Belle Boyd, Southern Spy


Description and Photograph




    Isabella Marie Boyd (1844-1900), best known as Belle Boyd or the Cleopatra of the Secession, was a Confederate spy in the American Civil War.  She operated from her father's hotel in Front Royal, Virginia, and provided information to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson in 1862.

     She was born at Martinsburg, Virginia, the eldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd.  Belle would describe her childhood as idyllic, living a care-free life of a reckless tomboy who climbed trees, raced through the woods, and dominated brothers, sisters, and cousins.  Despite her family's lack of money, Belle received a good education.  After some preliminary schooling, she attended the Mount Washington Female College at Baltimore from the ages of 12 to 16, and her family and friends arranged a debut in Washington.  She became a fun-loving debutante.

     Belle Boyd's espionage career began by chance.  According to her 1866 account, on July 4, 1861, a band of Confederate army soldiers saw a Union flag hung outside her home.  They tore it down and hung a Confederate flag in its place.  This made her angry enough, but when one of them cursed at her mother, she was enraged.  Belle pulled out a pistol and shot the man down.  She was fuming.  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.  On her first attempt at spying she was caught and told she could be sentenced to death, but was not.  She was not scared and realized she needed to find a better way to communicate.

     One evening in mid-May 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel.  Belle hid in the closet in the room, eavesdropping through a knothole she enlarged in the door.  She learned that Shields had been ordered east from Front Royal, Virginia, a move that would reduce the Union Army's strength at Front Royal.  That night, Belle rode through 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, 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."  For her contributions, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor.  Jackson also gave her captain and honorary aide-de-camp positions.

     After the officer gave her up, Belle Boyd was arrested on July 29, 1862, and brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington July 30, 1862, where there was an inquiry on August 7, 1862 concerning violations of orders that Boyd be kept in close custody.  Boyd was held for a month before being released on August 29, 1862, when she was exchanged at Fort Monroe.  She was later arrested and imprisoned a third time, but again was set free.

     In 1864, she went to England where she met and married Union naval officer, Samuel Wylde Hardinge.  Belle Boyd became an actress in England and following the death of her husband in 1866, she returned to the U.S. on November 11, 1869.  She later married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans.  After a divorce in 1884, Boyd 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.

     While touring the United States (she had gone to address members of a GAR post), she died of a heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin) on June 11, 1900.  She was 56 years old. She was buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells, with members of the Local GAR as her pallbearers. 

     The card is signed, “To Mo fondly, Belle Boyd the ex-Rebel Spy”.  On the reverse is written “Belongs to Mrs. Annie E Moins” (This must be Mo) “534 35th Des Moines Iowa”.     

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