OTD in History… July 29, 1862, Confederate spy Belle Boyd is captured by the Union Army
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history July 29, 1862, the Union army captures notorious Confederate spy Marie Isabella “Belle” Boyd for the first of three times during the Civil War imprisoning her in the Old Capitol Prison, she would spend two months in the prison. Southern women contributed on many levels through volunteer work, as war supply collectors, sewing circles, and nursing, but the far more committed chose to rebel against the Union officials. Southern women especially took advantage of this new politicizing position the war granted women by demonstrating their loyalty to the South, through fiercer methods, often through illegal means including, smuggling, espionage, and belligerency.
While most southern women defended their homes, others were more diehard in their devotion and even antagonistic to the Union soldiers capturing the Southern territory where they lived, and then there were the few like Boyd, who risked everything for the Confederacy and served as spies, Boyd took her devotion to another level. According to historian Drew Gilpin Faust in her book Mothers of Invention Women of the South in the American Civil War, “Boyd is in every sense an exceptional rather than a representative Confederate woman.” (Faust, 215)
An incident at the start of the Civil War led Boyd down the path to becoming a Confederate spy. Boyd was born in 1844, on her family’s plantation in Martinsburg, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley; the territory later became West Virginia. In 1861, when Boyd was seventeen, after the skirmish at Falling Waters a drunken Yankee soldier threatened Boyd, her mother, and their home, Belle took a pistol out of her dress and shot him point blank. In her memoirs, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, she recalled the soldier “addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. I could stand it no longer…we ladies were obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.” A Union army inquiry found that Boyd was justified and she faced no consequences. Boyd recounted, “the commanding officer…inquired into all the circumstances with strict impartiality, and finally said I had ‘done perfectly right.’”
Although she was free, Boyd became devoted to the Confederate cause, and a “Rebel Spy.” Boyd was not the only one in her family to take up the so-called profession, her father was part the Confederate Army’s “Stonewall Brigade” and three family members were convicted by the Union. In early 1862, Boyd already earned a reputation as “La Belle Rebelle,” “the Siren of the Shenandoah,” “the Rebel Joan of Arc,” and “Amazon of Secessia.” The New York Tribune described her as wearing “…a gold palmetto tree [pin] 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 there from…the only additional ornament she required to render herself perfectly beautiful was a Yankee halter [noose] encircling her neck.” Confederate
Lieutenant Henry Kyd Douglas, described her as “without being beautiful, she is very attractive…quite tall…a superb figure…and dressed with much taste.”
Boyd would visit the Union camps, charm the soldiers and acquire information about the war from them, which she would relay to the Confederacy. In March 1862, she was suspected of spying and was “banished” to Front Royal, Virginia, nothing stopped her and in May, she relayed information to General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, that Union Major General Nathaniel Banks’ was marching his troops. On May 23, she notified Jackson that Banks would be attacking Front Royal, which helped the Confederacy win the Battle of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley.
To get back to Front Royal she had to pass through Union lines, using the true excuse of visiting her aunt and uncle, Boyd sent Colonel Fille- browne a bouquet of flowers, recounting, “Knowing Colonel Fille- browne was never displeased by a little flattery and a few delicate attentions. I went to the florist and chose a very handsome bouquet which I sent to him with my compliments, and with a request that he would be so kind as to permit me to return to Front Royal.” At the last minute, she was able to tell Jackson, getting attention by “waving her sunbonnet.” (Faust, 216) Jackson rewarded Boyd for her contributions to the Confederate victory as Faust recounts, “Stonewall Jackson commissioned her a captain and made her an honorary aide-de-camp.” (Faust, 215) While she reaped praise from the Confederacy Boyd was eviscerated in the Northern press.
