Belle Boyd (1844-1900) was 16 when the Civil War began. A member of a prominent family in Martinsburg, Virginia (it became part of WestVirginia), she’d been in boarding school in Baltimore when the Southern states began to secede. She made he way back home, and when the war began, she promptly decided to do whatever she could to help the South win.
She became a spy.
Her hometown afforded more than ample opportunity; like doe so many other towns in contested areas, control of the town changed hands several times. She made no secret of her sympathies; she did make secret her listening in on Union plans and army movements. In one particularly amazing incident, she braved gun and cannon fire in rushing across a large field to bring news of Union army reserves to Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
Union authorities were not ignorant of Belle Boyd’s activities. No less a person than Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, in President Lincoln’s cabinet, ordered her arrest. She was arrested six times and imprisoned twice. At one point, Pinkerton detectives were hired to track her down. She was finally able to make her way to safety in England before the war ended; to support herself, she became an actress.
She almost immediately began writing her memoirs, for which was a ready market in both North and South. She had locked a Northern reporter in his room during one Union army evacuation, and he was captured by the Confederates. He knew exactly who bore responsibility, and when he returned to the North, he wrote stories, many grossly exaggerated, that turned Belle Boyd into a notorious spy and femme fatale, at least as far as Northern readers were concerned. Belle shrugged off his lurid stories; what else should you expect from a Northern newspaper, she said. In the South, she was regarded as a great heroine, and Stonewall Jackson himself commended her patriotism and activities.
Her memoir, published in 1866, sold quite well. Entitled Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison: Cleopatra of the Secession, it detailed her activities from the beginning, her Southern patriotism, her captures and imprisonments, and her “in your face” attitude, including waving a small Confederate flag on the train bearing her to prison in Washington, D.C.
She writes with passion and intelligence. She may have been a teenager, but she was determined to do her part for the South. She gave little thought to her own safety, unless her treatment by Union authorities might reflect badly on them. She was typically jailed without any explanation or formal charges (although I’m sure she could have guessed), as habeas corpus had been suspended by executive order.
Boyd married three times; her second husband was a British citizen who had fought for the Union. She had a daughter from her first marriage and four children from her second. She died of a heart attack in Wisconsin and was buried there.
Her memoir, published in two volumes, is considered by many to be “highly fictionalized.” It is a rather breathless account, and it’s easy to see how she might have described some experiences and even invented others to put herself in a daring and positive light. But it is a highly entertaining account; Belle Boyd knew how to capture attention.