Belle Boyd played the role of spy as if the war were a lighthearted game of charades. And she lived as if she were fashioning her days into the plot of a romantic story. During her lifetime she could have read about herself in at least two historical novels, although neither did justice to her dashing exploits.
The zestful Miss Boyd became an espionage agent when she was seventeen, and served the Confederacy throughout the war, in Dixie, the North, and England as well. She matched the boldness of any man, galloping headlong into the dark with cipher messages, or creeping into rooms to eavesdrop on Union Army conferences. On at least one occasion (when she could persuade none of the men to do it for her), she daringly entered battle lines to carry back important information.
But Belle Boyd was above all overwhelmingly feminine; she made good use of her womanly appeal, of which she had an enormous amount. Unlike others who impersonated the inconspicuous female and made themselves up as a drab housewife or dowdy traveler, this spy played her own personality to the hilt, with a dramatic air and sweeping gestures, wearing rich reds and greens and feathers in her hat. Belle had a "joyous recklessness," as one reluctant admirer phrased it. She looked at men through her long lashes, assuring them that she had no intentions hostile to the North, while she stole whatever secrets were at hand and filched others practically from their pockets. Belle possessed at least one additional asset--perhaps the best pair of legs in the Confederacy. Even a lady must get in and out of a carriage or with a flurry of petticoats dismount from a home; at such times Miss Boyd showed a pretty confusion, and very fine ankles.
Her actions were puzzling to her opponents, for at times she seemed cunning, at others naive. Always an individualist, she spied "by ear," after her own special fashion. Belle obviously did not believe in the virtues of silence, for what she thought, she generally said. Despite her failings, she proved a remarkably good agent.
Belle Boyd loved the South passionately. After the war she said she had never "had a consciousness that I was a spy. I only wanted to help my people." Nevertheless, as Carl Sandburg has observed, she could have been "legally convicted and shot at sunrise on the basis of the evidence against her. Yet Belle had critics among Southerners themselves. She traveled alone, to the horror of more conventional women. A "brilliant talker," she conversed easily with anyone she met, and her lack of self-consciousness in the company of men was unusual in a woman of her class.
She shocked her conservative friends by visiting camps, calling on generals and colonels in their tents, and accepting carriage rides in the warm afternoons. She even danced and flirted with Northerners as well as Southerners. When she bothered to defend herself, Belle said that it was necessary for her to be on good terms with both sides. Yet, there was no doubt that Miss Belle liked the boys in blue as well as those in gray. And she obviously liked spying; she performed her duty to the South and had a nice time, too.
She could always rely on a hidden weapon--male gallantry. When Federal commanders discovered that she had given information to the South that might wreck their plans, she would look sad, speak half gaily, half pathetically, and Northern chivalry would prove as strong as Southern; they would release her. Before she reached twenty-one this Virginian had been imprisoned twice, "reported" nearly thirty times, and arrested six or seven. In one romantic feat she persuaded her Northern captor to marry her and switch sides. Nearly everybody liked Belle or enjoyed hearing about her. In Piccadilly, English crowds hailed her as if she were a Sir Walter Scott heroine. French newspapers termed her "La Belle Rebelle." It can be surmised that she approved the title.
Her birthplace was the Shenandoah Valley, whose rolling hills, "broad, clear, rapid streams," silver maples, and rocky borders Belle pictured in affectionate memory. Her native town of Martinsburg, then in Virginia, now West Virginia, lay in a peaceful area which eventually exploded in action and shifted from Southern to Northern hands.
As Belle later told a Chicago interviewer, she came of a "well known family of Virginia," having ties among the best in the state." The Boyds traced themselves back to an ancient Scottish clan; they had highly placed kin in New Orleans and parts of Kentucky, and a family connection with George Randolph, later Confederate Secretary of War. Although Belle was reluctant to admit it, her branch of the Boyds had done less well than others. Her father ran a store and managed a tobacco farm.
To her English admirers Belle described an idyllic childhood in a "pretty two-storied house," its walls "hidden by roses and honeysuckle." Idyllic it may have been, for a relative recalled that Belle had been a reckless tomboy who climbed trees, raced through the woods on a nettlesome mount, and dominated brothers, sisters, and cousins. It is said that her mild-mannered mother never disciplined her; what little Miss Boyd wished to do, she did. There is a story that when she made a visit to Tennessee relatives she encountered a stricter home regime and, to her surprise, liked it, "although it was the first time in her life she ever had to conform to family rules." She did not conform for long; in her own phrase, she preferred to be ''on the go.
Despite their lack of money, the Boyds gave their daughter a good education. After some preliminary schooling, she was sent at the age of twelve to the Mount Washington Female College at Baltimore. A minister was head of the college, hut despite his influence Belle remained "on the go." At sixteen her training \vas ''supposed to he completed," and her family and friends arranged a debut in Washington. Cousins made certain that the tall, graceful girl met the proper hostesses and received invitations to the best affairs.
Secretary of War Floyd, soon to join the Confederacy, was one in whose drawing rooms Belle became a favorite. For the impulsive adolescent the waltzes and cotillions, the bright conversations with uniformed officers, judges, and senators were a heady experience. The season was that of late 86o, however, and more and more often she heard the echoes of clashes over slaverys extension. Then came secession.
