Maria Isabella (‘Belle’) Boyd (4 May 1844-11 June 1900)

Belle Boyd… a well-known name, but what exactly did she do? Some may link the name to a notorious outlaw or actress or sharpshooter… and while some certainly considered Belle an outlaw and many believed her a consummate actress, and she most certainly handled herself well with a gun, she was truly none of those. Belle Boyd was, depending on whose side you were on, either a spy or a patriot.

Maria Isabella (‘Belle’) Boyd was born in Virginia in 1843. She grew up a tomboy, who, as she sprouted into womanhood, became not only lovely, but witty and exuberant as well. A teenager when the War Between the States tore the nation asunder, Belle devoted most of her attention to the Southern Cause and ways she could help it along. Because her home was close to Federal lines, she took full advantage of the fact that she saw Federal officers roaming through her town on a daily basis and kept her ears and eyes open. But caution was a trait Belle learned the hard way, after one of her early messages to a Confederate officer accidentally found its way into the hands of a Yankee officer instead. Though warned that the North could consider her actions treasonous, Belle begged to differ.

She learned to cipher and from then on wrote out her messages and tidbits of information in code, then delivered those messages in person, riding horseback through picket lines and disregarding boundaries. Caught once again in 1862, Belle was held captive near her home in Martinsburg, but after being warned again to immediately desist in her activities, she was again released. After all, how much damage could a beautiful teenager do?

Well, Belle was not put off so easily as that and continued to eavesdrop and question soldiers and officers of the Yankee persuasion, who had no difficulty at all in speaking with the lovely young miss, little knowing who she was or what she intended to do with the information they so agreeably assuaged her insatiable curiosity. By late May of 1862, she had amassed enough information that she felt would have a direct impact on General Stonewall Jackson’s campaign to defend the Shenandoah Valley against continued Yankee advancement. Again, she personally delivered the information, receiving for her trouble General Jackson’s heartfelt thanks.From then on, both sides knew Belle as ‘the precious rogue’. Nevertheless, she continued to do what she could to help her state, and paid for it when in late June of that year, she was captured again. Weary of her refusal to obey the prior warnings about her activities, Belle was escorted to the Old Capitol Prison (formerly a brick boarding house) in Washington D.C.

So it was, that at the tender age of 19, that Belle was questioned and then asked to take the Oath of Allegiance. She, naturally, refused and was imprisoned for a month. While at the Old Capitol Prison, she earned the admiration of her fellow Southern prisoners and the grudging respect of her Northern captors. Those who witnessed her imprisonment claimed that her spirits were always high, she never complained, and she continued to remain a staunch defender of the Confederacy. From there, Belle was banished to Richmond. Determined that Yankee orders could not control her life, Belle left the city and wandered through the South until she once again ended up in Martinsburg in early 1863. Later that summer, she was arrested for being found behind enemy lines and again incarcerated, this time at Carroll Prison, Washington D.C., for a three month stint.

Due to the confinement, Belle’s health declined, and she was again released and sent to Richmond. Her physician suggested a trip to restore her health and she took him up on it, deciding to venture to England, while, naturally, carrying dispatches to the South’s supporters there.

In May of 1864, Belle stepped aboard the blockade-runner, ‘Greyhound’ and set forth, but unfortunately, the Yankee USS Connecticut attacked her ship. Aboard that enemy ship was a young sailor by the name of Samuel Harding – who, not surprisingly, fell in love with Belle while in route to their Northern port at Fortress Monroe.

Later that year, after Belle had served her prison term and she had been released, she and Harding met in England after separately making their way there, and were married. Her new husband was dismissed from the Navy. Several months later while in the South, Harding was arrested as a Confederate spy. The two young lovers met only briefly one more time before he died unexpectedly, leaving Belle a heartbroken widow.

After the war, Belle took up acting in England and in the States, and supplemented her meager income by giving lectures to veteran’s gatherings. Eventually, she married two more times and spent most of her life on the west coast. She died in Kilbourne, Wisconsin in 1900 at the age of fifty-seven.

Belle’s desire and determination to serve her cause with loyalty and with little regard to personal reward or damage to her reputation held her in good stead. Her faith and loyalty in her cause was unshakable and has forevermore emblazoned her with the title of a patriot.

May 4, 1844-Martinsburg, WV
June 11, 1900-Kilbourne City, Wisconsin, now known as Wisconsin Dells.
She is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells.


The ardent daughter of Virginia ran many hazards in her zeal to aid the Confederate cause. Back and forth she went from her home in Martinsburg, in the [Shenandoah] Valley, through the Federal lines, while Banks, Fremont, and Shields were trying in vain to crush "Stonewall" Jackson and relieve Washington from the bugbear of attack. Early in 1862, she was sent as a prisoner to Baltimore. However, General Dix, for lack of evidence, decided to send her home. This first adventure did not dampen her ardor or stop her activities. Since she was now well known to the Federals, her every movement was watched.

In May she started to visit relatives in Richmond, but at Winchester happened to overhear some plans of General Shields. With this knowledge she rushed to General Ashley with information that assisted Jackson in planning his brilliant charge on Front Royal. On May 21st she was arrested at the Federal picket-line. A search showed that she had been entrusted with important letters to the Confederate army. About the 1st of August Miss Boyd was taken to Washington by order of the Secretary of War, incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison and was afterward sent South.

Born as Maria Isabella Boyd, she became best known as Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy in the Civil War. She was the oldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd. One of the most famous of Confederate spies, she served the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.

Boyd's espionage career began by chance. On July 4, 1861, a band of drunken Union soldiers broke into her home in Martinsburg, intent on raising the U. S. flag over the house. When one of them insulted her mother, Belle drew a pistol and killed him. A board of inquiry exonerated her, but sentries were posted around the house and officers kept close track of her activities. She profited from this enforced familiarity, charming at least one of the officers, Capt. Daniel Keily, into revealing military secrets. She conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watchcase.

Then, one evening in mid-May, Gen. James Shields and his staff conferred in the parlor of the local hotel. Boyd hid upstairs, eavesdropping through a knothole in the floor. She learned that Shields had been ordered east, a move that would reduce the Union army's strength at Front Royal. That night, she rode through the Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. She then returned to town.

When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, she ran to greet Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson men. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that "the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all." Jackson did and that evening penned a note of gratitude to her: "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today." She was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor for her contribution.

She operated her spying operations from her father's hotel in Front Royal, providing valuable information to Ashby and Jackson during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Jackson made her a captain and honorary aide-de-camp on his staff. As such she was able to witness troops reviews.

Betrayed by her lover, she was arrested on July 29, 1862, and held for a month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Exchanged a month later, she was in exile with relatives for a time but was again arrested in June 1863 while on a visit to Martinsburg. On December 1, 1863, she was released, suffering from typhoid, and was then sent to Europe to regain her health.

The blockade runner she attempted to return on was captured and she fell in love with the Union naval officer, Samuel Hardinge, who later married her in England after being dropped from the navy's rolls for neglect of duty in allowing her to proceed to Canada and then England. Hardinge attempted to reach Richmond, was detained in Union hands, but died shortly after his release after the war's end. In 1869, she married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans and, after a divorce in 1884, married Nathaniel Rue High the next year.

Boyd went on to a theatrical career in England and America. She published her book Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. 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. She is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells. Boyd was known as the "Cleopatra of the Seccession."

Read More ...
Belle Boyd