“Chapter IV” from Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (1865)


In this chapter of Belle Boyd‘s memoir, Belle Boyd in camp and prison, written by herself, published in 1865, she writes about her work as a Confederate spy during the First Battle of Manassas and nursing at a Confederate hospital, and she gives an account of another female spy during the American Civil War (1861–1865). She wrote her memoir with the help of English journalist George Augustus Sala after she escaped to London in 1864.



Battle of Manassas—Establishment of a Hospital at Front Royal (Virginia)—A Runaway Excursion—Capture of Federal Officers.

Throughout the North the utmost confidence was felt that the subjugation of the rebels would be rapid and complete. “Ninety days!” “On, on to Richmond!” was the cry; but the shout was changed to a wail, on Manassas plains, where the first great battle of the war was fought.

The action was precipitated by Patterson’s attempt to prevent Johnston from effecting a junction with Beauregard at Manassas. In this he failed, and the result of the movements and counter-movements was the battle of “Bull Run.”* This great Confederate

(footnote) *Here it was that the Stonewall Brigade acquired its name. The fire was very hot, and the –th South Carolina Regiment

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victory has become an historical fact; I shall therefore pass it by in silence, and proceed to the narrative of my own personal adventures.

At the time in question I was at Front Royal (Virginia), on a visit to my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. S–. I wish it were in my power to give my readers some faint idea of this picturesque village, which nestles in the bosom of the surrounding mountains, and reminds one of a young bird in its nest. A rivulet, which sometimes steals round the obstacles to its course, sometimes bounds over them with headlong leap, at last finds its way to the valley beneath, and glides by the village in peace and beauty.

(footnote) of Infantry, thrown into confusion, wavered, and was upon the point of breaking.

“Steady, men, steady,” shouted Colonel Bartow, in a loud voice. “Look at General Jackson‘s brigade; they stand firm and immovable as a stone wall. The –th, animated by the voice and gesture of their gallant commander, and by the example of Jackson’s men, rallied; and Colonel Bartow, taking advantage of the enthusiasm he had kindled, led his regiment at once to the charge, when he fell covered with wounds and honor.

— page 81 —

The scene is far beyond my powers of description. It is worthy of the pencil of Salvator Rosa, or the pen of the author of “Gertrude of Wyoming,” and I only wish the great landscape painter had been given to our age and had wandered to the hills and valleys of Virginia.

To this romantic retreat my uncle and aunt had fled, as deer fly for safety to the hills. They had resided in Washington, but their Southern sympathies were too strong and too openly expressed to allow of their remaining unmolested in the Northern capital. They left a magnificent house, replete with handsome furniture, a prey to the Yankees, who converted it into barracks.

Orders now came from the battlefield of Bull Run to the effect that the General in command had fixed upon Front Royal for the site of an extensive hospital, for the wounded Confederate soldiers. Every one in the village and the neighborhood showed the greatest alacrity—I should say, enthusiasm—in preparing, in the shortest possible time, all that

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our suffering heroes could require. I bore my part, and, before long, was duly installed one of the “matrons.”

My office was a very laborious one, and my duties were painful in the extreme; but then, as always, I allowed but one thought to keep possession of my mind—the thought that I was doing all a woman could do in her country’s cause. The motto of my father’s regiment was engraven on my heart, and I trust that I have always shown by my actions that I understand its significance.

After six or eight weeks spent in incessant nursing, I was forced to return to my home at Martinsburg, in order to recruit my health, which had suffered severely; and I leave my readers to imagine with what joy I heard my dear mother’s praises of actions which she, in her fond affection, styled heroic.

In October my mother and myself resolved upon a short visit to my father at Manassas. We stayed at a large house, situated in the very centre of the camp. This tene-

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ment was then the temporary abode of several other ladies, wives and daughters of officers.

During this period I had frequently the honor of acting the part of courier between General Beauregard, General Jackson, and their subordinates.

This was a happy time, but it did not last long; and, after a few weeks spent as above described, my mother and I returned to Martinsburg. The winter passed very quietly, and brought me but a single adventure worth recording.