With Sumters fall Belle headed home for Martinsburg, "enthusiastic in my love for my country, the South." There she discovered that her forty-four-year-old father had volunteered for military service. Sedentary, highly unmilitary, Ben Boyd nevertheless insisted on taking his part in the war. Offered "that grade in the army to which his social position entitled him," he had instead enlisted as a private. Beside younger and more hardy men, Ben was to suffer greatly in the war; hut Belle reacted with hearty approval, contributing to town funds for his regiment, the 2nd Virginia, and joining other Confederate causes as they sprang up.
To nobodys surprise, she soon found these employments too tame and monotonous to satisfy my temperament." When her father went to the camp at Harpers Ferry, she helped organize a festive visiting party. Officers and men were and joyous," she wrote, and "many true hearts" were pledged. To this Belle added: "A true woman always loves a real soldier." Not yet seventeen, Miss Boyd considered herself a "true woman."
So, perhaps, did others. Observers did not always agree about her looks, for while some considered her beautiful, or at least handsome, a few noted that she had a prominent nose, and ultimately Northern and Southern journalists would debate the momentous issue: did Belle have freckles, or didn't she? One man said that her face possessed "too much character in it to be called merely pretty." Still, Belle had shining blue eyes, a heavy head of light brownish hair, and, last but not least, a fine figure which many commented on, despite Victorian proprieties.
Early in July 1861, Ben Boyds regiment prepared for battle, and sorrowfully the girl and her mother bade him good-by, and returned to Martinsburg. The 2nd Virginia met Union forces and fell back; still more sorrowfully Belle watched as her father and his comrades retreated through the home town. She had already met the commander, old "Stonewall," for whom she acquired an admiration that approached, then exceeded worship. To her, General Jackson, the bearded, reticent genius, was "that undaunted hero, that true apostle of Freedom."
Belle promptly went to the hospitals to help the wounded, and she was there when a triumphant Union officer entered. Waving a flag over the soldiers beds, he referred to them as "damned rebels."
Belle snapped at him, commenting scornfully on the bravery of a man who insulted men when they were "as helpless as babies."
The Federal soldier was taken by surprise. "And pray, who may you be, Miss?"
Belle glared, and her maid spoke up for her: "A rebel lady."
"A damned independent one, at all events," remarked the Northerner as he left the hospital. The next day Belle had what she termed her "first adventure," when she killed herself a Yankee soldier, in a highly controversial incident.
Half the town of Martinsburg knew that the forthright Belle kept Confederate flags all over the walls of her room, and word of this reached the Union forces, who were planning a great July Fourth celebration. While the Boyds stayed at home, the men in blue drank heavily, smashed windows at random, and broke into houses to hunt for Southern souvenirs. One party staggered into the Boyd place, tore down pictures, and stamped toward Belles room. "Wheres the secesh flags?" they demanded.
As Belle and her mother stood tight-lipped, the maid slipped out and removed the flags. The thwarted Northerners then announced that they would make sure the damned family looked loyal, anyway, and one pulled out a big American flag and started to climb to the roof to hoist it.
For once Belles mother lost her meekness and called out: "Men, every member of this household will die before that flag is raised over us." The soldier cursed and pushed Mrs. Boyd aside. According to Belle, "I could stand it no longer; my indignation was aroused beyond control. . . . I drew out my pistol and shot him." A near riot followed, with Union soldiers firing shots at the house and threatening to burn it down. Then guards arrived.
The Confederates considered Belles act one of simple justice. The Union commanding officer hurried up to investigate, held a hearing--and exactly nothing more happened. Belle put aside her gun and employed tears and smiles. The result was that a guard was posted at the house to make sure no further incidents occurred, and "Federal officers called every day to inquire if we had any complaint"! Belle recalled that in this way she first became "acquainted with so many of them." Before long she had set a good many teeth on edge by fraternizing with the enemy, which astonished and horrified conservative Martinsburg.
Belle explains, however, that she had begun to experiment in espionage. Whatever she learned, she "regularly and carefully committed to paper" and sent to her beloved Stonewall Jackson or to Jeb Stuart. Soon her first mistake tripped her. A true novice, she had no cipher and made no effort to disguise her handwriting. One of her notes reached Union headquarters, and the colonel in command summoned her. Reading the articles of war, he asked sternly if Miss Belle knew she could be sentenced to death?
Belle declined to be frightened. She made a full curtsy, and her eyes swept over the officers in the room. "Thank you, gentlemen of the jury," she murmured in irony, and swirled out. But she had to be more careful, and for a time she used as helper an old Negro, who carried messages in a big watch from which the insides had been removed. A certain Sophie B. also assisted her. Lacking Belles superlative horsemanship, Sophie once had to walk seven miles each way to Jacksons camp.
In her memoirs of these salad days of her spying, Belle gives only a few details, but reveals something of her inspiration. One day she heard of the exploit of Rose Greenhows famous helper, Betty Duvall, with her market girls disguise and the dispatch hidden in her black locks. Spy inspired spy, and Belle sought out Colonel Turner Ashby, Jacksons sharp-faced cavalry leader, head of military scouts in the Shenandoah Valley.
