Born on May 9, 1844, in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), Isabelle, known as Belle, Boyd attended Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore, Maryland, from 1856 to 1860. She was the daughter of Benjamin Reed Boyd and Mary Glenn Boyd, and was named after her two grandmothers. The Boyd's and the Glenn's were well-known families of the area. Belle's grandfather, James Glenn, served in the Revolutionary War and was presented several awards by General George Washington for outstanding service. The Boyd family were merchants and owned several general stores in the area. Their house was described as the finest Greek Revival house in Martinsburg. Several brothers died before The War for Southern Independence. Belle's father joined the Virginia Cavalry. Belle was left to tend to her sister Mary Jane, age 10,her brother
Bill, age 4, her mother and grandmother. When Martinsburg came under Union occupation in 1861, Boyd's exploits included shooting at a Federal trooper who broke into her family's home (July 4, 1861)
replace their Confederate flag with a U.S. flag
and charming attentive Union officers into divulging military information that she transmitted through secret messengers to Confederate leaders.
She ran her spying operations out of her parents’ hotel in Martinsburg.
During the fall of 1861 Boyd served as a courier for Generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard. Early in 1861 she was arrested by Union forces and detained for a week in Baltimore. In mid-May 1862 she spied on a secret Union strategy session in Front Royal while crouched in a closet above the meeting room and then made a midnight ride of fifteen miles, through Federal sentries, to inform Colonel Turner Ashby of her findings.|
Boyd's most significant feat came on May 23, 1862, as General Jackson's forces approached Front Royal. There she overheard the plan of General James Shields and his staff for a withdrawal from that town. Having obtained information on the status of Federal troops in the area, she dashed from Front Royal - on foot - to meet the advance guard of Jackson's forces. Caught in the crossfire of the opposing armies and waving her white bonnet to cheer on the Confederate troops, she reached Major Henry Kyd Douglas and reported that Jackson would have to hurry his attack in order to seize the town before retreating Federals burned its supply depots and bridges. Her message confirmed Jackson's own intelligence, and the Confederates were victorious.
Her deed sealed her status as a Confederate celebrity and resulted in her arrest on July 30, 1862 In 1862, on a warrant signed by U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Even after she was caught, Boyd continued to express her strong support for the Confederate cause. She waved a Confederate flag out the window of the train that carried her to prison, and while there she was often heard singing the Southern song “Dixie” at the top of her lungs. She spent a month in Old Capitol Prison in Washington before she was released as part of an exchange of prisoners. Belle Boyd was sent to Richmond, Virginia, where she spent a few months among her admiring countrymen. Sometime in the winter of 1862-1863 she was appointed an honorary aide-de-camp, with the rank of captain, by General Jackson's headquarters. In the summer of 1863 she returned to Union-held Martinsburg, only to be arrested again by Federal forces. Boyd was again released, in December 1863, after a bout with typhoid fever in prison. Her usefulness in the North at an end, she was thenceforth employed as a courier. In 1864 she sailed on a blockade runner to England bearing letters from Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
After her ship was intercepted by a Union vessel, she utterly distracted an officer named Samuel Wylde Hardinge who was placed aboard as prize master. He allowed Boyd and the Confederate captain of the vessel to escape to Canada and then to England, and for that was court-martialed and discharged from the Navy. Hardinge followed "La Belle Rebelle" to England, where he married her in August 1864. Their wedding was a huge social event. But Boyd soon convinced her husband to return to the United States as a Confederate spy. He was captured and died in prison, leaving her a widow at the age of twenty-one.
Belle Boyd became a celebrity, telling dramatic stories about her life as a spy, and even published her two-volume memoir, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. In 1866 she turned to the stage, making her debut in The Lady of Lyons in Manchester and then returning to the United States to make a tour of the South. She appeared in New York in The Honeymoon in 1868 and seemed to enjoy the attention she attracted as a former spy. In fact, she often used the titles “Cleopatra of the Secession” and “Siren of the Shenandoah” in her stage shows. Boyd continued her acting career until 1869, when she married English businessman John Swainston Hammond. The couple was divorced in 1884, and in 1885 she married a young actor, Nathaniel Rue High, Jr., of Ohio. Boyd began a career as a lecturer on her own exploits. She toured the country giving recitals on her wartime experiences, earning the praise of Union and Confederate veterans alike. Boyd died of a heart attack on a speaking tour in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin, on June 11, 1900, and was buried there.
Although Boyd became famous as a Confederate spy, her fame actually made her much less effective in her work. Most other spies worked behind the scenes and tried not to show their true loyalties or attract unnecessary attention to themselves. But Boyd was a daring and flamboyant young woman who enjoyed the thrill of spying. She carried valuable tactical intelligence to Stonewall Jackson during his campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, but lost her value to the Confederacy as her fame grew.
The women of the wartime South have been described as the "staunchest Rebels". Some worked at home to make life more comfortable for the men at the front; Mrs.A.H.Gay of Decatur, Georgia knitted a sock a day and packaged each pair separately, enclosing other items of clothing, gloves, and notes of encouragement. Others worked in war industries, in garment and textile plants, in hospitals, and on farms and plantations. Some, such as Rose O'Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd, provided valuable service as spies and couriers. A few were not content to play any type of passive role, cut their hair, disguised their identities, and followed the men into the fighting ranks. In addition to her service as a spy, Nancy Hart led an attack which captured a Union garrison at Summerfield, West Virginia, and helped Jackson in his famous Valley campaign; she escaped arrest in 1862 by killing a Yankee guard. While their men were away at war, the women of Bascom, Georgia, formed a female military company to protect the home front. The activities of the women of the South were essential to the life of the Confederacy.
Taken from SIDELIGHTS AND LIGHTER SIDES OF THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES: A Feast of History in Small Bites Cooked Up by Ralph Green, Past Commander-in-Chief Sons of Confederate Veterans. Used with permission.