B is for Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd isn’t one of my favorite spies of the Civil War, but she’s given lots of attention and was dubbed the Cleopatra of the South. Long-limbed and of exceptionally fine form, it may be understandable that she gained many male admirers, but she was not a classical beauty.

Belle Boyd was born Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd on May 9, in Martinsburg, Virginia (Now West Virginia) to Benjamin Reed and Mary Boyd. She attended finishing school in Martinsburg and then went to Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore, Maryland in 1856.

According to her recollections in 1866 (which at times are highly embellished), Union soldiers in the area heard she had a Confederate flag in her room and came to search on July 4, 1861. The flag was confiscated. They placed a Union flag on her house and cursed her mother, whereupon Belle pulled a gun and shot the soldier who later died. A board declined to convict her, but sentries were placed on the house and frequently checked for clandestine activities.

According to her memoirs, she charmed a Union captain out of important information and passed it on to southern spies via her slave. When Boyd had attempted to carry a message herself, she was caught on her first attempt and warned she could be hanged for espionage.

On one occasion, she spied on a meeting in the parlor of the local hotel where Union General James Shields was staying. She obtained false passports and rode through Union lines to take the information about Shields moving east to Colonel Turner Ashby.

On May 23, she overheard information that was vital to Stonewall Jackson and took off at a high lope across a pasture with Union bullets whizzing all around her. She waved her apron at the Confederate troops on the far side of the field to alert them, gathered her skirts and leaped over a split rail fence to escape the hail of bullets. Although her skirts were rent with bullet holes, she escaped injury and urged Jackson to speed forward as the Union force was very small and could easily be taken.  

Jackson wrote her a personal note. “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.” She was also awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. Jackson gave her the rank of captain and an honorary aide-de-camp position.

Although she was arrested at least six times, she evaded being jailed each time. By July 1862, Detective Allan Pinkerton was tired of her exploits and assigned three men to her case. On July 29, 1862, they had enough evidence to arrest her when her lover betrayed her to Pinkerton. She was taken to the Old Capitol Prison July 30 where Rose Greenough would be held later.

Belle Boyd in a formal gown.

Boyd was supposed to have been held in close custody previously and the inquisition on August 7, 1862, found her in violation of those orders. She was released on August 29 from Fort Monroe prison in a prisoner exchange. It wasn’t long before she was arrested again on espionage charges on June 23, 1863, but was released after contracting typhoid fever.

Boyd tried to escape to England, but was captured by a Union blockade ship and returned to Canada, where she met and married a Union naval officer Samuel Hardinage.

Belle Boyd’s spying days were over. She became an actress in England to support her daughter after her husband died in 1866. Then she returned to the United States and married Swainston Hammond in 1869 and had two more daughters and two sons. That marriage was less than ideal, and she divorced in 1884. She married for the last time in 1885 to Nathanial High and began touring the United States giving fanciful recitals of her adventures as a Civil War spy.

Boyd died June 11, 1900 at the age of 56.

She had published two highly fictionalized memoirs about her exploits as a spy.


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