Ashby was no mean spy himself when he put on civilian clothes and rode around Union camps in the role of a dreary veterinarian. For days Ashby would treat ailing horses, then jog back to his own lines with all he needed to know about the enemy. From him Belle received several assignments as courier for the Confederate forces. She learned the use of a cipher, and in the shifting battle areas she frequently carried messages on brief runs, pounding through back country and over short cuts on her horse. Her tomboy days were paying off.
Restless as ever, she worked in one town after another, until she heard in late March of 1862 that fighting was on again at Martinsburg. Her place was there, she felt, but as she passed through nearby Winchester an enemy tipped off Union authorities. At the railroad station, officers begged Belles pardon--and arrested her. She would have to go all the way to Baltimore with them. The experience might have been terrifying to the girl, but, while friends watched glumly, Belle adjusted a bright new beribboned hat and assured them that nothing was going to happen to her! Theyd see.
They did. Her prison in Baltimore was a comfortable hotel, where she held court and chuckled at, then with her captors. A week passed pleasantly as officials puzzled over what to do about her. General Dix, who had presided at the Greenhow hearing, found no specific evidence, and let her leave with a fatherly warning. With another deep bow and a raised eyebrow, the junior spy swished out.
After this adventure she rejoined her family at Front Royal, forty miles south of Martinsburg, where Belles aunt and uncle had a small hotel. To her surprise, Union forces had taken over the building and the remaining members of her family had moved to a cramped cottage. Such restriction made Belles Confederate heart sink. She knew precisely where she wanted to be--in Richmond, the heart of everything that interested her. As Belle understood life, the way to get a thing was to ask for it, especially if the one to be asked were a man. So she sought out the commander, General James Shields.
The good-humored Irishman beamed at the bold, pretty girl.
Ah, he clicked his tongue, if he gave Miss Belle the pass she wished, she would have to go through General Jacksons lines. Shields shook his head in mock regret; those Confederates had been so demoralized that he dared not trust Miss Belle to their mercies. Then with a twinkle he added that in a few days Jackson s men would all be wiped out, and she could go through!
So assured was the Union officer, Belle said in her memoirs, that he forgot "a woman can sometimes listen and remember." Sensing a chance for a real exploit, she changed her plans in a second. She would stay right here. When she twinkled back at Shields, he grew expansive and introduced her to his staff. A younger, handsomer Irishman seemed definitely worthy of cultivation and quickly Belle let Captain Keily think he was cultivating her.
The spy rode out with the captain, and Keily talked freely. To him, as she said wryly, she was "indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and last, not least, for a great deal of very important information. . . ." Belle gathered that a major Federal drive would soon be mounted, and her aunts hotel was a rare observation point. One night in mid May she learned that a war council was about to be held in the hotel parlor. Directly above was a bedroom with a closet, and, as Belle had once noticed, the closet floor had a small knothole. Perhaps the energetic spy enlarged it a bit for her purposes.
When the men gathered, she lay down in the closet and put her ear to the opening. For hours she stayed there, motionless, cramped, catching every murmur as the men, sitting over cigars and maps, argued strategy. Belles mind filled with names, figures, placement of scattered armies. There was much she did not understand, so she memorized most of it. The meeting ended about one in the morning, and, after waiting for the halls to clear, Belle scurried to her cottage and wrote out a cipher message.
She had to leave with it at once. To wake a servant was too great a risk, so she saddled her horse and led him softly away. A few minutes later she was galloping toward the mountains. In her pocket she had a pass left her by a paroled Confederate. A sentry stopped her, and as she thrust it into his hands she talked nervously of sickness in the family, her need for haste. He let her by.
She had to rein in and chatter out her story to another guard, and he nodded. With that she sped across fields, along marshes, past cabins. Fifteen miles away was a house where she had been told she could send an emergency message to Colonel Ashby, Jacksons head spy. At last, breathless, she jumped from her horse and hammered at the door of the dark building. A suspicious voice demanded who she was. After she gave her name, the friend opened the door and gaped at her: "My dear, where'd you come from?"
Belle ignored his questions as male irrelevance, and asked her own. Where was Ashby? How soon could she reach him? Told that his party was quartered up the road, she started to turn, when another door opened, and Ashby himself frowned at her. "Good God! Miss Belle, is that you?"
The girl told all she knew and left hurriedly, for she had to get back home before dawn. She was nearly there when a drowsy sentry, waking just as she rode by fired after her. But she was lying exhausted in her own bed by the time General Shieldss forces rolled out of AMartinsburg. The next ten days or so would see vigorous action, she felt sure.
Rumors arrived soon of Federal movements at Winchester. Feeling the need to be "on the go" once more, Belle asked for a pass. The provost marshal was suspicious, and put her off with one excuse after another. He sometimes left on short absences, however, and she waited until he rode out of town. Then Belle applied prettily to a young cavalry lieutenant in the provosts office. She, a girl cousin, and her maid were anxious to make the trip, and surely he wouldn't object. The lieutenant hesitated, and Belle moved closer. . . . Well, he had to go thereabouts himself, Miss Belle, and hed just ride along. Though she had not expected quite that arrangement, she took full advantage of it. For the young Union officer the trip was a gay adventure. He escorted the girls through the lines and they stayed briefly at Winchester.
