Belle Boyd: The Cleopatra of Secession

At the age of just 17, having neither been paid nor recruited by any agency Belle Boyd became a spy for the Confederate Army. She was brave, often reckless, and seduced much older men to elicit valuable military information, and she did it all of her own volition. Indeed her willingness to share the flesh and to endure the unendurable was to see her referred to as the Cleopatra of Secession.

Isabella Marie Boyd was born on 9 May 1844, in the town of Martinsburg, Virginia, an area of the State that was in fact opposed to secession and would break away to form the pro-Union State of West Virginia.

Although her family were of relatively modest means they spent to provide a good education for their daughter hoping that with the proper marriage it was money they would redeem many times over.

Isabella was to prove a bright and intelligent young girl but one who preferred the rough and tumble of the outdoors to the dusty corridors of academic study, sewing circles, and piano lessons. In fact, she was never happier than when riding a horse, climbing a tree, or pulling the hair of boys her own age and older.

Even so, by the time of her graduation she was deemed enough mannered to be sent north to fulfill her parent’s ambition and find the well-heeled husband who would befit the grace and the polish.

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She scrubbed up well and as the impeccably gracious Southern Belle she made a good impression but with the young men distracted by the prospect of war there was to be no courtship and no betrothal. She returned home disappointed and somewhat humbled by her failure to procure a husband but she had at least acquired a new name – Belle.

Unlike most of their neighbours the Boyd family were enthusiastic supporters of the secessionist cause and flew the rebel flag outside their home but partisan behaviour is never wise in a hostile environment and when and on 4 July 1861, Union troops arrived in town they tore down the flag and burned it. When Belle’s mother objected and tried to intervene she was first verbally abused before being knocked to the ground.

Belle reacted to seeing her mother treated so by reaching for her father’s gun and shooting one of the soldiers. She was arrested and brought before a Military Tribunal who exonerated her on the grounds that she had been provoked. Nonetheless, sentries were placed outside the Boyd home and they were for a time at least kept a close watch on.

Charming and coquettish Belle was not averse to flirting with the soldiers who enjoyed the attention and it wasn’t long before she was courting a Union Officer named Daniel Kelly who lulled into the complacency of pillow talk in-between those moments of coital passion, was soon revealing secrets.

Belle would excuse herself a moment and hastily write down these secrets whilst they remained fresh in the mind before returning to the bedroom as enthusiastic to embrace love as ever.

These written notes she concealed in a hollowed out watch case which she gave to her slave Eliza to be taken under the cover of darkness to Confederate forces if they could be found.

Belle believed should they be stopped the troops would not search Eliza but she was mistaken and intercepted by Union troops both Belle and Eliza were searched and the incriminating evidence found.

Eliza was soon released but Belle was questioned and told that she would be likely hanged. In the end it was decided that she was just a young, foolish girl and was permitted to return home. Had it been later in the war the outcome of her actions may have been very different – she had been lucky.

Not long after the Boyd family moved to the more hospitable town of Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley where they opened a hotel. Belle joined them a little later and finding a new arena of conflict soon found her recent brushes with the law had done little to dampen her enthusiasm for espionage.

One evening in May 1862, Union General James Shields and his Staff were meeting in the hotels parlour where learning of this Belle hid in the closet where she remained undetected as they discussed their plans and orders in detail.

Later that night Belle slipped out of town determined to find the Confederate Army of General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson having earlier reverted to her usual modus operandi to procure some false papers that might should she be discovered save her life. As it was she evaded the Union pickets but in doing so became lost and it was only after considerable time had passed and beginning to panic she stumbled upon the cavalry of Colonel Ashby Turner.

She blurted out her information – General Shields planned to march his army from Front Royal leaving only a token force behind. The town was undefended, it was there for the taking – General Jackson must come at once!

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Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s Valley Campaign in the spring and early summer of 1862 has since become legendary in the annals of war as in a series of forced marches and lightning hit and run attacks he bemused and totally out-manoeuvred four Union armies all larger than his own.

In doing so, he prevented them from reinforcing General George McClellan’s proposed, march on Richmond and secured the Shenandoah Valley with its vital harvest for Robert E Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia – and Belle Boyd played a pivotal role.

On 23 May, Jackson’s entire army 14,000 strong converged on Front Royal. As they did so Belle ran out to greet them shouting as bullets tore through her skirt – the Yankees are very few, charge now and you will catch them all.

Jackson did just that and following a short, sharp engagement more than a thousand Union soldiers were taken prisoner.

So impressed was the usually phlegmatic Jackson by the tenacity and courage of this young woman that he pinned a note to her dress:

“I thank you for myself and for the army, for the immense service you have rendered your country this day.”

Belle continued her spying activities but was soon betrayed by a lover who publicised her activities spreading her fame far and wide. Not long after she was arrested on the express orders of the U.S. Secretary of State Edwin M Stanton.

On 29 July, she was taken to Washington and confined in the Old Capitol Prison where she was interrogated and kept under close surveillance.

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The New York Tribune wrote of her:

“Wearing a Rebel soldier’s belt around her waist, and a velvet band across her forehead with the seven stars of the Confederacy shedding their pale light the only additional ornament she required to render herself perfectly beautiful was a Yankee noose encircling her neck.”

But Belle remained defiant:

“If it was a crime to love the South, its cause and its President then I am a criminal. I would rather lie down in this prison and die than leave it owing allegiance to a government such as yours.”

Remarkably given her profile she once again got lucky when she was taken south as part of a prisoner exchange, a bi-lateral arrangement that would later cease.

She was eager to resume spying but was soon captured again before mistakenly being released and allowed to return to Richmond. She did indeed have nine lives but even so it was evident she was now too well known to continue her activities and posed a danger not only to herself but also those who worked with her.

As a reward for her efforts in early 1864 she was sent to England as an advocate for the Southern cause but her ship, the blockade-runner Greyhound, was intercepted mid-Atlantic and Belle was taken captive before being released upon the ship’s arrival in Canada.

Belle remained determined to complete her mission and embarked once more for the journey to England.

Upon her arrival she settled in London before beginning a lecture tour where she argued for Southern independence and urged her audience to recognise the Confederacy and to lobby their Government to do the same.

She also married the Union Naval Officer Samuel Wylde Hardinge who had earlier taken her prisoner having persuaded him to change sides, and appeared briefly on the London stage to help finance her stay playing what else – a Southern Belle.

Following the death of her husband Belle returned to America and a defeated, war-ravaged South.

Heartbroken by the sight of destroyed farms and abandoned plantations, and horrified to see freed slaves in uniform patrolling the streets of Southern towns she simply couldn’t bear it and moved North where she was to marry two further times but nothing in her life ever came close to those heady days that were the early years of the Confederacy.

In 1867, she published her memoirs ‘Belle Boyd, In Camp and in Prison’ and sales of the book were to provide her with some security and a little fame which she was more than prepared to exploit.

In truth she could never escape her past but then she never really wished to and every year would embark upon a lecture tour but rarely in the South where the collective memory of the war was one of humiliation and defeat.

Instead she spoke to her erstwhile enemies who triumphant were willing to listen to tales of derring-do from those they had vanquished.

On 11 June 1900, in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin, where she was due to speak to Union veterans Belle had a fatal heart attack. She was 56 years of age.

The Confederacy had not issued medals and decorations declaring that all those who served the cause were by definition patriots and heroes and the highest commendation one could receive was to be mentioned in dispatches.

In 1898, the United Daughters of the Confederacy awarded Belle Boyd their highest decoration, the recently instituted Southern Cross of Honour.

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