Defying women’s roles for a cause
FRONT ROYAL — Spying on an enemy army, smuggling medical supplies, passing along valuable information in the middle of a battlefield and touring Europe as a celebrity were just some of the things a local woman was able to accomplish before she turned 21.
Isabella Marie “Belle” Boyd was born north of Winchester, in what is now West Virginia, in 1844 and became one of the Confederacy’s best-known spies during the early days of the Civil War.
Boyd, the oldest of eight children, lived in Martinsburg, Va. (now West Virginia) for much of her childhood.
Her father operated a store next to the family’s house while they lived there from 1853 until about 1860, according to Joanne Huntsberry, a docent with the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Historical Society.
Huntsberry has become well-versed in Boyd’s life, particularly as it relates to the Belle Boyd House at 126 E. Race St. in Martinsburg.
“She had a pony out in the back and the father was having a dinner here for adults and she wanted to come and he said she wasn’t old enough,” Huntsberry said about Boyd. “So she went and got on her pony, rode the pony in and wanted to know if the pony was old enough.”
Boyd’s rebellious streak continued through her youth. When she was about 12, her parents sent her to Mount Washington Female College of Baltimore, according to Huntsberry.
“The reason they had to send her there was because she was going to a school [in Martinsburg], and the schoolmarm was a Yankee,” Huntsberry said. “Well, Belle could not keep her mouth shut. Every time the schoolmarm made a remark that [Boyd] didn’t like, she’d have to say something.
“So finally the schoolmarm called a [man], had [Boyd’s] little desk carried home and the schoolmarm told her parents she was not allowed to come back any more [and] she was too disruptive of the class.”
After four years of finishing school in Baltimore, Boyd returned home to Martinsburg. Around 1860, her family moved out of their first home in the town to a residence on nearby Queen Street prior to the start of the Civil War.
Boyd was 17 when the war began.
She instantly attained notoriety when she used a revolver to fatally shoot a federal soldier who had invaded her home and threatened her mother in 1861, according to Karen Abbott, an author who next year will publish a book about female spies during the Civil War.
Boyd was cleared of all charges relating to the shooting, according to Abbott, who in an email exchange called Boyd her “favorite” spy.
“One of the most interesting things about Belle was her incredibly skillful manipulation of her femininity,” Abbott wrote. “She always accented her feminine attire with literal stamps of the Confederacy — a rebel soldier’s belt around her waist [or] a velvet band across her forehead emblazoned with the seven stars of the Confederacy — and the fact that she flaunted her allegiance so brazenly made Union soldiers discount her as a threat.”
She added that Boyd “abandoned this femininity whenever it suited her, often disguising herself as a boy during her courier missions.”
Deborah Corey, an archivist and docent with the Warren Heritage Society, believes Boyd was able to spy on Union forces effectively because they didn’t see her as a threat.
“She had the ability to sit and listen, and the men would just tell her everything,” she said. “She learned to write in code, she would collect information and she had an old watch that she emptied out and would write coded messages and put in the watch to deliver.”
Boyd began spying on Union activities and passing information to Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley as the war intensified.
Huntsberry said Boyd would find ways to count Union troops moving through Martinsburg and pass that information to Southern officers, including Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
As the war and her spying escalated, Boyd’s mother sent her to live with Boyd’s aunt, uncle and grandmother in Front Royal.
They operated an inn and lived in a cottage behind it, and were often required to provide rooms to Northern troops when Front Royal was behind Union lines, according to Corey.
Boyd, she said, was an “interesting and brave” woman. “She was quite notorious, but [the Union] just couldn’t catch her. They knew she did things, but couldn’t catch her in the act.
“My own personal feeling was that she was a very interesting character for her time. She was a young woman in an era when women were supposed to stay home and be quiet. She was riding into military camps and doing dangerous things.”
Apart from obtaining information from Union troops and acting as a Confederate courier, Boyd helped the Southern war efforts in other ways, according to Abbott.
“She also stole weapons from unsuspecting Union troops and smuggled much-needed quinine [used in medical treatments] to Confederate soldiers,” Abbott wrote. “Her efforts were concentrated in the Shenandoah Valley, and as the war progressed and her infamy grew she became the face (if you will) of secessionists in that area, even earning the nickname ‘The Siren of the Shenandoah.’”
Not everyone was enamored with Boyd, however.
Kate Sperry, a Winchester resident and diarist during the Civil War who was loyal to the Confederacy, mentions her in an Oct. 26, 1861, diary entry included in local historian Garland L. Quarles’s book “Occupied Winchester: 1861-1865.”