There, unexpectedly or perhaps not so unexpectedly, a new opportunity opened to the alert Miss Boyd. A "gentleman of high social standing" found her and murmured an anxious message: He had several papers that should go to General Jackson or one of his subordinates. He shoved them into Belles hands. They all dealt with the impending clash between Confederate and Northern forces and were of varying importance. The first packet she examined was vital, and Belle slipped it to her maid, reasoning that the Federals would probably not search a Negro. A paper of less import the girl dropped casually in a small basket; another of the same sort she gave the bemused lieutenant to hold. A final document, of great significance, she held in her own hand. The blithe party started back.
They did not get far, for they had just reached Winchesters outskirts when a pair of detectives flagged them down. They were all under arrest. At headquarters the colonel in charge asked a direct question: was Miss Boyd carrying any disloyal messages? The lieutenant was flustered. Belle knew that the less important packet in her basket would quickly be found, so she promptly passed it to the colonel. In her hand she still held the most vital of the papers. "Whats that?" the colonel demanded.
Belle employed elementary psychology. "This scrap? Nothing. You can have it." She moved forward as if to give the note to him; had he reached out, she said later, she would have swallowed it. Instead, the colonel turned his attention to the lieutenant. From his pocket that luckless man fished Belles paper, and caught the brunt of the older mans rage. What did this mean--carrying messages for the secesh! Didn't the unwitting fool know. . .?
To the girls regret, the lieutenant stayed under arrest. Belle herself, according to a newspaper of a few days later, "with her usual adroitness and assumed innocence, got clear of the charges of treachery." She had not only kept the essential note in her hand, but also the valuable one in her maids possession!
In May of 1863 Jackson had launched perhaps the most astonishing action of his career, his first Valley campaign, which bewildered and terrified his Northern opponents. He started several times in one direction, and the Union shifted forces to meet him; a day or so later he reversed himself in a long, secret march in the opposite direction, and fell on other units of the unprepared enemy, smashed them, and moved on to repeat the performance. Each time the Federal military leaders declared that the maneuver was incredible, impossible-- yet there it was.
Jackson had fewer than twenty thousand men in the Valley; the Union had several times that number, at different points, under Generals Banks, Fremont, and McDowell. McDowell was preparing his army to join McClellan in a mighty drive to take Richmond. But now Stonewall had gone to work to wreck that plan. Furthermore, he was making such a powerful movement toward Washington that the Union would have to divert thousands of men from the push against Richmond.
In Front Royal, Belle Boyd was puzzled: what could she do with her accumulated information? Then, on May 23, 1862, she found a way to make proper use of it.
As she sat in her living room, her reliable maid announced excitedly: "Rebels comm!" From the door Belle saw Northern soldiers running in every direction. When she called out to a friendly officer, he told her nervously what had happened:
Southerners under Generals Jackson and Ewell had surprised the Union pickets. Stonewall was within a mile or so of town before the Federals had wind of an attack!
"Now," explained this talkative fellow, "were trying to get the ordnance and quartermaster~s stores out of reach."
"And the stores in the big depot?" Belle asked quickly.
"Well burn 'em!"
"Suppose Jacksons men come too fast?"
"We'll fight as long as we can show a front. If we have to do it, well draw back on Winchester--fire the bridges as we cross, and join General Banks. . . ." As he disappeared, Belle snatched up opera glasses and ran to the balcony. The Confederate advance guard was about three quarters of a mile from town. She thought of her poor father, trying to hold his own with younger men, advancing with that army, and all at once her hopes overcame her fears.
She went over her assorted information: the messages handed to her in Winchester, the military conference overheard at the hotel, and data gathered on her visits to the camps. It added up to a great deal. In her own words, she knew "that General Banks was at Strasbourg with 4,000 men; that the small force at Winchester could be readily reinforced by General White, who was at Harpers Ferry, and that Generals Shields and Geary were a short distance from Front Royal, while Fremont was beyond the Valley; further, and this was the vital point, that it had been decided all these separate divisions should co-operate against General Jackson." The Confederates had to be advised of these facts. . . . She hurried downstairs.
Out on the street Belle spoke to several men whom she knew were Southern sympathizers. Wouldn't one of them carry her information to General Jackson? "No, no. You go!" they urged her gallantly.
Snatching up a sunbonnet, she went. She edged her way through the Union soldiers, past heavy guns and equipment. Finally reaching the open fields, Belle was fired on by Union pickets. She felt the rifle balls "flying thick and fast" around her in a cross lire between Confederate and Northern skirmishers.
A Federal shell hit the earth twenty yards ahead of the girl and just before it burst Belle threw herself to the ground. A moment later she was dashing on again, in terror and determination: "I shall never run again as I ran ... on that day." She scrambled over fences, crawled along the edges of hills and fields, and at last approached the oncoming Southern line.