“I was riding out one evening with two young officers,* one a cousin and the other a friend, when my horse, a young and high-spirited creature, took fright, and ran away with me. Notwithstanding all my efforts, I failed to stop him until he had carried me within the Federal lines, a goal to which my companions could not venture to follow me.

I felt rather uncomfortable, not knowing

(footnote) *My English readers may deem it strange that a young girl should ride alone with young gentlemen, but the practice is not in America considered a breach of decorum.

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exactly how to act; but I soon made up my mind that, for this one, at all events, valor would be the better part of the discretion, if not prudence itself; so, riding straight up to the officer in command of the picket, I said—

“I beg your pardon—you must know that I have been taking a ride with some of my friends; my horse ran away with me, and has carried me within your lines. I am your captive, but I beg you will permit me to return.”

“We are exceedingly proud of our beautiful captive,” replied one of the officers, with a bow, “but of course we cannot think of detaining you.” Then, after a moment’s pause, he added—

“May we have the honor of escorting you beyond our lines and restoring you to the custody of your friends? I suppose there is no fear of those cowardly rebels taking us prisoners?”

“I had scarcely hoped,” I replied, “for such an honor. I thought you would probably have given me a pass; but since you are so kind as to offer your services in person, I

— page 85 —

cannot do otherwise than accept them. Have no fear, gentlemen, of the ‘cowardly rebels.'”

They little thought how those words, “cowardly rebels,” rankled in my heart.

Off we started; and imagine their blank looks when, soon after they had escorted me beyond their lines, my Confederate friends, who had been anxiously waiting for me, rode out from their ambush and joined the party. All four looked surprised and embarrassed.  I broke the general silence, by saying, with a laugh, to the Confederates, “Here are two prisoners that I have brought you.”

Then turning to the Federal officers, I said—

“Here are two of the ‘cowardly rebels’ whom you hoped there was no danger of meeting!”

They looked doubtfully and inquiringly at me, and, after a short pause, exclaimed almost simultaneously—

“And who, pray, is the lady?”

“Belle Boyd, at your service,” I replied.

“Good God! the rebel spy!”

— page 86 —

“So be it since your journals have honored me with that title.”

After this short colloquy we escorted them, without any attempt at resistance on their part, to head-quarters, and related all the circumstances of the adventure to the officer in command, who ordered them to be detained.

The Yankees reproached us bitterly with our treachery; but when it is considered that their release followed their capture within an hour, that they had in the first instance stigmatized the rebels, when none were near, as cowards, that they had immediately afterwards yielded without a blow to an equal number of these self-same cowards, I think my readers will admit their spirit of bravado well merited a slight humiliation. Let us hope they have profited by the lesson. I consoled myself that “all was fair in love and war.”

Although Bull Run had been fought and I had witnessed the outrages of July 4th at Martinsburg, we had hardly yet realized the horrors of war, or, to speak more correctly,

— page 87 —

we did not allow ourselves to believe in their continuance. We hoped that enough had been done to pave the way for reconciliation. Winter set in and closed the campaign, and, with a cessation of active hostilities, our apprehensions for the future were forgotten in our enjoyment of the present.

It was only when spring returned, and brought with it no sign of a dove from the ark, that we realized how far the waters of the deluge were from subsiding. Balls and sleighs, mirth and laughter, vanished with the last snows of winter; and it was with sad and sickening hearts we saw Colonel Ashby and his cavalry evacuate the town.

But a very few years since, Henry, afterwards Colonel Ashby, was one of those young men whose characters have been so often imagined by writers of romance, but are so rarely met with in real life. He united in himself all those qualifications which justly recommend their possessor to the love of the one sex and to the esteem of the other. At once tender and respectful, manly and accom-

— page 88 —

plished, animated and handsome, he won without an effort the hearts of women. Brave and good-humored, he combined simplicity with talents of the highest order. He entertained a strict sense of honor, and never forgot what was due to himself; and he was ever wont to forget an injury, and even to pardon an insult, upon the first overture of the offender.

