Rebel, yes, but was she a useful spy?

By Peter Cliffe

On March 17, 1863, Lt. Col. John Pelham, commanding the Horse Artillery, Cavalry Division, of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was struck by a shell fragment at Kelly’s Ford, dying shortly after at Culpeper. Among the 25-year-old’s personal effects was a Bible in which Belle Boyd had written: "I know that thou art loved by another now. I know thou will never be mine."

Much has been written about Belle Boyd, who was variously known as the "Cleopatra of the Confederacy" (in England), "La Belle Rebelle" (in France) and by less complimentary sobriquets in the North. A New York Herald correspondent who had met her briefly while she was in prison dismissed her as a prostitute. This may have been unjust — but men were greatly attracted to her.

A slender girl who was frequently described as a beauty, Matthew Brady’s studio portrait of her suggests otherwise. Perhaps it was her vivacity that charmed many who met her. What is certain is that her life and exploits later became so confusing a weave of fact and fantasy that to some extent she has become an enigma.

Boyd was born in 1844 at Martinsburg, then in Virginia. Her father, a hotelier and storekeeper, was prosperous enough to send his spirited daughter to Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore. She learned to speak French fluently and became thoroughly conversant with classical literature. However, she was more interested in horses and could ride well. After four years at the school, her parents introduced her to Washington society, but the outbreak of war sent her hurrying home.

Back in Martinsburg, Boyd made no secret of her support for secession, and she had her first experience of very real danger in July 1861 when Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson’s Pennsylvania Volunteers entered her little town. The Boyds defiantly displayed the flag of the Confederacy, which annoyed a Yankee soldier, who then forced his way into their home. In the course of a heated argument, the man attempted to thrust Mrs. Boyd aside, whereupon Belle Boyd shot him dead with a pistol.

Perhaps it was her youth that saved her, for she was only 17. She could have been tried for murder before a military tribunal, but Patterson ruled that the girl was only protecting her mother. The ugly incident may have decided her to do all she could to support the breakaway states.

She might have become an accomplished spy, but at this point it is impossible to separate reality from the swirling mists of romantic legend. The book she wrote much later can be dismissed as a paean of self-praise and exaggeration. The fervent "Secesh Cleopatra," blue-eyed and blond, or gray-blue-eyed and sandy-haired — even these personal details are in dispute — probably only dabbled in espionage. How much information she passed to Confederate gens. P.G.T. Beauregard (whom she had once met), Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, if any, will never be known. It was probably minimal.

She was certainly careless, and some Union officers decided to halt her activities. On July 29, 1862, she was arrested and taken to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Perhaps the authorities there felt she was more of a nuisance than a threat, for after a month they released her.

Clearly learning nothing from her incarceration, she was arrested again in Martinsburg on Aug. 1, 1863. This time she was sent to the Carroll Prison annex of the Old Capitol. She was freed on Dec. 1, having contracted typhoid, the dreaded "jail fever," from which she was fortunate to recover.

To recuperate, she took a trip to Europe, and on her return landed at Wilmington, N.C. There, in May 1864, she went aboard the "Greyhound," a blockade runner, to sail for England. She would later contend that she was carrying dispatches from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The blockade runner was halted by the USS Connecticut, to which she was transferred. Ensign Samuel H. Hardinge was charged with conveying her to Boston, but, having fallen in love with Boyd, took her to Canada instead, which cost him his naval career.

The young couple went to England, where they married, but, back in America, Hardinge died not long after. While in England, Boyd embarked on a stage career, only small parts coming her way. It may have been at this time that she wrote her racy and unreliable "Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison."

Little is known about her later life. Her attempt at an American stage career was equally unsuccessful. She is supposed to have married several times, but such unions, if they were in fact legalized, must have been of short duration.

It has even been suggested that Cole Younger, who had been one of Quantrill’s Raiders, was briefly her husband. She seems to have been alone and very badly off when she wrote to her only daughter from Kilbourn, Wis., where she died on June 10, 1900, at age 56. Whatever excitement came her way over the years, her life can fairly be regarded as an unfulfilled and tragic one — although she lives in Civil War lore.