Her Confederate spirit leaped within her, and she waved her bonnet to the soldiers as a sign to press on. Astonished at the sight of a woman at this exposed spot, Hays Louisiana Brigade and the First Maryland Infantry cheered and quickened their pace. (Three years later Belle still heard in her dreams "their shouts of approbation and triumph.") Exhausted, tearful, she fell to her knees, then rose as the main body of men moved toward her. She recognized an old friend, Major Harry Douglas. In his own memoirs Douglas, taking up the story, explained that Stonewall Jackson had been trying to take in the situation facing him, when: I observed, almost immediately, the figure of a woman in white glide swiftly out of town on our right, and, after making a little circuit, run rapidly up a ravine in our direction and then disappear from sight. She seemed, when I saw her, to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waved a bonnet as she came on, trying, it was evident, to keep the hill between herself and the village. I called General Jacksons attention to the singular movement just as a dip in the land hid her, and at General Ewells suggestion, he sent me to meet her and ascertain what she wanted. That was just to my taste, and it took only a few minutes for my horse to carry me to meet the romantic maiden whose tall, supple and graceful figure struck me as soon as I came in sight of her. (Even at such moments Belles proportions were not to be overlooked!)
As I drew near, her speed slackened, and I was startled, momentarily, at hearing her call my name. But I was not much astonished when I saw that the visitor was the well-known Belle Boyd, whom I had known from her earliest girlhood. She was just the girl to dare to do this thing.
"Great God, Belle, why are you here?" He asked the same question that others often put to her. Trying to catch her breath, the girl spoke in gasps.
I knew it must be Stonewall, when I heard the first gun. Go back quick and tell him that the Yankee force is very small-- one regiment of Maryland infantry, several pieces of artillery and several companies of cavalry. Tell him I know, for I went through the camps and got it out of an officer. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all. I must hurry back. Goodbye. My love to all the dear boys--and remember if you meet me in town you havent seen me today.
Harry Douglas raised his cap, Belle kissed her hand to him and started back. While he stood talking over her message with Jackson, she waved the white bonnet and re--entered the village. Some of what she told Douglas the Confederates had already heard; but she confirmed the facts, and she gave them new data on which to act. Now they moved on with brilliant effect. While Maryland and Louisiana troops raced forward, Jackson "with a half smile" suggested that Douglas might see if he could "get any more information from that young lady."
More than willing to try, Douglas galloped off. A bit later he met Miss Boyd in conversation with Federal officer prisoners and a few Confederate Army friends. Forever Belle! "Her cheeks were rosy with excitement and recent exercise, and her eyes all aflame. When I rode up to speak to her she received me with much surprised cordiality, and as I stooped from my saddle she pinned a crimson rose to my uniform, bidding me remember that it was blood-red and that it was her 'colors."
Spurred by Belles information, Jackson and his men pounded through the town. According to plan, the Union troops set fire to the bridge, which had begun to blaze when Jackson galloped up. The Confederates defied the smoke and flame, burned hands and feet as they pulled and kicked at the scorching timbers and tossed them into the water. They succeeded in saving the bridge and pushed on in another of Jacksons unorthodox performances.
To Bankss amazement two days later, on May 25, Jackson hit his column near Middletown, smashed it in half, and chased it in a rout back to the Potomac. In this campaign Jackson had taken three thousand prisoners, thousands of small arms, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stores that the Federal army lacked time to destroy. In years to come, men of both sides would study with admiration this military performance.
As Stonewall intended, Washington officials felt a flash of terror. The Union capital itself was endangered; Lincoln sent out peremptory orders, and hastily the Federal armies took action to save the situation. Tens of thousands of men had to be pulled out of the drive on Richmond. On May 29 Stonewall could draw back satisfied. He snatched a moment to express his regard for Belle and her work:
I thank you, for myself and for the Army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.
Hastily, I am your friend,
T.J. Jackson, C.S.A.
A week later, Southern forces abandoned Front Royal. A Union sympathizer (a woman, of course) stepped forward to denounce Belle as a dangerous enemy, and an officer arrested her in her house and surrounded it with sentries. Then General Shields, the Irishman who liked her so much, rode up, and, regardless of what his fellow Northerners thought, he released her.
Belle found herself famous. Northern newspapers, while admitting her cleverness, sneered at her as "notorious," "abandoned," "a camp follower." One account claimed she had helped Jackson by "playing Delilah to General Banks," dancing before him at a ball, draping "a large and elegant secesh flag over her fatuous admirer, while Stonewall was supposedly fooling Samson Banks with a surprise attack. In another story "La Belle Rebelle" had caught up a sword and led the whole Confederate charge!
A Federal writer found her "the sensation of the village." "The intensely loyal Confederates idolized her and . . . she had a large following of Federal officers who were ready to do her homage." Apparently Belle had not been greatly stirred by any of the men she captivated, but a change was on its way. She was to betray herself in love and in war as well.
One day Belle saw a prepossessing young man in Southern uniform. He interested her strangely, and she learned he was a paroled Southern officer waiting for a pass to Dixie. She invited him to dinner with her and the family, and he later accompanied her to a party at which Belle played "The Bonnie Blue Flag." The handsome fellow stood beside her and they sang a duet; presumably that proved him worthy of full trust. Smiling at him, Belle made a whispered request: when he left to go South, could he take a dispatch to Stonewall for her? He promised gladly.