“Bell Boyd [sic], from Martinsburg, called this afternoon, and of all fools I ever saw of the womankind, she certainly beats all — Perfectly insane on the subject of men — a dark green riding dress with brass buttons down the front, a pair of Lieut. Col.’s shoulder straps — a small riding hat with a row of brass buttons on the rim from every state in the Confederacy,” Sperry wrote.
“She is the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter. Since the army has been around, her senses are perfectly gone.”
The Battle of Front Royal
Some of Boyd’s best-known exploits occurred before and during the Battle of Front Royal, which took place on May 23, 1862.
Before the battle, she learned about an important war council between Union commanders in her family’s hotel, and listened through a knothole in the door or one of the walls.
When the meeting ended, she wrote down everything she had heard and rode to the Confederate battle lines, Corey said.
“During the Battle of Front Royal, she ran onto the battlefield, directly into enemy fire, to deliver a message to Jackson,” Abbott wrote. “She had learned that there was a Union plan to disable him as he headed northward through the valley.
“Granted, it was information that Jackson likely already knew, but the image of this teenager waving her bonnet, literally dodging bullets, became one of the most lasting and romantic of the war,” Abbott said.
Jackson awarded Boyd the Southern Cross of Honor following the battle and gave her an honorary position with his camp.
The Confederate victory in Front Royal, and Boyd’s exploits in taking information to Jackson, brought her to the attention of Union leaders, according to Corey.
Julia Chase, a Union sympathizer, diarist and Winchester resident also mentioned Boyd in a journal entry included in Quarles’s book.
In a diary entry from May 24, Chase wrote about her suspicions of Boyd. That specific entry did not have a year attached to it, but other entries from Chase’s diary were from 1862 and — if the entry mentioning Boyd was from the same year — it would have been written on the day after the Battle of Front Royal.
“Some 50 letters and papers have been taken from Miss Bell Boyd, who has been making herself very officious since the Federal troops have been here,” Chase wrote. “She acts as a spy, I imagine. I should think there must be some complicity between a Federal Officer and the army, as he was with this Miss Boyd. He ought with her to have been arrested.”
Confederate forces were unable to hold the area around Front Royal for long after the battle, and once Union forces reclaimed the territory, troops arrested Boyd near Winchester.
Edwin Stanton, the Union’s secretary of war at the time, sent about 450 soldiers — since it was feared Confederate Col. Turner Ashy would attempt a rescue — to arrest Boyd for spying, according to Corey.
The troops took her to Winchester, where Boyd was allowed to see her mother before being shipped to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. She was released after about a month in jail.
The Battle of Front Royal also vaulted Boyd into fame and celebrity, according to Abbott.
“Belle achieved worldwide fame after this; even newspapers in Europe ran stories about her and gave her nicknames (the French called her ‘La Belle Rebelle’),” Abbott wrote. “One could make the argument that the truly effective spies were the ones whose names were never known (at least not until long after the war), but Belle sort of transcended the role of ‘spy.’ There was no one else quite like her.”
After the spying
Confederate President Jefferson Davis decided to send Boyd on a diplomatic mission to England aboard The Greyhound in 1864.
A Union naval blockade stopped the ship and detained Boyd, but one of the naval officers — Samuel Wylde Hardinge — fell in love with her and the two later married in London after Boyd was forced out of the United States.
She wrote a book in two volumes, “Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison,” that was published in 1865 and became an actress — acting out parts of her spying activities on stage — to help support herself while in England.
Huntsberry said Boyd was akin to a celebrity overseas and socialized with upper-class citizens and some of the nobility.
Hardinge died in 1866, and Boyd moved back to the United States in 1869. She married two more times, had four children and toured the country in her later years, lecturing about her experiences.
Boyd died in Kilbourn City, Wis. — now named Wisconsin Dells — on June 11, 1900.
Abbott noted: “As the New York Times wrote 29 years after her death: ‘Flirtation, appeals to chivalry, insistence on her innocence, all these were tools she used as nonchalantly as a burglar his jimmy.’”
Additional information about the Belle Boyd House is available at www.bchs.org/HistoryBBHouse.html. Information about the Belle Boyd Cottage in Front Royal is at www.warrenheritagesociety.org/belleboyd.php.
Both sites are open to the public at certain times during the year.
Information about Karen Abbott is available at www.karenabbott.net.
— Contact Matt Armstrong email@example.com