One of the places the RedState Department of History has always wanted to visit is the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Almost since the dawn of nations, the art of keeping and stealing secrets has played an important role in world history. Women have played a key role in this history — from Mata Hari to Julia Child, from Violette Szabo to the British resistance leader and spy Nancy Wake, who won the Croix de Guerre with two bronze palms and a silver star in France, as well as the George Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Of course, spycraft is now more sophisticated than in years past, but today’s anniversary marks the capture of one of the more intriguing spies in American history, at a time when rules were made to be broken.
Belle Boyd was born in 1844 in what is now West Virginia. Upon the outbreak of civil war in the United States, her father Benjamin Reed Boyd joined the Second Virginia Infantry, a part what became known as the Stonewall Brigade. This led his daughter into service to the Confederate States of America.
Boyd’s true role in the rebellion is debated to this day, but what is beyond dispute is that on this date in 1862, she was first taken into custody by Union troops.
On July 4, 1861, Boyd shot dead a Union soldier who had confronted her mother and attempted to raise the Stars and Stripes over their family home. She then provided information to General Jackson about the Union position at Front Royal, Virginia, leading to a battle won by the Confederates.
Her public part in the battle quickly drew the attention of the federal government’s chief snoop, detective Allan Pinkerton. He soon reported that:
“She gets around considerably, is very shrewd, and is probably acting as a spy . . . she is an open, earnest, and undisguised secessionist, and talks secession on all practicable occasions. . . informant considers her more efficient in carrying news to the rebels of our operations than any three men in the valley.”
As such, Boyd became a wanted spy. Her fame preceded her, and she earned nicknames such as “The Siren of the Shenendoah“, “The Cleopatra of the Secession”, “The Rebel Joan of Arc,” “Amazon of Secessia” and most famously, “La Belle Rebelle”.
Boyd was not shy about using her feminine charms to obtain information. Of one potential Union suitor, she said:
“I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and last, but not least, for a great deal of very important information. . .I must avow the flowers and the poetry were comparatively valueless in my eyes. I allowed but one thought to keep possession of my mind—the thought that I was doing all a woman could do for her country’s cause.”
The New York Tribune didn’t see it that way:
“(She wore)…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 therefrom…the only additional ornament she required to render herself perfectly beautiful was a Yankee halter [noose] encircling her neck.”
Perhaps ironically, Boyd was betrayed by a would-be lover — a Union spy posing as a Confederate soldier used a letter intended for Jackson as evidence against her.
Boyd was incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, which was on the site of what now contains the United States Supreme Court Building. She would pass messages out of the prison through a hollowed-out rubber ball which would be shot into her cell through her window by a contact using a bow and arrow. She was released and paroled a month later, but arrested again in 1863, before contracting typhoid fever and earning another release.
She tried to travel to England in 1864 but was arrested again and sent to Canada. There she met the first of her three husbands, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, who died shortly after the war.
But it was after the war where Boyd became an even greater public figure. Upon publication of her memoirs, entitled “Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison“, she went on a nationwide road show portraying herself in a show entitled “The Perils of a Spy.”
However, there were those who accused Boyd of padding her part. Colonel N.T. Colby, who wrote a history of the Old Capitol Prison after the Civil War, was not as impressed as some by Boyd:
“She could have been dangerous had she possessed equal good sense and good judgment. I believe the extent of the damage she inflicted on the Northern cause was in tempting from his loyalty a subordinate officer of the navy, whom it was affirmed she married. He also found his way to the prison, from which he dictated a challenge to the editor of the Washington Star, for some rather scornful allusions to himself and [his] wife. They were both “light weights” in the profession.”
Boyd claimed to have been made an honorary aide-de-camp by Jackson during the war, and claimed a rank of lieutenant colonel in the Fifth Virginia Infantry as part of her outfit mentioned above in the New York Tribune. She was popular enough to spawn imitators, so she carried identification for the rest of her life to prove her true identity. She was awarded the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Southern Cross of Honor, which could only be awarded to Confederate veterans.
Boyd died in 1900, while in tour in Wisconsin, where she is buried — an undeniable part of the rich tapestry of the War Between the States.
Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!