The girls maid warned her. Miss Belle had better watch out; shed seen that man among the Yankees, and mighty friendly with 'em, too. Ever direct, Belle asked him bluntly: was he a Northern agent? He said no, and for her that settled it. Actually he was C.W.D. Smitley, a scout for the 5th West Virginia Cavalry.
Belle became still more enamored. When the next party broke up after midnight the other officers envied Smitley, who walked her home in the moonlight and paused with her in the dark for a long good-by. The next morning, however, Belle suddenly began to sense danger. Hurrying to Smitleys boardinghouse, she frantically demanded the truth about the rumors that he was a Union agent. Again he denied the rumors flatly. Then he promptly reported to his superiors, who communicated with Secretary of War Stanton, and Stanton acted.
Union officers appeared to arrest Belle and take her to Washington, among them a squat, ugly man called Cridge. (Could Dickens have thought of a better name? Still, Federal records show that Belle did not make it up.) Belle and her relatives were lined up against a wall, but her better-than-fiction maid succeeded in running off with handfuls of records and burning-them. The men broke open a desk and found other papers, however. Finally Belle, white with anxiety, was led away through a crowd of people, some of whom had come to sympathize, some to jeer.
The girl wept on the way to Washington. This was no situation to be escaped by flirtation or bravado. Moreover, in her first real love affair, she had been completely taken in.
In the national capital, as the chill walls of the Old Capitol loomed before her, she shivered. The doors were swung open by Superintendent Wood, Lafayette Bakers partner in the handling of malefactors: "And so this is the celebrated rebel spy. ... I am glad to have so distinguished a personage. .
Standing with hands clenched at the window of her cell, Belle had a view of Pennsylvania Avenue, and she made out the former home of Secretary Floyd, where she had danced at her happy debut. She felt more alone and frightened than ever before in her life.
Soon Belle was confronted by Superintendent Wood and Lafayette Baker himself. At the sight of the stony-faced director of the Federal detectives, her rage welled up. In his customary fashion Baker took the lead, and she later quoted him, a bit unkindly: "Aint you pretty tired of your prison aready? Ive come to get you to make a free confession now of what youve did agin our cause."
After a long silence Belle made a contemptuous reply. "When youve informed me on what grounds Ive been arrested, and given me a copy of the charges, Ill make a statement." Baker "harangued her" and offered an oath of allegiance. "Remember, Air. Stanton will hear of all this."
Belles reply was withering. "Tell Mr. Stanton for me, I hope when I commence that oath, my tongue may cleave to the roof of my mouth. If I ever sign one line to show allegiance, I hope my arm falls paralyzed to my side." Then she ordered Baker out of the room: "Im so disgusted I cant endure your presence any longer!"
Cries of "Bravo" roared through the jail, for her fellow prisoners had been listening with delight. Superintendent Wood took Bakers arm. "Wed better go," he said. "The lady is tired." --a masterpiece of understatement. Belle had won the first encounter. Baker came again, but she answered none of his questions and told him nothing at all. . . . That first evening she heard a cough, and a small object rolled across the floor of her cell. It was a nutshell with a Confederate flag painted on it; from inside she drew a note of sympathy. Belles eyes filled; even in Yankeedom her people were with her!
Young Major Doster, the provost marshal, became a grudging admirer. "The first time I called on her," said Doster, in his record of the Boyd affair, "she was reading Harpers and eating peaches. She remarked that she could afford to remain here if Stanton could afford to keep her. There was so much company and so little to do." Never did he find her in bad humor, he noted.
Editor Dennis Mahony of Dubuque, Iowa, who was in the Old Capitol for siding with the South, described how he heard her sing "Maryland, My Maryland" with "such peculiar expression as to touch even the sensibilities of those who did not sympathize with the cause." In a silence that spread over the prison, the girl threw her "whole soul" into the words of devotion to the South, defiance to the North.
Another inmate declared: "When Belle sang, it made you feel like jumping out of the window and swimming the Potomac." If she walked the narrow yard for exercise, fellow prisoners craned their necks to see her. Editor Mahony recalled her passage "with a grace and dignity which might be envied by a queen." On Sunday, if she gave inmates "a look or a smile, it did them more good than the preaching."
Belle made a different impression on her guards. In her favorite song she often emphasized the line, "She spurns the Northern scum"! At that point they stormed in one day to stop her, and as they went out, she took up a broom to sweep up after them. They could never fathom how she obtained the small Confederate flags which she wore in her bosom or waved on sticks from her window!
One story Belle omitted from her own recollections was her prison courtship by Lieutenant McVay, an appropriately good-looking young man with a properly romantic background. He had known Belle in his boyhood, but they had not met for some time, and now his war record intrigued her. The lieutenant told her, when they had a chance to talk, how he had been badly injured in the battles before Richmond and left for dead by his Confederate comrades. When the Union army moved in, attendants lifted him into a basket for corpses. Lieutenant McVay moved, and they brought him to Washington, where he slowly recovered.