Boyd took advantage of Union soldiers at every opportunity possible. After her horse ran away near Martinsburg, Boyd even used her charms to convince two Union soldiers to cross the lines to take her home and then handed them over to the Confederacy. Faust explains, “Nearly every triumph derived from her use of Yankee assumptions about womanhood to entrap her unsuspecting foes.” (Faust, 215) Afterward, Boyd justified her response to the Union Cavalrymen’s chivalrous behavior, “I consoled myself that, ‘all was fair in love and war.’” (Faust, 215) Boyd was able to her gender and her age to get away with “murder, treachery, and espionage.” (Faust, 216)
Although Boyd was arrested on suspicion of being a spy numerous times, she was always freed because the Union forces underestimated her, until July 29, 1862, when the Union finally imprisoned her in Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Boyd did not suffer much the two months she was imprisoned, have good accommodations and food and she became engaged to a fellow inmate, when she was released two months later she traveled home to Virginia with a trousseau and “under a flag of truce,” but soon forgot her fiancé. Boyd’s manipulation of Union officers led top better treatment even in imprisonment than other Confederate spies. In July 1863, the Union arrested Boyd again. The American Battlefield Trust recounted her behavior meant to annoy the Union guards, “She waved Confederate flags from her window, she sang Dixie and devised a unique method of communicating with supporters outside. Her contact would shoot a rubber ball into her cell with a bow and arrow and Boyd would sew messages inside the ball.”
Boyd was released in December 1863 and banished to the south but did not stop her, she moved on and became a courier for the Confederacy. The Union Army arrested Boyd again for her final time on May 8, 1864, off of the North Carolina coast aboard the “blockade-runner Greyhound,” as she was on her way to England and then taken to New York. Boyd used her charms as always and with the help of Union naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge. However, during the trip North the Confederate commander of the Greyhound, a prisoner escaped and the responsibility fell on Hardinge, who was “court-marshaled” and found guilty of “complicity.” Boyd escaped to Canada and then married Hardinge in London on August 25, 1864. There is uncertainty as to what happened to Hardinge, according to Faust, “Even today rumors persist that Belle may have played some role in his disappearance and death.” (Faust, 218)
When the war was over Boyd publicly exploited her escapes, on the stages in lectures and then a sensational memoir that exaggerated her spying experiences. Boyd returned to the US in 1866 a widow. She soon remarried to John Swainston Hammond, a Britain, who served in the Union Army after four children, five total, she divorced Hammond in 1884 to marry actor Nathaniel High, Jr, 17 years her junior. Boyd died in 1900 at 56 years-old.
Despite the unusual and unprecedented roles women took on during the Civil War, Boyd went beyond as a successful Confederate spy. According to Faust, “Relatively few women, however, made treason a vocation in the manner of Belle Boyd, the Confederacy’s legendary female spy.” Richard F. Snow in his biography Belle Boyd: Confederate Spy wrote of Boyd, “She began her career as a spy and ended it as an actress — professions layered in myths and lies. One historian concluded she never lived at all. But Belle Boyd was, in the words of Douglas Southall Freeman “one of the most active and reliable of the many secret agents of the Confederacy.” (Snow, iii)
The war saw the roles of women involve bend, but for the few that were spies like Boyd or pretended to be men to fight in the army, they altered their gender roles in devotion to either side during the war. Boyd took the concept further, as Faust indicates, “Yet the tactics she used against the Yankees simply represent the end of a spectrum; she is but the most extreme — and therefore perhaps the most striking and suggestive — example of the way some southern women invoked prevailing notions about femininity to achieve quite untraditional female goals.” (Faust, 215)
Boyd used her femininity to influence the male world and the outcome of military battles, she used the excuse of her young age and gender to break into the male sphere. As Faust notes, “Boyd’s career as a spy depended on the manipulation of gender conventions to make her espionage activities possible. Her female identity served as a disguise for her actions in the male sphere of partisan political and military struggle.” (Faust, 215) Rebel women went to further lengths for the Confederacy than their northern counterparts, for their way of life was on the line, as Boyd later said, “I only wanted to help my people,” like Boyd for the rest of their lives, they would relive their Civil War glory days.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boyd, Belle, and Sam W. Hardinge. Belle Boyd: In Camp and Prison. London: Saunders, Otley, and Co, 1865.
Faust, Drew G. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Scarborough, Ruth. Belle Boyd, Siren of the South. Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Snow, Richard. Belle Boyd: Confederate Spy. [Newbury?] : American Heritage/New Word City, Inc., 2015.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University, where her thesis was about the unconditional loyalty of Confederate Jewish women during the Civil War. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.