Maria Isabella Boyd was born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), on May 9, 1844. A notoriously strong-willed child, Boyd was rumored to have ridden her horse into a room full of dinner guests after her parents had told her she was too young to attend the party. “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?” she declared, and the historian Louis A. Sigaud has found it significant that Boyd’s “reckless assurance” won over the guests, sparing her punishment. Boyd’s parents—Benjamin Reed Boyd, a prosperous shopkeeper, and Mary Rebecca Glenn Boyd—both came from socially prominent families and owned several slaves. When their daughter was twelve, they sent her to Mount Washington College in Baltimore, Maryland. After graduation, Boyd spent the winter of 1860–1861 as a Washington, D.C., debutante, which sharpened her taste for society, politics, and intrigue.
After Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, Boyd’s father joined the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment (part of what would become the Stonewall Brigade), and Boyd herself returned to Martinsburg, where she worked as a nurse. Union troops arrived to occupy the small Shenandoah Valley town (pop. 3,364) on July 3. The next day, Independence Day, Union soldiers noticed that Boyd had decorated her room with Confederate flags, and they attempted to raise a Union banner over the house. An argument ensued, and when a soldier swore at Boyd’s mother, Boyd responded by drawing a pistol and shooting him to death. The man’s commander determined that her action had been justified, but, according to the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, “the incident seems to have emboldened her to work systematically against the Union.”
Espionage and Imprisonment
Union officials began to monitor Boyd’s movements, but she used conversations with her minders to accumulate detailed information on their movements, sending the intelligence in letters to Confederate commanders. After one such letter was intercepted, Boyd escaped punishment by feigning ignorance. Her parents then sent her to live with her aunt and uncle in even tinier Front Royal (pop. 417), forty miles to the south.
In October 1861, after visiting her father’s camp, Boyd began work as a courier between generals Jackson and P. G. T. Beauregard and was detained briefly for her efforts. Her oft-noted charm was a weapon and, occasionally, a liability. After being captured by a pair of Union soldiers, Boyd claimed to have sweet talked them into escorting her back to Confederate lines, where she promptly had them arrested. When Boyd’s identity was revealed to the two hapless soldiers, they recognized it, suggesting that she already had attained something that spies tend to avoid—notoriety.
What really excited the public’s imagination, however, was the story of Boyd’s legendary methods, her ability, in the words of the historian Elizabeth D. Leonard, to “compel even apparently invulnerable men in blue to disclose precious military secrets.” Boyd denied prostituting herself, but she did seem to enjoy tempting her victims. To one Union captain, she wrote, “I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and last, not least, for a great deal of very important information, which was carefully transmitted to my countrymen.”
An obsession with Boyd’s looks has even crept into the history books. In 1970, the historian John Bakeless wrote that “Miss Belle wasn’t really an especially pretty girl. Surviving portraits show that she looked rather like one of those horses she rode so perfectly—a long face, a very long nose, and prominent teeth.” In his 1939 biography of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg leaped to her defense against earlier, unflattering descriptions, asserting, “This was mere propaganda, for Belle Boyd had moderate-sized teeth and could laugh pleasantly when she chose.”
In May 1862, with Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign engaged in earnest, the Union army captured Front Royal. Boyd, in one instance spying through a peephole in a closet floor, managed to obtain and then pass along information that enabled Jackson’s troops to retake the town. In July, however, she was arrested and incarcerated at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, where the superintendant is said to have fallen in love with her. After her release in a prisoner exchange, she moved to Richmond, where she was able to briefly enjoy her fame. Jackson even appointed her an honorary aide-de-camp. She was arrested again in the summer of 1863 after returning to Martinsburg and finding that it was now located within the new Union state of West Virginia.
Boyd was released in December 1863, and six months later she volunteered to carry Confederate papers to England aboard the blockade runner Greyhound. The ship was stopped on May 10, 1864, and Boyd eventually managed to escape, first to Canada, then to London, and on August 25, 1864, she married one of the Union naval officers who had seized the Greyhound, Samuel W. Hardinge. When Hardinge returned to the United States to answer charges that he had aided and abetted an enemy spy, he was jailed and, soon after his release, he apparently died. “The end of the Hardinge marriage and, indeed, the end of Hardinge himself are shrouded in mystery,” the historian Drew Gilpin Faust has noted, “and some have doubted Boyd’s assertion that he never rejoined her abroad.” Others, like Roger Austen, biographer of the writer Charles Warren Stoddard, argue that he neither died nor returned to England. Austen has written that Hardinge instead traveled to San Francisco, where the “swarthily handsome” New Yorker had an affair with Stoddard that was immortalized in that writer’s autobiographical novel, For the Pleasure of His Company (1903).
In London, apparently widowed, and pregnant with Hardinge’s daughter, Boyd claimed to be destitute. So, with the help of English journalist George Augustus Sala, she wrote her two-volume memoir, the introduction to which compared her to Joan of Arc. She also began to act, and she was married twice more: first, to John Swainston Hammond, an English businessman who, like Hardinge, had been in the Union military, and then to Nathaniel Rue High, an actor from Toledo, Ohio. She toured the United States, lecturing on her wartime experiences and promoting national reconciliation, but often found her identity as well as her veracity questioned. (Belle Boyd imitators were rife.) The stories to be found in Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison were such that it became fashionable for historians to dismiss them outright, as the Dictionary of American Biography did in 1929, labeling them “none too trustworthy.” Sigaud, however, has argued that—the pomposity of contemporary press accounts notwithstanding—the life story as told by “the Siren of the Shenandoah” and “the Secesh Cleopatra” was fundamentally accurate.
While touring the United States, Boyd died of a heart attack on June 11, 1900, in Kilbourn (now Wisconsin Dells), Wisconsin. She was buried in Kilbourn (now Spring Grove) Cemetery. The grocery store of her father is now the Belle Boyd House and Museum and is run by the Berkeley County Historical Society in Martinsburg, West Virginia.