Belle Boyd: History, Major Facts, American Civil War, & Espionage Career
What made Confederate spy Belle Boyd’s exploits during the American Civil War (1861-1865) extraordinary was the fact she was a teenager from a well-to-do family in the South. After overhearing officers from the Union Army drawing up plans, the young Southerner braced it all and managed to go undetected through both Union and Confederate armies lines before reporting those war plans to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. The intelligence Boyd gathered did not make a huge difference in shifting the tides in favor of the Confederacy; however, her story does fit the bill for a perfect Hollywood spy action film.
Learn how Isabella Maria Boyd, commonly known as the Cleopatra of the Secession, went from a Confederate spy during the American Civil War to an actress and then a lecturer.
Belle Boyd: Fast Facts
Born: Isabella Maria Boyd
Date of birth: May 9, 1844
Place of birth: Martinsburg, West Virginia
Died: June 11, 1900
Place of death: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Buried: the Spring Grove Cemetery, Wisconsin Dells
Cause of death: Heart attack
Parents: Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd and Benjamin Reed
Spouses: John Swainston Hammond (1869-1884); Samuel Wylde Hardinge (1864-1866)
Most famous for: being a Confederate spy in the American Civil War
Nicknames: Confederate Mat Hari, the Cleopatra of the Secession, Siren of the Shenandoah, Rebel Joan of Arc
Birth and early life
She was born on May 9, 1844 in Martinsburg, Virginia to very wealthy businessman and tobacco farmer Benjamin Reed Boyd and Mary Rebecca Glenn Boyd.
The oldest child of her parents, Belle Boyd studied for four years at Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore, Maryland.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Boyd and her associates went from door to door raising funds for the Southern states that had succeeded from the Union. She was also involved in sewing clothes for Confederate soldiers. It was an extremely jubilant and proud moment for her when her father enlisted in the Confederate Army.
A staunch supporter of the Confederacy, Boyd intentionally associated with Union soldiers that had occupied her town in order to get intelligence on their activities. She then relayed that information to officials of the Confederacy.
She was very fierce and high-spirited as a teenager. It’s been stated that she and her mother fought tooth and nail to prevent Union soldiers from raising a Union flag over their house in Martinsburg, Virginia. One time she even shot and killed a Union soldier that attempted to forcefully raise the Union flag over their house.
Intelligence gathering for the Confederacy
While Union soldiers and officers quartered in Boyd’s home, the young Boyd is said to have overheard Union officers discussing plans to pull out of Martinsburg. She also overheard how the Union soldiers planned to destroy Martinsburg’s bridges, making the town inaccessible to Confederate troops.
Upon hearing those plans, Boyd, determined to give the Confederacy every bit of an advantage in the war, set forth on a very dangerous journey to deliver the plans to Confederate Army general Stonewall Jackson. Lo and behold Boyd was able to make it past Union forces undetected and furnish the Confederacy with the intelligence she had gathered.
When she got back to her town, she intensified her efforts in intelligence gathering for the Confederate Army. She also worked as a courier for guerrilla fighters under the command of Confederate ranger and statesman John Singleton Mosby. Her efforts complemented the work that those guerrilla fighters undertook in disrupting or attacking Union supply lines in Maryland and Virginia.
Boyd’s espionage work for the Confederacy didn’t go unnoticed by the Union Army. About a year into the Civil War, an arrest warrant, which was signed by then U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869), was issued.
Boyd was later released in a prisoner exchange deal between the North and the South. In the coming year or so, she found herself in and out of prison. After that she served as a courier in North.
Did you know: In her espionage career Belle Boyd was arrested at least six times and imprisoned on a number of occasions, once at the Old Capitol Prison (now the site of the United States Supreme Court)?
Boyd and Union officer Samuel Wylde Hardinge
In March 1864, Belle Boyd volunteered to deliver official letters for high-ranking Confederate officials, including Confederate Army Generals Pierre Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. En route to England, the ship she was sailing on was intercepted by Union forces. Considering the fact that she had on her very vital letters from senior Confederate officers, it was absolutely important that she remained calm so as not to jeopardize her mission. In what could only be comparable to a modern-day James Bond flick, Boyd is said to have distracted Union naval officer Samuel Wylde Hardinge who then allowed the ship to continue on its journey to England.
For his negligence and inability to impound the Confederate vessel, Officer Hardinge was tried, court-martialed and then discharged from his duty in the U.S. Navy. Rumors had it that the young officer sailed to England to tie the knot with Boyd in late summer of 1864. To this day, it remains unclear what happened to Hardinge after the Civil War. The commonly held view is that he returned to the United States and died around 1866. That assertion would explain why Boyd started living as a widow in the late 1860s.
Later years and death
Just as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Boyd began making preparations for the publication of her two-volume, highly fictionalized memoir, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. The memoir was published in 1865. Around that same period, she ventured into acting, playing a major character in the play The Lady of Lyons. Her stage name was Nina Benjamin. A few years later, she returned to the U.S. to embark on tour of the South, perhaps promoting her play and memoir.
In 1868, she had a role in the New York production The Honeymoon. After retiring from acting she spent the remainder of her life giving lectures, particularly in the South.
On June 11, 1900, Boyd passed away while on a speaking tour in Wisconsin. The pallbearers at her funeral were members of the Grand Army of the Republic – veterans of the Union Army, Union Navy and the Marines from the American Civil War.
More facts about Isabella Maria Boyd
She was the eldest child of her parents – Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd and Benjamin Reed.
Boyd used her father’s hotel in Front Royal, Virginia, as her operation base. She would hide in the closet and listen to the conversations and tactical plans of the Union officers quartering in her father’s hotel.
She managed to get herself through Union lines and sentries by using forged papers and a heavy dose of charm. While running to meet the Confederate forces that were advancing to Front Royal, she came under heavy fire but escaped unscathed. One of the bullets even went through her skirt.
Confederate General Stonewall Jackson thanked Boyd very much for the invaluable information (about Union forces’ position and numbers in the region) she relayed to Confederate Army, For her efforts, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. She was also given a captain and honorary aide-de-camp positions in the Confederate Army.
After gunning down the Union soldier that tried to forcefully plant a Union flag over her house, she was arrested but later exonerated of murder. This incident drew a lot of Union soldiers’ attention to her home. The inconvenience ultimately turned into a blessing in disguise as it was because of the presence of those very soldiers that she ended up securing Union military intelligence.
Her ability to charm her way through difficult situations augured very well for her. While in Martinsburg, her close relationship with Union Captain Daniel Keily enabled her to get some bits and pieces of intelligence about Union Army deployments and movements.
Much of the information she relayed to Confederate officers was passed through her slave Eliza Hopewell. This means of passing the information came after Union forces found out what she was doing.
By her first marriage to Union officer Hardinge she gave birth to a daughter named Grace. Her marriage to former Union officer John Swainston Hammond in March 1869 brought forth three children. Following her divorce from Hammond in 1884, she tied the knot with actor Nathaniel High, who was 17 years her junior.