Thumbing through my ‘In This Day In History’ calendar, I saw that May 9th is the birthday of Marie Isabella Boyd, better known as Belle Boyd, one of the most colorful and famous female spies for the Confederacy.
Born in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia on May 9th, 1843, Belle grew into a confident and headstrong girl. Her father owned a general store and managed a tobacco plantation, and when Belle was twelve he sent her to Mt. Washington Female College in Baltimore, Maryland to complete her education. She graduated in 1861, a very well educated woman for her time, and in July of that year, somewhat by chance, her career as a spy had its beginnings. According to her own account, on July 4th a group of drunken Union soldiers tore down a large Confederate flag that hung on her family home and replaced it with a Union flag. When one of them cursed and pushed at her mother the already angered Belle became enraged and shot the man on the spot. Chaos ensued as the soldiers began firing shots at the house and threatened to burn it down. It wasn’t until the guards arrived that the near-riot subsided. The Confederates, naturally, considered Belle’s act one of simple justice. The commanding officer of the Union forces conducted a hurried investigation and convened a board of inquiry. Belle, putting aside her pistols, employed her feminine wiles, augmented with tears and pretty smiles, with the result that she was exonerated.
However, sentries were posted around her home with orders to keep a close watch on her. The intrepid Belle used this situation to her advantage, charming at least one of the officers into revealing military secrets which Belle handed over to the Confederacy. And thus began her career as a spy.
Her exploits grew more daring and colorful with time. It was said that Belle Boyd was not graced with a pretty face but that she had a ‘fine body’ and ‘winning ways’ which the Union troops found quite charming. Not for her were disguises of modestly inconspicuous housewives and dowdy travelers. Belle reveled in her own flamboyant personality and played it to the hilt. Employing a dramatic air and joyous recklessness, she flirted and cajoled and dissembled her way into the confidence of her enemy and stole what secrets and information they held close. She could appear at one moment cunning and naïve the next, confounding her opponents.
Unashamedly unconventional, she shocked even close friends with her antics – visiting camps, calling on officers in their tents, dancing with both Northerners and Southerners. Belle obviously believed in having a good time while she performed her duty. And her secret weapon, one that got her out of hot water on more than one occasion, was reliance on male gallantry. She had an uncanny ability to appear contrite, confused and naively overwhelmed, a skill that elicited the ‘pat her on the head and send her on her way’ response from men in authority.
By the time of her 21st birthday she’d been arrested a half dozen times, ‘reported’ nearly thirty times and imprisoned twice. She’d even, in one of her more sensational and romantic exploits, persuaded one of her Northern captor to marry her and switch sides!
During her second imprisonment, the summer heat and confinement took their toll on Belle’s health. Doctors told her she needed to get away on a trip and Belle hatched a plan to resume her espionage activities by carrying Southern dispatches to England.
In May of 1864 she boarded the three-masted schooner Greyhound, a cotton bale transport ship, under the name Mrs. Lewis. They were barely a day out, however, when a Federal vessel began pursuit. The risk for Belle was dire. The Federal Government took extreme exception to those who carried messages from the Confederacy to European powers. In an attempt to outrun their pursuers, the Greyhound’s crew tried to lighten their load by tossing overboard their cargo of cotton and even a keg containing twenty-five thousand dollars. When capture seemed inevitable, Belle burned her precious dispatches. The Federal forces did in fact overtake the Greyhound, boarded her and took control. The ship was placed under the command of an Ensign Samuel Hardinge who sailed it directly astern the Federal ship Connecticut as they made their way to Fortress Monroe.
Belle was immediately struck by the young ensign and him by her. Before they reached their destination, Sam had asked Belle to marry him. Though smitten, Belle tarried over giving him an answer. He was, after all, a Union military man. When Sam aided her in effecting the Greyhound captain’s escape, however, Belle was convinced and agreed to marry him.
Sam, however, was in trouble with his superiors. For his part in the escape he was arrested, tried and dismissed from the Navy. Meantime, Belle had made her way to Canada, where she was still being closely watched by Federal forces. She finally set sail for England where she did what she could to continue to aid the Confederacy while she waited for Sam to join her. When he eventually did they were married amidst great fanfare at St. James church in Piccadilly. One Englishman described the bride this way “Her great beauty, elegant manners and personal attractions generally, in conjunction with her romantic history … concur to invest her with attributes which render her such a heroine as the world has seldom if ever seen.”
Though Belle longed to return to her beloved South, the many outstanding Union threats against her made such an undertaking to fraught with danger. So while Belle remained in London, Sam returned, ostensibly to visit his and Belle’s family, though some say he carried Confederate dispatches. He was arrested as a Southern spy and tossed into prison where he fell sick. Belle sold most of her possessions and finally wrote her memoirs, an embellished version of her exploits as a confederate spy.
In January of 1865 Belle petitioned Abraham Lincoln to release her husband, attempting to use her memoirs as leverage. Her letter said, in part:
I have heard from good authority that if I suppress the Book I have now ready for publication, you may be induced to consider leniently the case of my husband, S. Wylde Hardinge, now a prisoner in Fort Delaware, I think it would be well for you & me to come to some definite understanding– My Book was not originally intended to be more than a personal narrative, but since my husband’s unjust arrest I had intended making it political, & had introduced many atrocious circumstances respecting your Government with which I am so well acquainted & which would open the eyes of Europe to many things of which the world on this side of the water little dreams– If you will release my husband & set him free, so that he may join me here in England by the beginning of March — I pledge you my word that my Book shall be suppressed
Lincoln did not respond to this offer. But Sam was released from Fort Delaware in February and Belle’s book, entitled Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, was published in London by Saunders, Otley and Company in 1865.
Upon his release, Sam returned to her in London, but prison had taken its toll and he died a few months later of the ailments contracted during his incarceration. Belle was a widow at the age of twenty-one.
Belle went on to establish a theatrical career in both Europe and America. She married twice more and had four children.
She died in Wisconsin while on tour at the age of 56.