His cell was across the hall from Belles; the circumstances and setting combined to stir her affections. Whenever they were allowed, the pair sat together in the yard or whispered across the corridor; eventually Belle announced her engagement to McVay. They planned a wedding as soon as they won their freedom, and gaily Belle asked permission to buy her trousseau in Washington. The War Department coldly denied the request.
The girls confinement in prison had begun to tell on her. Because she put up a picture of Jefferson Davis, smuggled into the prison by a friend, she bad to spend stifling summer weeks without leaving her cell. She was listless and thin. Major Doster declared that "open air and horseback exercise were in her case constitutional necessities." In a pathetic talk with her doctor, she asked when she could get the medicine he prescribed-- freedom.
In late August great news ran through the prison. Belle and some others would be sent South on exchange. Much stronger action might have been taken against her; but in the Civil \Var nobody shot eighteen-year-old girls, even though they were secret agents. There was only one drawback in the exchange order: Lieutenant McVay could not go with her. They had long talks, and promised to meet again at the first possible moment. Superintendent Wood in a burst of friendliness bought her trousseau and sent it after her, under a flag of truce!
Belles departure was a triumph. She looked tearfully out of the carriage window as crowds pressed forward, calling her name. In the Confederate capital the celebrated Richmond Light Infantry Blues drew up to present arms in her honor. Generals visited her, women stopped her on the streets to praise her. She appeared in a gray riding costume, that of an "honorary captain" of the Confederacy, and sat happily on horseback at troop reviews. When her trousseau arrived, Belle excited the ladies with glimpses of her finery.
For Belle and her lieutenant, however, there was misery ahead. Months passed and he stayed on in prison, whereas Belle moved all over the South. Their letters became infrequent. Slowly their interest cooled, and the engagement ended. If they met again, it is not known.
The Union caught up with Belle a second time when she returned to Martinsburg. A Belle Boyd within Federal lines was a serious hazard. Soon after Northern units swung into the town, Secretary Stanton ordered her arrested. In July of 1863 she was at Carroll Prison, involved in a mysteriously romantic experience. One twilight she felt an object brush past her foot; startled, she discovered an arrow on the floor, with note attached. "C.H." wanted her to realize she had many sympathizers. Thereafter he would be in the square opposite on Thursdays and Saturdays, to communicate with her!
Miss Belle must not worry, C.H. added. "I am a good shot." She was to obtain India rubber balls, insert her messages, and toss them out as energetically as she could. Somehow she did get the balls and carried on a lively correspondence, receiving clippings, confidential word about the Federals, and admiring messages. She also assisted the Confederacy when a fellow inmate, a Southern mail runner, planned an escape. At the crucial moment she asked the superintendent to come to her cell. Several prisoners cried, "Murder, murder!" And in the excitement the mail runner crawled to the roof, slid down, and got away.
Once more summer heat and close confinement told; after three months of being caged, the volatile Belle became ill. As before, she was sent to Richmond, but with a sharp warning: let her show herself again inside Federal lines, and she would be in the worst trouble of her life. There followed a sad time for the girl; after several sieges of sickness brought on by the war, her father died, and as she grieved her own illness dragged on.
Doctors told her she needed a long trip, and Belle had an inspiration; she would improve of necessity if she carried Southern dispatches to England. Starting on one of her most flamboyant exploits, she went to Wilmington, the North Carolina port where Rose Greenhow met death--but for Belle the trip produced the great love affair of her war days.
On the night of May 8, 1864, the three-masted schooner Greyhound, her decks piled with cotton bales, moved out to sea, lights covered, crew and passengers tense. For Belle, who had assumed the name "Mrs. Lewis," the risk was heavy; the Federal Government looked with particular disfavor on bearers of Southern messages to European powers. With lookouts stationed at vantage points, the Greyhound hoped to avoid the Federal fleet which lay somewhere nearby. Hours later, when the darkness lifted, there was a shout: "Sail ho!"
The Greyhounds frantic captain increased her steam pressure, set more sails, but the pursuing Federal vessel drew closer and closer. As Belle and the other passengers rushed aft, the Northern gunboat began firing on the Greyhound. One source says that Miss Boyd sat calmly on the highest cotton bale, the better to see the show. The first shells landed in the sea with a smothered roar, but the Union aim became steadily more accurate.
The crew threw valuable cotton overboard, and when the captain hurried past Belle, he called: "If it weren't for you, Id burn her to the waters edge before they could take a single bale!" La Belle Rebelle shrugged. "Dont think of me. I dont care what happens, if only the Yankees dont get the ship." As the U.S.S. Connecticut moved in, the crew tossed over a keg of money containing twenty-five thousand dollars, and Belle burned her dispatches.
As the girl watched with growing concern, Northern officers removed the Confederate captain for questioning, and a prize master, young Ensign Samuel Hardinge of Brooklyn, took over the Greyhound. Belle made no secret of her first impression of Mr. Hardinge:
"I saw at a glance he was made of other stuff than his comrades. . . . His dark brown hair hung down on his shoulders; his eyes were large and bright. Those who judge of beauty by regularity of feature only, could not have pronounced him strictly handsome . . . but the fascination of his manner was such, his every movement was so much that of a refined gentleman, that my "Southern proclivities," strong as they were, yielded for a moment to the impulses of my heart, and I said to myself, "Oh, what a good fellow that must be."
