatively harmless. One of Belle’s most reckless moves was spying on a group of Union officers who were having dinner at her aunt and uncle’s hotel in Port Royal, VA. Belle hid in a closet and enlarged a hole in the floor, memorizing much of the information, and writing the rest in code. Belle rode through the Union lines using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Colonel Turner Ashby who was scouting for the Confederates. For her contributions to the cause, Belle was award the Southern Cross of Honor, and General Jackson also gave her with a captaincy and aide-de-camp positions.

Belle’s most daring delivery happened on May 23, 1862, when she saw Union soldiers swarming through the streets of her hometown. Feigning concern about the Confederate approach, Belle went out to ask passing soldiers about what had happened. She was informed that Stonewall Jackson was within a mile or so of the town. The Union army planned on burning the stores in the depot and burning the bridges as they crossed. Thinking quickly, Belle grabbed her binoculars and went up to balcony of her house to see if the information was accurate. Spying the Confederate advance guard ¾ of a mile away, she attempted to flag get one of the men she knew to be a southern sympathizer to bring the information to General Jackson. When no one picked up the gauntlet, Belle grabbed a white bonnet and made her way through the Union soldiers. Finally reaching the open fields, she ran all the way to the Confederate camp, dodging bullets, until she arrived waving her white bonnet and was able to give the information to the officer in charge, confirming what he already knew. Thanks to Belle, the Confederate soldiers were able to retake Martinsburg and to save the bridge.

Belle’s comeuppance came through a handsome union spy by the name of C.W. Smitley who posed as a confederate soldier who had been paroled. He wooed Belle with moonlight walks, piano duets and cuddling and smooching until she trusted him completely. When C.W. told her he was being deported down South, Belle asked him to carry a message to General Jackson. Smitley turned her in on July 29, 1862, and Belle was hauled off to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. Belle treated prison as if it were a holiday, singing southern songs to cheer up the Confederate prisoners and to irritate the guards. One visitor found Belle reading Harper’s Magazine and reading a peach. In 1863, she was released in a prisoner exchange to Richmond, basking in the admiration of the citizens. But by the end of the year, Belle was back in prison, this time in the dingy and dreary Carroll prison where she soon came down with typhoid. She was finally released after her parents pleaded with those in charge.

In 1864, Belle decided to make her way to England, which meant running the Union blockade. When her ship, The Greyhound, was captured she met a Union officer by the name of Samuel Wylde Hardinge who had been sent to sail the captured crew and ship to Boston. The couple fell in love but that didn’t stop Belle from helping the Greyhound’s revel captain to escape. Once the ship reached Boston, Belle was banished to Canada, and told not to re-enter the United States on pain of death. Belle sailed to England where she was reunited with Hardinge who claimed that he had permission to leave to travel abroad. They married, but Hardinge was treated as a deserter and thrown in prison when he went back to the United States to clear his name.

Like Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle decided to write her memoirs. However, she wrote a letter to President Lincoln, offering to give up the idea if he would release her husband from prison. Lincoln never answered her letter and Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison was duly published, becoming a best seller in England. After the war, and now a widow (although there is speculation that Hardinge just disappeared from her life), Belle became an actress. She married again in 1869 and gave birth to four children. To make ends meet, she toured the country giving dramatic lectures of her time as a Civil War spy.

Belle died in Wisconsin in 1900 of a heart attack at the age of 56. She is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, far from the Shenandoah Valley that she knew and loved. Her tombstone reads “Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy, Born in Virginia, Died in Wisconsin, Erected by a Comrade.”


Mary Rodd Purbee - Outrageous Women of Civil War Times, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2003
Penny Colman – Spies! Women in the Civil War, Betterway Books, 1992
Ruth Scarborough – Belle Boyd: Siren of the South


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