There’s little hint of the explosive personality who lived
here from 1853-1858, a woman who at the age of 17 shot a Yankee solider who
threatened her mother on these very stairs. We sign our names in the guestbook
– blank pages of an old brown ledger first opened by the circuit court clerk in
Society’s director, Don Wood, shows us through the house, now a museum of
Martinsburg history. There are displays of Native American artifacts, quilts, a
military room, rose gardens in the back yard (which bloomed last year from May
to December, Woods tells us). Woods seems a quiet enough sort himself until he
talks about Belle Boyd, and his face lights up.
“She was a
hundred years before her time,” he tells us, narrating a life story filled with
imprisonments, capture at sea, a near-fatal bout with typhoid, and a stint in
an insane asylum.
once chased her daughter’s unfaithful suitor down a Front Royal, Va. street,
brandishing a pistol) was so feared a personage that a letter she wrote to
Abraham Lincoln resulted in her (first) husband’s immediate release from
Boyd went out the way she would have wanted to. After her passing days, she
became a successful actress in Europe and in 1900 died onstage of a heart
Boyd House: 304/267-4713. Also visit the Belle Boyd Cottage in Front Royal,
Va., open May-Oct., 540/636-1446.
Maria Isabella Boyd was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now
West Virginia), on May 9, 1844. A notoriously strong-willed child, Boyd was
rumored to have ridden her horse into a room full of dinner guests after her
parents had told her she was too young to attend the party. "Well, my
horse is old enough, isn't he?" she declared, and the historian Louis A.
Sigaud has found it significant that Boyd's "reckless assurance" won
over the guests, sparing her punishment. Boyd's parents—Benjamin Reed Boyd, a
prosperous shopkeeper, and Mary Rebecca Glenn Boyd—both came from socially
prominent families and owned several slaves. When their daughter was twelve,
they sent her to Mount Washington College in Baltimore, Maryland. After
graduation, Boyd spent the winter of 1860–1861 as a Washington, D.C.,
debutante, which sharpened her taste for society, politics, and intrigue.
After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Boyd's
father joined the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment (part of what would become the
Stonewall Brigade), and Boyd herself returned to Martinsburg, where she worked
as a nurse. Union troops arrived to occupy the small Shenandoah Valley town
(pop. 3,364) on July 3. The next day, Independence Day, Union soldiers noticed
that Boyd had decorated her room with Confederate flags, and they attempted to
raise a Union banner over the house. An argument ensued, and when a soldier
swore at Boyd's mother, Boyd responded by drawing a pistol and shooting him to
death. The man's commander determined that her action had been justified, but,
according to the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, "the incident seems to have
emboldened her to work systematically against the Union."
Union officials began to monitor Boyd's movements, but she
used conversations with her minders to accumulate detailed information on their
movements, sending the intelligence in letters to Confederate commanders. After
one such letter was intercepted, Boyd escaped punishment by feigning ignorance.
Her parents then sent her to live with her aunt and uncle in even tinier Front
Royal (pop. 417), forty miles to the south.
In October 1861, after visiting her father's camp, Boyd
began work as a courier between generals Jackson and P. G. T. Beauregard and
was detained briefly for her efforts. Her oft-noted charm was a weapon and,
occasionally, a liability. After being captured by a pair of Union soldiers,
Boyd claimed to have sweet talked them into escorting her back to Confederate
lines, where she promptly had them arrested. When Boyd's identity was revealed
to the two hapless soldiers, they recognized it, suggesting that she already
had attained something that spies tend to avoid—notoriety.
What really excited the public's imagination, however, was
the story of Boyd's legendary methods, her ability, in the words of the
historian Elizabeth D. Leonard, to "compel even apparently invulnerable
men in blue to disclose precious military secrets." Boyd denied prostituting
herself, but she did seem to enjoy tempting her victims. To one Union captain,
she wrote, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some
withered flowers, and last, not least, for a great deal of very important
information, which was carefully transmitted to my countrymen."
An obsession with Boyd's looks has even crept into the
history books. In 1970, the historian John Bakeless wrote that "Miss Belle
wasn't really an especially pretty girl. Surviving portraits show that she
looked rather like one of those horses she rode so perfectly—a long face, a
very long nose, and prominent teeth." In his 1939 biography of U.S.
president Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg leaped to her defense against earlier,
unflattering descriptions, asserting, "This was mere propaganda, for Belle
Boyd had moderate-sized teeth and could laugh pleasantly when she chose."
