31 Days of History: 29 July

On this day, 29 July 1862 (147 years ago) Confederate spy Marie Isabella "Belle" Boyd is arrested by Union troops and detained at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. It was the first of three arrests for this skilled spy who provided crucial information to the Confederates during the war. Throughout the War, she became known as the “Cleopatra of the Secession”.

Belle Boyd


Belle Boyd was just 17 when the war began. She was from a prominent slaveholding family in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), in the Shenandoah Valley. On 4 July 1861, a band of Union army soldiers broke into her home, intent on raising the U.S. flag over the house. When one of them pushed her mother, Belle drew a pistol and killed him. A board of inquiry exonerated her, but sentries were posted around the house and officers kept close track of her activities. She profited from this enforced familiarity, charming at least one of the officers into revealing military secrets. "To him," she wrote later, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and a great deal of important information." Belle conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watch case.

After the shooting incident, Boyd realized she could use her “natural gifts” to further the Confederacy. She used her “charms” to engage Union soldiers and officers in conversations and acquire information about Federal military affairs (Historical documents of the day claim she was not blessed with a pretty face, but she was particularly noted for having the best looking ankles around!). As one record states, “She looked at men through her long lashes, assuring them that she had no intentions hostile to the North, while she stole whatever secrets were at hand and filched others practically from their pockets.” Suspecting her of spying, Union officers banished Boyd further south in the Shenandoah, to Front Royal Virginia, in March 1862.



One evening in mid-May 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel. Belle hid upstairs, eavesdropping through a knothole in the floor. She learned that Shields had been ordered east from Front Royal, Virginia, a move that would reduce the Union Army's strength at Front Royal. That night, Belle rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on 23 May, Belle ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson's men. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that, "the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all." Jackson did and the Union soldiers were routed and thoroughly defeated. That evening, Gen Jackson penned a note of gratitude to her: "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today." For her contributions, Boyd was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. (It should be noted that Virginia Code section 18.2-176(b) still remains in effect-making it a Class 3 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of not more than $500, to "wear any Southern Cross of Honor when not entitled to do so by the regulations under which such Crosses of Honor are given.")

The Southern Cross of Honor


Before she reached twenty-one, Boyd had been imprisoned twice, "reported" nearly thirty times, and arrested six or seven. After her lover (read: source) gave her up, Belle Boyd was arrested on 29 July 1862, and brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Her incarceration was evidently of limited hardship, as she was given many special considerations, and even she became engaged to a fellow prisoner! Upon her release one month later, she was shipped under a flag of truce to Richmond.



(Historical detour: The Old Capitol Prison was a former boarding house which was turned into a prison during the Civil War. John C. Calhoun, South Carolina politician, former Vice President of the US and one of the leading advocates of slavery and states’ rights died of tuberculosis in the boarding house in May 1850. It was demolished in 1929 and the US Supreme Court was built on the property.)

The Old Capitol Prison and John C. Calhoun


After a second imprisonment, Boyd became a courier of secret messages to Great Britain (the Confederacy was seeking recognition from European countries. In 1864, her ship was captured off the coast of North Carolina, and the ship and crew were taken to New York. Captain Samuel Hardinge, of the USS Connecticut, took command of Boyd's vessel, but when the ship made port in NYC, he was seen dining and shopping with Belle Boyd, his “prisoner”. He followed her to London, and they were married soon after. (There is some evidence that he was relieved from naval service as a result of his conduct with Belle Boyd.)

Boyd was widowed soon after the end of the war, but the union produced one child. Still just 21, Boyd parlayed her spying experiences into a book and an acting career, and was perhaps telling the truth when she wrote, “"A true woman always loves a real soldier.". She died in Wisconsin (!) in 1900.

Belle Boyd's book, published in 1865


To read a detailed account of Belle Boyd’s activities, click here:

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