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Great Women in History

Belle Boyd

By John T. Marck

Throughout the Civil War, many of the spies were slaves who were desperate for the North to win, and thus secure their freedom. These slaves, both men and women, risked their lives passing information onto the Union army. In addition to the slaves, there was also a great deal of spying being done by well-to-do white women. Women spying for either the North or the South used their large hoop skirts to hide weapons, secret documents and other contraband, as well as other means.

The most famous woman spy for the South was Belle Boyd (1843-1900), who was also known as La Belle Rebelle, named by a French correspondent. Born in Martinsburg, Virginia, (now West Virginia), Belle was only seventeen when the war began. Living in the Shenandoah Valley, her home was soon overrun by both Union and Confederate troops. On one occasion a Union soldier attempted to raise the American Flag over her house, and in protest, Boyd shot and killed him. Arrested for murder, she was later acquitted for justifiable homicide.

Having sided with the Confederate cause, she soon began talking with Union soldiers, and then carried the information to the Confederacy. Belle worked directly for General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and Colonel John S. Mosby's guerrillas and President Jefferson Davis, carrying messages for him as far as Europe. On information received by a former close friend of hers, she was arrested on July 29, 1862, on the order of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Convicted of spying, she spent one month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., before being released through the prisoner exchange program. In June 1863, she was again arrested and spent six months in jail, where she contracted typhoid.

As part of her recovery, Boyd traveled to Europe on December 1, 1863, and in doing so, took with her various letters for President Jefferson Davis. Upon her return to America and the South, her blockade runner ship was captured by a Union warship, commanded by Captain Samuel Hardinge, whose duty it was to take this ship to the North. Soon thereafter, Boyd fell in love with Captain Hardinge. Because of their relationship, Hardinge allowed Boyd along with a Confederate captain to escape to Canada and England on the blockade runner. For his actions, Hardinge was court-martialed and dismissed from the Union navy. Following his discharge, Hardinge went to England in pursuit of Boyd, where they were married in August 1864.

Following the war, while in England, Boyd took up a career as an actress, and later published her autobiography, "Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison." In 1866, her husband died, and she returned to America where she made her stage debut in 1868.

For the remainder of her life she worked as an actress and lecturer, and died in 1900, while touring the United States. General Stonewall Jackson wrote of Boyd, saying, "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for your immense service that you have rendered your country today." In appreciation, Stonewall Jackson also made her an honorary member of his staff, giving her the rank of captain.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.