As with any other war, the Civil War contained a large number of spies whose job it was to seek out specific information for either the North or the South. Within the Shenandoah Valley lived one of the most famous spies who served the Confederate cause.
Belle Boyd, known to some as Cleopatra of the Secession, began her life of espionage at the age of 17 quite by accident. July 4, 1861, a Confederate flag was displayed outside the home Belle shared with her parents, Benjamin and Rebecca Boyd. It was spotted by some Union army soldiers, who tore it down and replaced it with a Union flag. Belle’s anger was ignited by the action, but she remained calm until the Union officer cursed her mother. That was the last straw! Belle quickly laid hands on a pistol and shot the man dead. Her behavior resulted in sentries being posted around her house and her activities closely monitored.
Not willing to lose out on a chance to do something to aide the cause of the South, Belle was immediately able to charm Union Captain Daniel Keily to the degree she gained military secrets from him. She utilized the help of her slave, Eliza Hopewell, to carry these messages to Confederate officers in a hollowed-out watch case.
Belle served the Confederacy throughout the course of the war in the North, Dixie and England. Within her burned a deep seated love for the South and she showed no fear of handling the various situations she became involved in to gain necessary information by eavesdropping on conferences handled by the Union Army. On at least one occasion, so went so far as to enter battle lines in order to carry back an important message.
One of the best tools Belle employed for her work was her appearance. She skillfully incorporated her best assets, her overwhelmingly feminine personality and her extensive appeal, to obtain the information she sought from those who had it. Gowning herself in garments of red and green, this ‘spider’ skillfully lured in her ‘prey’ through her long eyelashes with promises she meant the North no harm. In the process, she was capable of fleecing her victims of whatever secrets they held and sometimes went so far as to literally pick them from their pockets. She would keep her ‘prey’ guessing by periodically changing her methods of operations- at times she would act totally naïve, while on other occasions, she was as cunning as the best of them.
The information she obtained was passed on to Generals ‘Stonewall’ Jackson and Turner Ashby. In return for her efforts, General Jackson confirmed the title of captain on Belle, and named her the honorary aide-de-camp on his staff.
Proving the validity of the statement ‘there is no honor among thieves,’ Belle was betrayed by her lover, which resulted in her arrest on July 29, 1862 and was incarcerated in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. After serving one month, Belle was released and lived with relatives in exile.
In June 1863, she was again arrested while on a visit to Martinsburg. On December 1, 1863, she was once more released due to suffering from typhoid. After her release, Belle traveled to Europe to get well. When she attempted to return to the States, the blockade runner she booked passage on, the Greyhound, was captured by the U.S.S. Connecticut. In the process, she met and fell in love with the prize master, a young ensign by the name of Samuel Hardinge from Brooklyn. Though a Yankee, he proved to be too much of a temptation for the Southern belle. She also felt that since he was from the North, he might very well help to aid the cause of the South. Belle later sent Sam on an errand and in the process, aided the Southern captain’s escape. This action put her fiancé in trouble, yet he seemed more concerned with Belle’s plight than his own. Sam was arrested, tried and relieved of duty from the Navy due to neglecting his duty by allowing Belle to travel first to Canada and then England.
When Sam later attempted to catch up with Belle in Europe, he arrived in London and learned she was no longer there. He then traveled to Paris, where he learned Belle was in Liverpool. They finally crossed paths and on August 25, 1864, were married in St. James Church in Piccadilly. The Southern representatives who were in London at the time considered it a grand event and the newspapers – American, French and British – had a heyday.
What began as an exciting life with her beloved husband did not last long. Sam’s desire was to leave England and join the Confederacy. However, should Belle return to the States, the Union promised to fulfill the threats it made towards her. This kept Belle in London and forced Sam to return to the States alone. The jury is still out as to whether Sam acted as a brave man, or was foolhardy in his behavior upon his return. After slipping into Boston, Sam traveled to Brooklyn to visit his family. He left there and went to Virginia to meet Belle’s. While there, the Union army arrested him as a Southern spy.
Sam was bounced from one prison to another as rumors spread stating Belle had returned to the states to find him. In the meantime, Belle was still in England, dealing with money troubles. When Sam fell sick in prison, Belle began to sell off her jewels and wedding presents. In the process, she also wrote her memoirs.
Sam eventually returned to Belle, but not for long. A few months after his return, the ailments he contracted in prison took his life and left Belle a widow at the age of twenty-one.
Belle never thought of herself as a spy. Instead, she believed her work was vital in order to help her people. In the process of doing so though, she alienated herself from the very ones she sought to help. During the time in which she lived, it was considered improper for women to travel alone, but Belle did. She also lacked the traditional self-consciousness women of her class normally displayed with regard to her behavior in the company of men. Belle never played favorites. She was just as quick to dance with the men in blue uniforms as she was those who wore gray. There was no doubt she loved what she did, and was determined to have a good time in the process.
After the war, Belle Boyd Hardinge enjoyed a stage career and her memoirs were later published entitled, Belle Boyd in Camp & Prison. She died while touring the western United States.
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