Belle Boyd was born in what is now West Virginia in May 1844 and became a Confederate spy before her 18th birthday. Her Civil War missions often involved transporting information and supplies to Southern troops, and her age allowed her to go virtually unnoticed by Union soldiers. Once the press got a hold of her story and made her famous, Boyd was regularly arrested, although she was never held for more than a few months. She eventually moved to England, where she wrote a book about her spy-related exploits. An actress later in life, Boyd died on stage in Wisconsin in June 1900, at age 56.
Maria Isabella "Belle" Boyd was born on May 9, 1844 (some sources say 1843), in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), to Mary Rebecca Glenn Boyd and Benjamin Reed Boyd, a shopkeeper. Hers was a prosperous family with deep Southern roots. From the start, Boyd was a strong-willed, high-spirited and quick-witted person. She once rode a horse into the family's home during a party after being told she was too young to attend. According to Karen Abbott's Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, Boyd told her parents and party guests "my horse is old enough, isn't he?" She enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and was educated at the Mount Washington Female College. Before the winter before the Civil War's start, Boyd lived a charmed life as a debutante in Washington, D.C.
Her home town of Martinsburg was largely filled with Union supporters, but her family believed in the Confederate cause. Her father had even volunteered for the Virginia infantry. It was one of the first towns the Union took when the Civil War began. On July 3, 1861, Union soldiers entered Martinsburg following a skirmish at the nearby town of Falling Waters The following day, a group of soldiers came into the Boyd residence. One of the men got into a confrontation with Boyd's mother.As Boyd later wrote in her memoir, the soldier “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. I could stand it no longer." She promptly shot and killed the man. After the Union commanding officer investigated, he said Boyd had acted properly in the situation, and she suffered no repercussions. With that one act, Boyd’s career as the “Rebel Spy" was underway, at age 17.
“Cleopatra of the Secession”
Boyd started out as an informal spy, gathering what information she could. Her talents as a flirt helped her extract information from Union soldiers. She wrote down her discoveries in letters that she got to the Confederate side with the help of her slave or a young neighbor. One of these missives was intercepted and Boyd found herself in hot water with the Union. Despite facing possible execution for her crime, Boyd managed to get off with a warning.
Undaunted, Boyd decided to serve the South in a more official capacity. She became a messenger for Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Boyd started out as a courier, carrying information and transporting medical supplies. By the time she was 18, word of her identity and activities became widely circulated, and Boyd found herself something of a celebrity. The press latched on to her with verve, calling her the “Cleopatra of the Secession,” “La Belle Rebelle," the “Siren of the Shenandoah" and the “Rebel Joan of Arc." Her high profile soon led to her imprisonment, however, although she was only held a week and continued her espionage work upon her release.
One of her most notable accomplishments as a spy came in May 1862. She managed to obtain information crucial to the Confederate cause and gave her side the details needed to help Stonewall Jackson's forces recapture the town of Front Royal. But two months later, Boyd once again got arrested for her work for Confederacy.
Arrest and Banishment
After this arrest, Boyd was sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. where she spent a month behind bars. She had a longer prison stay the following year, being incarcerated for five months. Boyd then banished to the South, but she refused to stop her work. Instead of remaining cooped up, she set sail for England in May 1864 to transport Confederate papers there. But her ship was stopped by a Union naval ship and she was again arrested as a spy. Boyd fell in love with one of her captors, a Union officer named Samuel Hardinge. The pair later married and had a daughter together. As she explained in her memoir, she thought that she might be able to woo him to the Confederate side. Hardinge did serve time in prison for giving aid to Boyd.
Despite being apprehended again, Boyd somehow convinced the Union authorities to let her go to Canada. From there, she made her way to England. Boyd turned to writing about her war adventures as a way to make money. She penned in the 1865 memoir Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison, which also featured contributions from her husband Hardinge on his time in prison. Boyd also launched a career as an actress.
Returning to the United States, Boyd kept performing. John Swainston Hammond, a former Union officer, attended one of her shows and was smitten. The couple married in 1869 and had four children together. Their union ended in divorce in 1884. The charming Southern belle did not remain single for long, however, Boyd married for the third time in 1885 to a young actor named Nathaniel Rue High. To support herself and her family, she returned to the stage in 1886. Boyd took her final bow on fourteen years later. She died on June 11, 1900, during a performance in Wisconsin. She was 56 years old.
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