Belle Boyd

From New World Encyclopedia

Maria Isabella Boyd
Belle Boyd.jpg
May 4, 1844
Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), USA
June 11, 1900
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, USA

Maria Isabella Boyd (May 4, 1844 – June 11, 1900), best known as Belle Boyd, was a Confederate spy in the American Civil War. She operated from her father's hotel in Front Royal, Virginia, and provided valuable information to Confederate generals Turner Ashby and Stonewall Jackson during the 1862 Valley Campaign. Boyd played what was widely at the time considered to be a man's role, as a woman, at a time when women were more or less confined to the domestic sphere. She was not a feminist in the modern sense but her bravery and accomplishments represent a legacy from which lessons can be learned. Far from compromising her femininity, she made use of this to pursue her espionage activities. This challenges the claim that women who perform what some regard as male tasks forfeit their gender-specificness.

Early Life

Belle was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the eldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd. As a teenager, she was a fun loving debutante. She was educated at Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore, Maryland from 1856 to 1860. Before the Civil War formally began, Belle took a firm stance as a Confederate sympathizer who would go to any length to further the Rebel cause.

Civil War

Belle 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. She was 17 years old. 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, Captain Daniel Keily, into revealing military secrets. "To him," she wrote later, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and a great deal of important information." Belle conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watch case. Belle was considered very attractive and her charm won over many Union suitors.[1] Some individuals have claimed that she would go so far as to resort to prostitution to garner invaluable information from the enemy, though Boyd herself denied these claims and there is no evidence to support them.[2]

One evening in mid-May of 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel. Belle 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, Virginia. That night, Belle rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Colonel Turner Ashby, a Confederate scout. When the Confederate Army advanced on Front Royal on May 23, Belle ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson's men, braving enemy fire that put bullet holes in her skirt. 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." This note became one of her most prized possessions.[3] For her contributions, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. Jackson also gave her captain and honorary aide-de-camp positions.

Boyd had been arrested twice before the Front Royal action but was not detained due to the social practices of the time and the inability of the Union to house her. Belle continued to boldly amass information despite a growing notoriety and a warning to cease. When her confidant gave her up, Belle was arrested on July 29, 1862, and held for a month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. before being released. Here she was admired for her undying loyalty to the Confederacy. She was later subsequently arrested and imprisoned again, but was set free soon after.[4]

In 1864, she went to Great Britain via a blockade runner known as the CSS Greyhound. While there she met and married a Union naval officer, Samuel Wylde Hardinge, who died shortly after the war's end.


After the war, Belle Boyd became an actress in England and published Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison before returning to the United States. She then married John Swainston Hammond, 1869, in New Orleans and, after divorcing from him in 1884, married Nathaniel Rue High in 1885. A year later, she began touring the country giving dramatic lectures of her life as a Civil War spy.

She died from typhoid fever at 56 years old in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells). She is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells. She is considered one of the most famous spies of the American Civil War.


  1. James M. McPherson. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  2. Elizabeth D. Leonard. "Maria Isabella "Belle" Boyd," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
  3. Leonard, 260.
  4. Leonard, 260.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Catton, Bruce. The Civil War (American Heritage Books). Boston: Mariner Books, 2004. ISBN 0618001875
  • Leonard, Elizabeth D. "Maria Isabella "Belle" Boyd." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 260-261. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 039304758X
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States). New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0195038630


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