The people of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) were coping with Federal occupation on Independence Day, 1861. Some Union soldiers celebrated the day by drinking heavily and breaking into houses. One group of intoxicated soldiers entered the home of Benjamin and Mary Boyd, intent on taking down a Confederate flag the Boyd’s 17 year old daughter was rumored to have on display in her room. No flag was found, but the soldiers prepared to hoist a U.S. flag over the house to show submission to Federal authority. Benjamin Boyd had enlisted in the Confederate army and was away, but Mary Boyd spoke up declaring “every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.”
One of the soldiers addressed the mother and daughter “in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive,” the daughter later wrote. “I could stand it no longer … I drew out my pistol and shot him.” The shot mortally wounded the soldier. This marked the beginning of the Confederate service of Belle Boyd.
Maria Isabella (Belle) Boyd was born in Martinsburg on May 9th, 1844. Her father was a prosperous businessman, and the family was well off enough to own several household slaves. Belle received a good education, completing it at a private school in Maryland. Belle was well read, outgoing, and fun loving, with a figure that was flattered by the fashions of the time. Her flirty, friendly personality charmed soldiers on both sides. After investigating the incident, the Federal officers in charge at Martinsburg did not file charges against Belle. Sentries were place around the home to prevent any other incidents, but also to keep an eye on Belle.
Through her acquaintance with the Union soldiers in town, Belle extracted information on troop positions and other military information. She passed this information on to the Confederate army through messengers. However, Belle wrote the information in plain English, not in any code, and in her own handwriting. One message was intercepted, and easily traced to Belle. She was brought before an angry Federal Colonel, who read her an article of war stating that passing information to enemies of the United States could result in the death penalty. Perhaps dismissing Belle as an amateur, the Colonel released her.
In October of 1861, Belle became a courier for the Confederate Intelligence Service. She carried information to and between Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Pierre Beauregard. As winter set in, she returned to Martinsburg, now free of Federal occupation.
Though Federal authorities suspected her of espionage, they had no hard evidence. In the spring of 1862, Belle was detained and taken to Baltimore for questioning. She was put up at one of the city’s finer hotels and released by the general in charge, who did not believe civilians should be detained on suspicion alone for long periods of time.
It was in May of 1862 that Belle Boyd had her most famous exploit of the war. Stonewall Jackson was driving northward through the Shenandoah Valley. On May 23rd, Jackson was preparing to attack Union occupied Front Royal, Virginia. Belle was staying in Front Royal at the time. She had intelligence that several nearby Federal commands were to converge on the area and reinforce the smaller Union force at Front Royal. She also had been told that the retreating Federals would burn the bridges leading out of town to slow the Confederate advance. Belle ran down the street and out of town towards the advancing Confederates. Union and Confederate pickets were exchanging fire, and as Belle passed the Union picket line, she came under fire. Some bullets pierced her clothing but nothing hit her. She also had to contend with artillery fire. Somehow she made it and delivered her information. The Confederates pressed the attack and captured the bridges before they could be destroyed and before reinforcements could arrive. Jackson had scored a complete victory. The general sent Belle a personal note with his thanks.
Belle Boyd’s adventures were making her famous both in America and in Europe. The newspapers called her the “Cleopatra of the Confederacy”, and the “Siren of the Shenandoah”. The French called her “La Belle Rebelle”.
Confederate forces did not hold Front Royal for long, and the Union army took over again later in the Spring. Belle continued to pass information on to Jackson through couriers. One note was intercepted when a courier she thought was a paroled Confederate soldier heading south turned out to be a Union spy. Belle decided it was time to leave Front Royal and go to Richmond. Before she could go, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had her arrested and brought to Washington on July 30th. She was imprisoned in Washington D.C. until the end of August, when she was sent south in a prisoner exchange.
She spent time in several southern states over the next few months, and returned to Martinsburg, now in the new state of West Virginia in the Spring of 1863. Martinsburg changed hands frequently, and when the Union occupied the town again in July of 1863, Belle was arrested and sent to Washington a second time. She was released and again sent south in December.
On May 8th, 1864, Belle Boyd boarded the blockade runner Greyhound in Wilmington , North Carolina, bound for England. She carried dispatches from the Confederate government. The next day, Greyhound was stopped and captured by the U.S.S Connecticut, and Belle burned the dispatches. Greyhound was placed under the command of Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, and set out for Boston with stops in Newport News, VA and New York. Along the way, Hardinge became smitten with Belle, and asked her to marry him. The attraction was mutual. In Boston, Federal authorities allowed Belle to depart for Canada, and exile, warning her not to return.
Belle soon left Canada, once again bound for England. Meanwhile, Sam Hardinge had been dismissed from the U.S. Navy for allowing the captain of the Greyhound to escape custody. Hardinge and Belle were reunited in England and the two were married on August 25th. With her war over, Belle began work on her memoirs. Hardinge went back to the United States and was arrested as a deserter. Another motive for the arrest may have been to get back at Belle Boyd, now safe in England . Hardinge was imprisoned until February 1865. His exact fate is unknown; he may or may not have been reunited in England briefly with Belle, but apparently died sometime around the end of the war or shortly thereafter. Belle does not mention his death in her memoirs; he simply vanished.
Belle’s memoir “Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison” was published in England in 1865. Needing additional income, Belle tried her hand at acting on the stages of London. In late 1866, Belle Boyd returned to the United States, following President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty proclamation. She married again in 1869, was divorced in 1884, and married again two months later, to an actor. With her new husband as her business manager, Belle took to the stage again, giving dramatic presentations and speaking about her adventures in the Civil War. She was well received by veterans and audiences of both sides, ending her shows with “One God, one flag, one people — forever!”
Belle Boyd was in Kilbourn, (now Wisconsin Dells) Wisconsin in June 1900 for a stage presentation when she died of a heart attack June 11, 1900 at age 56. She was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Kilbourn. Her grave had only a simple marker until an anonymous southern man donated a gravestone.
Wisconsin Dells is a tourist town famous for the scenic beauty of the Wisconsin River, and in 1952, a new tour boat was launched and given the name Belle Boyd. The Richmond Virginia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy was invited to the launching, and christened the boat with water from Virginia’s James River.
Some Virginians decided it would be a good idea to remove Belle’s remains from Wisconsin and move her to Virginia. To prevent that, a concrete cap embedded with stones from every state of the old Confederacy was placed over the grave. Before the cap was placed, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sprinkled soil from Virginia on the grave, and Belle Boyd now rests in the soil of both Virginia and Wisconsin.
- ‘Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison” – 1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 1998)
- “Maria ‘Belle’ Boyd” by Mary Lou Groh, Civil War Preservation Trust
- “Belle Boyd, Siren of the South” by Ruth Scarborough (Mercer University Press, 1997)
- “Wisconsin’s Southern Belle: The Confederate Flag Flies Over the Dells Grave of a Former Spy for the South” by Susan Lampert Smith (Wisconsin State Journal, 6/1/ 2000)
- “Belle Boyd” by Richard F. Snow (American Heritage Magazine, Vol. 31 No. 2, Feb/Mar 1980)