When Ensign Hardinge asked permission to enter her cabin, Belle replied pertly: "Certainly. I know I am a prisoner." He was now in command, he said, but, "I beg you will consider yourself a passenger, not a prisoner." Belle took Sam precisely at his word, and apparently he was as romantically bemused as she.
The Greyhound, astern of the Connecticut, started north for Fortress Monroe. A more cozy atmosphere spread over the Greyhound; Belle, the ensign, and the Confederate captain got along increasingly well. One night the three sat together as the moon lighted the ocean, "just agitated by a slight breeze." Waves lapped the vessel, and the young Hardinge raised his voice in a gentle song. Later Belle wrote in relaxed mood of the "soft stillness" and "sweet harmony."
When the Confederate captain made a tactful withdrawal, the ensign quoted Byron and Shakespeare; "and from poetry he passed on to plead an oft-told tale. . . ." Soon Sam was asking her to marry him; hut Belle indicates that she hesitated. Twice before she had been hurt by love, and the fact that Ensign Hardinge was a Yankee had to be considered.
A "very practical thought" also suggested itself; if Sam really loved her, "he might in future be useful to us." Us, of course, was the Confederacy. She replied that the matter involved serious consequences, and he must wait until the trip ended. She admits that at the same time she and the Southern captain were studying ways to arrange the latters escape!
Her alias of "Mrs. Lewis" gave her no protection; the truth slipped out, and at New York and Boston newspapermen panted for interviews with Belle. She had become more lustrous than ever, and newspapers described her every move, quoted every word of hers that could be caught. As some Yankees fretted over this females prominence, or merely gaped at her silks, one excited correspondent proclaimed her the Confederacys Cleopatra.
By then Belle had seen enough of Ensign Hardinge to make up her mind--this time she had found the man she really wanted, and she would marry him. True, their politics differed, yet "women can sometimes work wonders," she remarked. She promptly managed a neat bit of wonder-working, when she sent Sam on an errand and helped the Confederate captain to get away. She had helped the South again, but her fiance was in trouble. There was an official inquiry into the escape. Very much under her spell, Sam appeared more interested in Belles plight than his own. While officials pondered his case, he made a trip to Washington in an effort to secure her release.
Belle told the Northern authorities that she wanted to go to Canada, and Sam Hardinge applied for a months leave, to join her there. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and dismissed from the Navy for neglect of duty. Deeply humiliated, Sam had just one consolation. Belle had been sent north, and if he ever got out of the United States, he could go to Canada and claim the bride for whom he had risked so much.
American agents in Canada watched Belle closely, to guard against any fresh mischief, until she sailed for England. There she could at least work for the Confederacy. Sam ~vent to London after her and learned she was not there, raced on to Paris, only to discover she was in Liverpool. At last they met and their marriage was a great event for Southern representatives in London, the newspapers, and a delighted part of the public--American, British, and French.
At St. Jamess church in Piccadilly the ceremony took place on August 25, 1864, "in the presence of a fashionable assemblage of affectionate and admiring friends." As one Englishman declared: "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." An American account claimed, erroneously, that the Prince of Wales himself attended the wedding.
One excited correspondent revealed that Belle had "succeeded in withdrawing her lover from his allegiance to the United States flag, and enlisting his sympathies and support for the South." Sam intended to leave England with his bride, run the blockade, and join the Confederacy! Belle had demonstrated indeed that "women can sometimes work wonders."
If the new Mrs. Hardinge went back home, however, the Union might make good its many threats against her. Belle had to stay in London, and Sam, therefore, returned alone. It was said that he carried Confederate dispatches. He was a brave man, or at least a foolhardy one. He slipped into Unionist Boston, visited his family in Brooklyn, and went on to Virginia to "meet Belles family" or to perform a Confederate errand, or both.
Promptly the Union trapped its former ensign, arresting him as a Southern spy, and again the country had a Belle Boyd sensation. A wild, baseless story spread about the country to the effect that Belle herself had sneaked back. As poor Sam went from one prison to another, over in London a saddened Airs. Hardinge received funds from friends and sympathizers, but in the last days of the Confederacy Belle had unending trouble over money.
In prison Sam Hardinge fell sick, and Belle had to sell first her jewelry, then her wedding presents. British papers carried one or two accounts of her "very great distress of mind and body," and many of her London admirers rallied around. She wrote her memoirs, which appeared at the wars end and had a large audience for a time. Sam returned to her, but only for a few months. The young man who had given up so much for her died of ailments growing out of his imprisonment, and Belle was a widow at twenty-one."
Before long her joje de vivre returned, and she went on to a theatrical career in England and America. She lived out a full life, surviving until the year 1900. Death came on a speaking tour in Wisconsin, and she was buried far from home. A Southerner put up a tombstone, "erected by a comrade," which proclaimed her officially "Confederate Spy." In many ways she was the most appealing one of the war.
Source: "Spies For the Blue and Gray" by Harnett T. Kane
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