In May 1862, with Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley
Campaign engaged in earnest, the Union army captured Front Royal. Boyd, in one
instance spying through a peephole in a closet floor, managed to obtain and
then pass along information that enabled Jackson's troops to retake the town.
In July, however, she was arrested and incarcerated at the Old Capitol Prison
in Washington, where the superintendant is said to have fallen in love with
her. After her release in a prisoner exchange, she moved to Richmond, where she
was able to briefly enjoy her fame. Jackson even appointed her an honorary
aide-de-camp. She was arrested again in the summer of 1863 after returning to
Martinsburg and finding that it was now located within the new Union state of
Boyd was released in December 1863, and six months later she
volunteered to carry Confederate papers to England aboard the blockade runner
Greyhound. The ship was stopped on May 10, 1864, and Boyd eventually managed to
escape, first to Canada, then to London, and on August 25, 1864, she married
one of the Union naval officers who had seized the Greyhound, Samuel W.
Hardinge. When Hardinge returned to the United States to answer charges that he
had aided and abetted an enemy spy, he was jailed and, soon after his release,
he apparently died. "The end of the Hardinge marriage and, indeed, the end
of Hardinge himself are shrouded in mystery," the historian Drew Gilpin
Faust has noted, "and some have doubted Boyd's assertion that he never
rejoined her abroad." Others, like Roger Austen, biographer of the writer
Charles Warren Stoddard, argue that he neither died nor returned to England.
Austen has written that Hardinge instead traveled to San Francisco, where the
"swarthily handsome" New Yorker had an affair with Stoddard that was
immortalized in that writer's autobiographical novel, For the Pleasure of His
In London, apparently widowed, and pregnant with Hardinge's
daughter, Boyd claimed to be destitute. So, with the help of English journalist
George Augustus Sala, she wrote her two-volume memoir, the introduction to
which compared her to Joan of Arc. She also began to act, and she was married
twice more: first, to John Swainston Hammond, an English businessman who, like
Hardinge, had been in the Union military, and then to Nathaniel Rue High, an
actor from Toledo, Ohio. She toured the United States, lecturing on her wartime
experiences and promoting national reconciliation, but often found her identity
as well as her veracity questioned. (Belle Boyd imitators were rife.) The
stories to be found in Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison were such that it became
fashionable for historians to dismiss them outright, as the Dictionary of
American Biography did in 1929, labeling them "none too trustworthy."
Sigaud, however, has argued that—the pomposity of contemporary press accounts notwithstanding—the
life story as told by "the Siren of the Shenandoah" and "the
Secesh Cleopatra" was fundamentally accurate.
While touring the United States, Boyd died of a heart attack
on June 11, 1900, in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin. She was buried
in Kilbourn (now Spring Grove) Cemetery. The grocery store of her father is now
the Belle Boyd House and Museum and is run by the Berkeley County Historical
Society in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
• May 9, 1844 – Maria Isabella Boyd is born in Martinsburg,
Virginia (now West Virginia).
• July 4, 1861 – Confederate sympathizer Belle Boyd, a
Martinsburg resident, is arrested for shooting and killing a Union soldier whom
she claims insulted her mother. A Union inquiry into the incident finds that
her actions were justified and she is cleared of any wrongdoing.
• October 1861 – Belle Boyd begins work as a courier between
Confederate generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and P. G. T.
• May 23, 1862 –
Belle Boyd transmits vital information to
Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson that enables his
forces to take back Front Royal.
• July 1862
Belle Boyd is arrested by Union forces and
sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., where the superintendent is
said to fall in love with her.
• May 10, 1863
Belle Boyd is arrested at sea while
attempting to carry Confederate documents to England aboard the blockade runner
Greyhound. She will later marry one of her captors, Union naval officer Samuel
• August 25, 1864
Belle Boyd marries Samuel W. Hardinge in
England. Hardinge is a Union naval officer who, the year before, helped to
arrest Boyd at sea.
Belle Boyd's memoir, Belle Boyd in Camp and in
Prison, is published.
• June 11, 1900 –
Belle Boyd dies of a heart attack in
Kilbourne (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin. She had been lecturing on her
career as a spy before an audience of members of the Grand Army of the
Republic, a Union veterans association.For more, please visit EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Boyd_Belle_1844-1900