Endowed with such qualities, it is not surprising he was a universal favorite; and, indeed, it was commonly said the spirit of Admirable Crichton had revisited the world in the person of Henry Ashby.

Such a man was sure to be among the first to draw his sword in the cause of independence.

At an early period of the war he was appointed to the command of a regiment of cavalry, in which capacity he displayed an unusual degree of vigilance and alacrity in the arduous service of outpost duty.

On one occasion his regiment was drawn up at some distance from a railroad which

— page 89 —

passed directly across his front. On the farther side was broken ground, well calculated to conceal a large body of men. Colonel Ashby, therefore, ordered out a small party to reconnoiter, putting them under command of his younger brother, between whom and himself there subsisted an affection warm, genuine, almost romantic.

Unfortunately “Dick Ashby’s” impetuosity overlaid his judgment, and exceeding the instructions he had received from his brother, he passed some distance beyond the railway, and suddenly found himself in presence of a large body of the enemy.

He retreated in admirable order; but the Yankees pressed hard upon him, and he and his little band were overtaken upon the railroad.

Here a fatal accident befell poor Dick Ashby. His horse stumbled and fell at one of the cuts.* In this defenceless condition he

(footnote) *These cuts are large drains, or rather tunnels, cut transversely through the lines of American railways, at short intervals. They serve to carry off such a rush of water as would otherwise inundate the line after a heavy fall of rain

— page 90 —

was set upon without mercy, without even quarter being offered, by five Yankees at once.

In spite of these odds, and the disadvantage at which he was taken, he sold his life so dearly that his five assailants were all killed or wounded. By this time Colonel Ashby, leading on his regiment at a gallop, had reached the scene of action, and, the contest being now pretty equal, the Federals soon fled, and were pursued as far as the nature of the ground would permit. The victors then returned to the railway, and hastily dug a shallow grave, into which all that remained of Dick Ashby was consigned.

Colonel Ashby dismounted, and, kneeling by the mutilated body, gently disengaged the sword from his dead brother’s hand; then breaking it into pieces, he cast them into the grave, and on that solemn spot vowed to avenge his brother’s murder and to consecrate the remainder of his life to the service of his country.

(footnote) or the overflow of a river. They are of course covered, and the trains pass over them.

— page 91 —

This vow he faithfully kept. His character underwent a change as instantaneous and enduring as that of Colonel Gardiner. All his gayety and high spirits forsook him. In society he was rarely heard to speak, never seen to smile, and, after a brief but glorious career, he fell in an unequal and desperate struggle, cheering on his men with his dying breath.

“The bravest are the tenderest:

The gentle are the daring.”

I shall conclude this chapter with another short episode, which proves how suddenly national disorders discover the hidden force of individual character.

Miss D., at the outbreak of the war, was a lovely, fragile-looking girl of nineteen, remarkable for the sweetness of her temper and the gentleness of her disposition.

A few days before the battle of Bull Run, a country market-cart stopped in the Confederate lines, at the door of General Bonham’s tent. A peasant-girl alighted from the cart

— page 92 —

and begged for an immediate interview with the General.

It was granted.

“General Bonham, I believe?” said the young lady, in tones which betrayed her superiority to the disguise she had assumed. Then, tearing down her long, black hair, she took from its folds a note, small, damp, and crumpled; but it was by acting upon this informal dispatch that General Beauregard won the victory of Bull Run.

Miss D. had passed through the whole of the Federal army. I dare not now publish her name; but, if ever these pages meet her eye, she will not fail to recognize her own portrait, nor will she be displeased to find that her exiled countrywoman cherishes the remembrance of her intrepidity and devotion.

APA Citation:
Boyd, Belle. “Chapter IV” from Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (1865). (2022, June 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Boyd, Belle. "“Chapter IV” from Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (1865)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Jun. 2022). Web. 19 May. 2024
Last updated: 2022, June 07
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