At the beginning of the Civil War, 17-year-old Marie Isabella (Belle) Boyd hardly fit the image of a daring spy. She had graduated Baltimore’s Mount Washington Female College and enjoyed a Washington debut. Family stories abound about the lively, oldest child in the family of eight siblings, growing up as a tomboy climbing trees and finally in protest for being excluded from the adult dinner table at age eleven, she rode her horse into the dining room and announced, “Well, my horse is old enough isn’t he?”
Belle’s family lived in Martinsburg, Virginia (present West Virginia) and owned six slaves, one of whom, Eliza, became Belle’s constant companion. Secretly, by candlelight, Belle defied the law by teaching Eliza to read and write. When Belle began her other secret adventures—spying on Union troops—Eliza reportedly helped by carrying messages to Confederates in a hollowed-out watchcase.
In Belle’s memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison published in 1866, she relates a story that signals the beginning of her involvement in the Civil War. Martinsburg was one of the first towns captured by the Union and while ransacking homes and businesses, a group of drunken soldiers invaded the Boyd home and tried to raise a Yankee flag. Belle’s mother, exclaimed, “Every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.” Belle writes that one of the soldiers “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. I could stand it no longer . . . we ladies are obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.” Belle shot and killed the gentleman.
The subsequent inquiry found Belle had “done perfectly right,” according to her account. For a brief period sentries posted around her home kept watch on her activities, which allowed Belle to charm secrets out of one of her overseers and relate the information to Confederate officers.
Union officials watched Belle’s activities, but she managed to take advantage of her minders’ sense of chivalry and their natural deference to “ladies” that allowed her to gather detailed information on Union movements that she passed on to Confederate commanders.
After visiting her father who was serving in what became known as the Stonewall Brigade, Belle began carrying messages between generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard.
In May 1862, probably while employed in a hotel owned by her relatives in the Shenandoah Valley town of Front Royal, she overheard plans to send Union forces east out of Front Royal, thereby reducing the Union’s strength in the town. She rode that night; some accounts say fifteen miles through Union lines to pass the information to Confederate Major General Jackson. When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to the edge of town to meet Jackson and inform him of the light enemy strength. Jackson’s aide later described seeing a woman in white gliding swiftly out of town seeming to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waving a bonnet as she came. Belle claimed in her memoir, “Federal pickets . . . immediately fired upon me . . .rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me . . . numerous bullets whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing.” Jackson captured Front Royal and wrote a personal letter of appreciation for Belle’s bravery. Some accounts say she received the Southern Cross of Honor.
The detective, Allan Pinkerton, wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “She (Belle) gets around considerably, is very shrewd, and is probably acting as a spy. She is an open, earnest, and undisguised secessionists, and talks secession on all practicable occasions . . .informant considers her more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operation than any three men in the valley.”
After being arrested and jailed for a short time in July 1862 and again the following year, she became known as the “Joan of Arc of the Confederacy.” She volunteered to carry dispatches to Confederate agents in England who were trying to get Britain to enter the war on the side of the South. Her ship was captured on May 10, 1864, and she was deported to Canada and threatened with death if she returned to the United States. From Quebec she sailed to London where she married Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the Union naval officers who had captured her ship.
Belle published her two-volume memoir in London and had a daughter before Hardinge died in 1866. To support herself as a widow with a child, she began a stage career and then retuned to the United States for her stage debut in St. Louis.
Belle’s Texas connection began in 1868 when she acted in several plays in Houston and Galveston. She moved on to Austin to offer several dramatic readings at the Texas postwar constitutional convention.
The following year, she gave up her stage career to marry Dallas businessman and former Union officer, J. S. Hammond. They had four children before Belle divorced Hammond in 1884 and two months later married Nathaniel Rue High, seventeen years her junior.
With High serving as her business manager, Belle returned to the stage as Belle Boyd presenting the dramatic story of her Confederate spy exploits. She toured the country performing in a Confederate gray uniform and cavalry-style hat.
In 1900, after ending a lecture with the dramatic words “one God, one flag, one people—forever,” Belle Boyd died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, Belle was not so much a supporter of the Confederacy, but an adventurer who took advantage of the assumption that women could not be dangerous. She was arrested six times, imprisoned three times and exiled twice. A man with her record would have been executed.