February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
She began her career as a spy and ended it as an actress, and there are no two professions more thickly larded with myth and lies. At least one historian, despairing of seeing anything real behind the mists, concluded that she had never lived at all. But Belle Boyd did exist and was, in the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, “one of the most active and most reliable of the many secret woman agents of the Confederacy.”
She was born in 1844 to a prosperous Virginia store owner and raised like any other young woman of her background: a course of studies in French, music, and the classics at Mount Washington Female College, followed by her introduction into Washington society. When the war broke out, she returned home ablaze with Secessionist sentiments and set about raising money for the cause. Her military career began on Independence Day, 1861, when, as she told it, drunken Federal soldiers who had occupied Martinsburg the day before began looting houses, bent on stealing cherished keepsakes and insulting the occupants. At the Boyds’ they produced “a large Federal flag, which they were now preparing to hoist over our roof in token of our submission to their authority.” Belle’s mother, who heretofore had watched the hooligans’ depredations with saintly resignation now stepped forward and said, “Every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.” One of the soldiers replied in “offensive” language, and Belle shot him dead.
The Federal command did nothing about it; in fact, seemed to admire her pluck. Certainly her looks had something to do with this. The pictures show us a long, rather dour face with too much nose, but her contemporaries universally found her attractive. “Perhaps Miss Boyd wasn’t beautiful,” one wrote, “or as beautiful, physically, as some other women, yet, there was something beautiful about her … something a man never forgot.” Another praised her no-care-madcap-devil-of-a-temperament that pleases.” It would save her again and again.
After killing the soldier, Belle began smuggling information to the Confederate forces nearby. Enthusiastic and inexperienced, she put down the messages in her own handwriting, was soon caught, and let off with a reprimand.
This daunted her not at all, and she took to roaming the Shenandoah Valley, gathering intelligence for Jackson. Again arrested, she was taken to Baltimore, and once more released. She returned to Virginia and settled for a while with her aunt just south of Winchester in Front Royal, the scene of her most famous exploit.
On May 23,1862, Stonewall Jackson, punching north through the valley on the offensive that would bring him to the outskirts of Washington, prepared to move against Front Royal. The Union forces, falling back from the town, planned to burn the bridges behind them. Belle found out about it.
She describes what she did then in her postwar autobiography, a book much maligned for its inaccuracy. The historian Curtis Carroll Davis, however, who probably knows more about Belle’s career than anyone alive, annotated the volume with great care, and found it to contain far less fantasy than many such memoirs. In any event, Belle “did not stop to reflect … [but] started at a run down the street, which was thronged with Federal officers and men. I soon cleared the town and gained the open fields … hoping to escape observation until such time as I could make good my way to the Confederate line. … I had on dark-blue dress, with a little fancy white apron over it; and this contrast of colors, being visible at a great distance, made me far more conspicuous than was just then agreeable.” Union pickets opened fire, and “the rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me, and more than one struck the ground so near my feet as to throw the dust in my eyes.” With artillery bursting around her, she finally gained the Rebel lines, and delivered her message. Jackson at once attacked the bridges, took them intact, and then wrote Belle a note which she kept all her life, but which has not survived: “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country to-day.”
Belle was captured when Federal troops reoccupied the town. She was famous now, and Secretary of War Stanton himself drafted the order that had her jailed in Washington. There, a New York Tribune reporter saw her wearing “a gold palmetto tree beneath her beautiful chin, a Rebel soldier’s belt around her waist, and a velvet band across her forehead, with the seven stars of the Confederacy shedding their pale light therefrom.” The Herald ’s man was less dazzled; he dismissed her as “an accomplished prostitute.”
Released in an exchange of prisoners, she was again arrested, again let go, and, in 1864, took ship from Wilmington with Confederate dispatches bound for England. Her blockade runner was taken and boarded by a Union warship. Belle destroyed her documents. Her last mission was over. She was a few weeks shy of twenty years old.
Her charm apparently survived the rigors of campaigning; Samuel Hardinge, the Union officer who took command of her captured ship, promptly asked her to marry him. “His every movement,” she said, “was so much that of a refined gentleman that my ‘Southern proclivities,’ strong as they were, yielded … to the impulses of my heart.” He died shortly after the war, however, leaving her penniless in England with an infant daughter. She published her autobiography, made far less money from it than she had hoped, and, in 1866, turned to the stage, opening in Manchester in a romantic comedy by Bulwer Lytton. She was an immense success, and continued to be when she returned to America.
She married again—this time to an English military man—but it was not a happy match. “My health was failing,” she said years later in a brief, pathetic statement, “and I went with my husband to California. Just previous to the birth of my little son my mind gave way and my child was born in the asylum for the insane at Stockton, Cal. My boy was buried there.”
Her eventual recovery, and the birth of two more daughters, did not reconcile her to her husband. She divorced him in 1884 and, less than six weeks later, married Nat High, an actor seventeen years her junior. She returned to the stage, giving dramatic recitations, but found herself forced to play second-class houses. The war had been over for twenty years, and people were beginning to forget.
On Sunday, June 10, 1900, she wrote her daughters from Evansville, Wisconsin, where she planned to give a recitation for the local Grand Army of the Republic: “I feel like a criminal not sending you money. But I have only been able to play one night, and sent you all I had … over expenses, 2.00.”
The next morning a heart attack killed her. The woman’s auxiliary of the G.A.R. raised the money for her funeral, and fqur Union veterans lowered her coffin into Northern soil.