A Woman of Principal
Belle Boyd… a well-known name, but what exactly did she do? Some may link the name to a notorious outlaw or actress or sharpshooter… and while some certainly considered Belle an outlaw and many believed her a consummate actress, and she most certainly handled herself well with a gun, she was truly none of those. Belle Boyd was, depending on whose side you were on, either a spy or a patriot.
Maria Isabella (‘Belle’) Boyd was born in Virginia in 1843. She grew up a tomboy, who, as she sprouted into womanhood, became not only lovely, but witty and exuberant as well. A teenager when the War Between the States tore the nation asunder, Belle devoted most of her attention to the Southern Cause and ways she could help it along. Because her home was close to Federal lines, she took full advantage of the fact that she saw Federal officers roaming through her town on a daily basis and kept her ears and eyes open. But caution was a trait Belle learned the hard way, after one of her early messages to a Confederate officer accidentally found its way into the hands of a Yankee officer instead. Though warned that the North could consider her actions treasonous, Belle begged to differ.
She learned to cipher and from then on wrote out her messages and tidbits of information in code, then delivered those messages in person, riding horseback through picket lines and disregarding boundaries. Caught once again in 1862, Belle was held captive near her home in Martinsburg, but after being warned again to immediately desist in her activities, she was again released. After all, how much damage could a beautiful teenager do?
Well, Belle was not put off so easily as that and continued to eavesdrop and question soldiers and officers of the Yankee persuasion, who had no difficulty at all in speaking with the lovely young miss, little knowing who she was or what she intended to do with the information they so agreeably assuaged her insatiable curiosity. By late May of 1862, she had amassed enough information that she felt would have a direct impact on General Stonewall Jackson’s campaign to defend the Shenandoah Valley against continued Yankee advancement. Again, she personally delivered the information, receiving for her trouble General Jackson’s heartfelt thanks. From then on, both sides knew Belle as ‘the precious rogue’. Nevertheless, she continued to do what she could to help her state, and paid for it when in late June of that year, she was captured again. Weary of her refusal to obey the prior warnings about her activities, Belle was escorted to the Old Capitol Prison (formerly a brick boarding house) in Washington D.C.
So it was, that at the tender age of 19, that Belle was questioned and then asked to take the Oath of Allegiance. She, naturally, refused and was imprisoned for a month. While at the Old Capitol Prison, she earned the admiration of her fellow Southern prisoners and the grudging respect of her Northern captors. Those who witnessed her imprisonment claimed that her spirits were always high, she never complained, and she continued to remain a staunch defender of the Confederacy. From there, Belle was banished to Richmond. Determined that Yankee orders could not control her life, Belle left the city and wandered through the South until she once again ended up in Martinsburg in early 1863. Later that summer, she was arrested for being found behind enemy lines and again incarcerated, this time at Carroll Prison, Washington D.C., for a three month stint.
Due to the confinement, Belle’s health declined, and she was again released and sent to Richmond. Her physician suggested a trip to restore her health and she took him up on it, deciding to venture to England, while, naturally, carrying dispatches to the South’s supporters there.
In May of 1864, Belle stepped aboard the blockade-runner, ‘Greyhound’ and set forth, but unfortunately, the Yankee USS Connecticut attacked her ship. Aboard that enemy ship was a young sailor by the name of Samuel Harding – who, not surprisingly, fell in love with Belle while in route to their Northern port at Fortress Monroe.
Later that year, after Belle had served her prison term and she had been released, she and Harding met in England after separately making their way there, and were married. Her new husband was dismissed from the Navy. Several months later while in the South, Harding was arrested as a Confederate spy. The two young lovers met only briefly one more time before he died unexpectedly, leaving Belle a heartbroken widow.
After the war, Belle took up acting in England and in the States, and supplemented her meager income by giving lectures to veteran’s gatherings. Eventually, she married two more times and spent most of her life on the west coast. She died in Kilbourne, Wisconsin in 1900 at the age of fifty-seven.
Belle’s desire and determination to serve her cause with loyalty and with little regard to personal reward or damage to her reputation held her in good stead. Her faith and loyalty in her cause was unshakable and has forevermore emblazoned her with the title of a patriot.
Denise Clark is a freelance writer and creator of Denise’s Pieces Author Site & Book Reviews.