Belle Boyd was only seventeen years old when she began her illustrious career as a Confederate spy. She quickly learned the art of espionage after her hometown of Martinsburg, Virginia became overrun with Yankees.
Born on May 4, 1844, Isabella Maria Boyd was the eldest child of Mary and Benjamin, who ran a general store and managed a tobacco plantation. Belle grew up with several brothers and sisters, dominating them all with her tomboyish ways. She attended Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore at age twelve and completed her education four years later, enjoying the life of a fun-loving debutante. Described as having shining blue eyes, thick light brown hair, and a fine figure, she made up for her lack of radiating beauty by being overly feminine, flirtatious, and dramatic. A brilliant talker, she dressed colorfully and wore feathers in her hats.
Three years later, upon the onset of the Civil War, her father enlisted with the Virginia Cavalry, Stonewall Jackson Brigade. It wasn’t long before Belle was confronted with the enemy. On July 2, 1861, Union troops skirmished at nearby Falling Waters, and occupied Martinsburg on July 4. After indulging in confiscated alcohol, a band of drunken Union soldiers stormed into Belle’s home, tore down the Confederate flag that the Boyd Family proudly flew over their home, and attempted to hoist up the Stars and Stripes. Belle’s mother protested, and was attacked by one of the Yankees. In retaliation, Belle shot him, explaining it as follows: … “we ladies are obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.” She was soon acquitted without reprisal for her action. “The commanding officer,” she wrote, “inquired into all the circumstances with strict impartiality, and finally said I had ‘done perfectly right’.” Her home, however, was constantly guarded by sentries afterward to keep an eye on her activities.
She soon became a courier for Generals Beauregard and Jackson, carrying information, confiscating weapons, and delivering medical supplies. By early 1862, she had developed a reputation for herself, dubbed in the press as “La Belle Rebelle,” the “Siren of the Shenandoah,” the “Rebel Joan of Arc,” and the “Amazon of Secessia.” Using her feminine qualities to allure unsuspecting Yankees, she befriended the invading soldiers to obtain information for the Confederacy. One evening in mid-May, she eavesdropped through a peephole on a Council of War while visiting relatives in Front Royal, whose home was being used for a Union headquarters. With the information she obtained, she rode fifteen miles to inform General Stonewall Jackson. On May 23, she ran out onto the battlefield to inform General Jackson of last minute information. She later wrote that “the Federal pickets … immediately fired upon me…my escape was most providential…rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me … son near my feet as to throw dust in my eyes…numerous bullets whistled by my ears, several actually pierced different parts of my clothing.” Jackson captured the town and later acknowledged her bravery in a personal note. She was subsequently awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor.
Belle was arrested on July 29, 1862 and incarcerated at Old Federal Prison in Washington D.C., but was released a month later as part of a prisoner exchange. She was arrested again in July 1863. Not a model inmate, Belle waved the Confederate flag from her window, loudly sang “Dixie,” and sent information to a contact person outside who shot a rubber ball into her cell. She then sewed messages inside and sent it back. She was released in December, but was arrested again in 1864, and this time was released for health reasons (typhoid fever). On May 8, she was sent to England as a diplomatic courier, but was captured while aboard a blockade runner, The Greyhound. She escaped to Canada with the assistance of Union naval officer Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, and the two traveled to England, where Belle went to work for the Confederate Secret Service. Hardinge was court-martialed and disgraced for his actions. The two were married on August 24.
Belle stayed in England for the next two years, writing her memoirs, entitled “Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison,” and achieving success onstage. She returned to America in 1866, newly-widowed, and continued her stage career and lecture tour, billing her show as “The Perils of a Spy,” and touting herself as “Cleopatra of the Secession.”
She married John Swainston Hammond, an Englishman who had fought for the Union army, in 1869, but sixteen years and four children later, divorced him. Two months later, in January 1885, she married Nathaniel High, Jr., who was an actor seventeen years younger than she. Sadly, Belle found herself stricken by poverty. She died of a heart attack while on tour in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin, and is buried there in Spring Grove Cemetery.