The first thing you need to know about Maria Isabella “Belle” Boyd (1844-1900) is that she refused to be ignored. After that, you need to know that the first thing about her informs the second thing about her, which was that she was one of the most successful Confederate spies, if not one of the top, during the American Civil War. An original wild child and l’enfant terrible, Ms. Boyd worked her mojo on many an unsuspecting male resulting in the one of the most interesting espionage careers this country has seen, from either man or woman.
Born into a prosperous, socially prominent, and slave owning family, Belle made her way into the world back when West Virginia was sans “West”. Already a bit of a renegade and agent provacateur, there’s an amusing story of Belle showing up to a party she was forbidden to attend on a horse. Horseback riding is not so unusual in those parts and in those days, but when you show up to a party on a horse and ride the horse into the house where the soiree is being held, well…you get the picture. Belle, despite her notoriety for being a bit of a problem, managed to be educated at Mount Washington College in Baltimore, Maryland and after graduation, made the rounds as a Washington DC debutante.
After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Boyd family firmly planted themselves on the Confederate side of the squabble. Union troops occupying the ShenandoahValley, upon encountered the Boyd home in Martinsburg, found nothing short of a big ole’ Stars and Bars was flying out front, courtesy of our dear Belle. This instigated a row over which, long story short, Belle shot a Union soldier dead in cold blood. Since Belle was just a girl, she exonerated of the charge but more or less kept under house arrest.
Belle made use of her time by romancing a one Captain Daniel Kelly into revealing Union military secrets and attempted to smuggle them to Confederate camps via a house slave. When caught, Belle was threatened with death should her shenanigans continue. And let’s just say this would be enough for any sane young woman to cease said shenanigans, however, our dear Belle, saw this as merely wake-up call to improve her super-secret communication skills. Her parents saw this as a ripe opportunity to ship Belle off to the relatives in Front Royal, Virginia in the vain hope that Belle might actually behave herself.
No such luck.
By Fall of 1861, Belle had begun work as a courier between generals Jackson and Beauregard. She used her greatest weapon, her charm, to gather information and talk her way out of some pretty tight spots. It’s interesting to note here that Belle (evident by photographs of her) was not particularly pretty. It really was her personality and her way with men that made her so succedssful. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the men involved didn’t think enough of women at the time to view her as a credible threat.
Her charm was not foolproof, however, as Belle did manage to get herself arrested in 1862, but was then released in 1863 during a prisoner exchange when the prison warden became smitten with her. She was arrested again in 1864 when after volunteering to deliver Confederate papers to contacts in London, England when the ship she was sailing on was captured by a Union blockade.
It was here that we really discover learn what makes Belle tick. Somehow, she was released from custody where Belle then escaped to Canada. But here’s where it gets interesting: she eventually arrives in London a few short months later, but then marries Union naval officer, Samuel W. Hardinge, one of the officers who seized the ship she was on.
So, you have to start questioning Belle’s motives at this point. On one hand, she has gone through a terrific amount of effort to spy for the Confederacy, so naturally, you assume Belle to be a true believer in the Confederate cause. But then to marry a Union officer? This doesn’t jive.
Hardinge has to return to the United States where he is quickly charged with aiding and abetting a Confederate spy. Belle is so well known to Union troops that she is referred to as the “Siren of the Shenandoah” or the more accurate “Cleopatra of the Secession”. Hardinge is soon released but then keels over dead. Meanwhile, Belle is in London, broke, and pregnant. A journalist persuades Belle to write her autobiography in effort to make some cash. Belle does and in 1865, Belle Boyd: in Camp and Prison, a two volume set no less, comes into being.
But let’s get back to Belle her motives. She is seemingly passionate for the Confederate cause but marries a Union officer. She is 21 years old and somehow thinks her life story merits a two volume chronicle of her exploits? Oh, she also becomes an actress, marries yet another Union officer, and later, an actor from Ohio. Belle supports herself by touring around the United States lecturing on her war time escapades which are often questioned by historians.
This is a chick that likes to be in the spotlight. She likes attention. If you read the introduction to her memoir, it compares her to Joan of Arc. I don’t know about you, this makes someone like Belle all the more dangerous. For a small woman, she had an ego the size of Virginia. For her, this was all one big game centered around one Miss Boyd. Had the Union officers been smarter, I have no doubt they could have very easily persuaded her into switching sides.
There’s something to admire about Belle though. She isn’t beautiful but she is plenty smart and pretty damn fearless. She understands her targets – men – and knows how to work a situation to her advantage. This is a far cry from the modern era where spy-dames are nothing more than sexed-up killer femmebots, so you have give Belle her due even you don’t agree with which side of the war she placed herself.
Belle Boyd continued on, making money on her former notoriety. She died of a heart attack in the Wisconsin Dells in 1900 after giving what was no doubt another rousing recollection of her exploits to, oddly enough, a Union Veterans association.
Belle is buried in Wisconsin.