Cleopatra of the Secession (Belle Boyd)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Belle Boyd, the courageous southern patriot who changed history with the wave of a bonnet


Cleopatra of the Secession

Belle Boyd, the courageous southern patriot who changed history with the wave of a bonnet


Minutes stretched into hours as the Virginia teenager pressed her ear to a knothole in the closet floor.Even though Belle Boyd’s body lie silent and motionless, her mind raced to preserve the scattered fragments of animated conversation.  Below her, Union officers freely exchanged battle plans and troop movements in a smoke-filled parlor.  As their unseen witness strained to commit the plans to memory, it didn’t take her long to grasp the overall purpose of their strategy.  After all, each element of the master plan was peppered with schemes to achieve the same goal - gathering near Front Royal, Virginia to wipe out her beloved friend and hero, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Thousands of troops, she learned, had gathered at the nearby sites of Strasbourg, Harper’s Ferry, Winchester and others.  Despite her dismay over the potential fate of Stonewall and his troops, Belle was encouraged by one detail.  Although the scattered forces were definitely planning to converge on Stonewall and his troops, they had not yet gathered.  It might still be possible to let her endangered Confederate friends know that a rapid forward surge would likely catch the Union forces unaware and unprepared. 

Quickly grasping the gravity of her situation, young Belle knew that relaying this vital information would be her duty alone.At a time in her life when she should be deciding which bonnet best suited her flashing blue eyes or which of her suitors displayed the best dance steps, fate had cast Belle Boyd into the role of a history changer.  Fortunately, the perky southern belle was more than up to the challenge.

When the meeting finally ended at one a.m. on that 1862 May morning, Belle slowly stretched her aching arms and legs and silently made her way to her room.  Using a code she had recently learned from one of Stonewall Jackson‘s head spies, Colonel Turner Ashby, she wrote down every vital piece of information she could remember.  “I felt convinced,” she would later note in her memoirs, “that to rouse a servant, or make any disturbance at that hour, would excite the suspicions of the Federals by whom I was surrounded.”  As she stole quietly to the stables, Belle Boyd was about to gallop into Civil War history.

She pointed her horse toward the nearby mountains where she had been told she could find Colonel Ashby.  Fortunately, Belle had previously obtained passes for southbound confederate soldiers.Not all of the passes had been used, so she was able to utilize two of them with Federal sentries who questioned her along the way.  Once clear of the sentries, Belle wasted no time.  “I dashed on unquestioned across fields and along roads,” she recalled, “through fens and marshes…”  After a hectic fifteen-mile ride, she arrived at the house Ashby was occupying. 

After repeated knocks on the door, the lady of the house called down from a bedroom window.  Belle told her she had valuable information for the colonel to relay to Stonewall Jackson.  Although the lady first told her that Ashby was not home, he soon appeared from the shadows.  “Good God,” he exclaimed, “Miss Belle, is this you?”  As she breathlessly divulged the details of the Union forces’ battle plans, Ashby realized he was dealing with a very special…and courageous young lady. 

Reflecting on her unique place in history, Belle would later recall that the year prior to this perilous ride, she had “all the high hopes and thoughtless joy natural to my time of life.  I did not then dream how soon my youth was to be ‘blasted with a curse’ - the worst that can befall man or woman - the curse of civil war.”

Her “high hopes and thoughtless joy” visited her early in life.  In fact, Maria Isabella Boyd had likely never been accused of being a mild-mannered child.  As the high-spirited tomboy unleashed her energy around her family’s Martinsburg, Virginia home, she set the stage for her later courageous…and often outrageous feats.After being told she wasn’t old enough to attend one of her family’s neighborhood parties, for instance, she calmly rode her horse into the house.  In response to the guests’ sharp gasps and elevated eyebrows, she casually inquired, “My horse is old enough, isn’t he?”

That nonchalant childhood, however, would soon screech to a halt.  When it did, Belle would need all of her high-spirited vitality to play the role that fate would write for her.  Her idyllic setting of silver maples, rippling streams and rolling Shenandoah Valley hills was suddenly shaken by the distant roar of Fort Sumpter cannons as the country began to rip apart.  In fact, Martinsburg was one of the first towns occupied by the Union forces.  Although not all of the town was sympathetic to the southern cause, there was no doubt that the Boyd family was southern to the core.  Belle’s bedroom, in fact, was decorated with a large rebel flag.

With the advent of war, Belle focused her ever-present energy toward helping her beloved Confederate soldiers in a nearby hospital.  On the third of July in 1861, she was assisting a poor young man overcome by a violent fit of delirium.  Suddenly, Belle was startled by heavy footsteps behind her.  Whirling around, she encountered a triumphant Union captain who had strutted into the makeshift hospital to harass the wounded southerners.Waving a federal flag over the patients’  heads, he snorted that they were “damned rebels.” 

“I immediately said, with all the scorn I could convey into my looks,” Belle would reflect, “Sir, these men are as helpless as babies, and have, as you may see, no power to reply to your insults!”  When the captain asked exactly who she thought she was to speak to him in that manner, Belle relied on a scornful glare to provide an answer.  Her maid, however, spoke up to inform him that she was a “rebel lady.”“Hereupon, he turned upon his heel and retired,” Belle later wrote,  “with the courteous remark that I was a ‘damned independent one at all events.’" 

The next day, her southern spirit would be expressed with much more than a disdainful look.  Several Union soldiers had heard about the rebel flag in Belle’s bedroom.  That simply wouldn’t do, they decided, especially on the Fourth of July.  They headed to the Boyd house to hoist a large Federal flag as a token of submission to the Union.  Belle’s normally mild-mannered mother took a firm step forward toward the men.  “Men, every member of my household will die,” she vowed, “before that flag shall be raised over us!” 

Her bravado didn’t set well with the soldiers, who according to reports, were well-plied with liquor.  One of them push forward, addressing Belle and her mother in, as she recalled, “language as offensive as it is possible to conceive.”  Never one to suffer an offense in silence, Belle took action.  “My blood was literally boiling in my veins,” she explained in her memoirs.  Her response to her “boiling blood” was swift and sure.“I drew my pistol,” she would acknowledge, “and shot him.”

Needless to say, this exploit soon came to the attention of the Union leaders, especially since the soldier died shortly after the shooting.  But following a review of the soldier’s unbecoming behavior - his cursing and threatening of Belle’s mother, the Union investigators decided not to press charges against her protective daughter.  Bell’s innate ability to employ a mixture of remorseful tears and southern charm likely helped her case as well.

That inherent charm would soon help Belle extract valuable secrets from unsuspecting Union soldiers as she turned her talents toward the espionage trade.  Unlike many infiltrators who tried to fade into the background,  she played her role to the hilt.Often cloaked in a bright red or green gown and sporting a feathered hat, she usually only had to bat her long eyelashes and flash a sweet southern smile to loosen northern lips.  In addition, she had another weapon at her disposal.  As Belle dismounted her carriage with a flurry of petticoats, she often displayed a pair of very fine ankles.  In fact, as one writer put it, she had “perhaps the best pair of legs in the Confederacy.” 

Within months, her adventures, like the fifteen-mile ride to Colonel Ashby’s headquarters, turned into newspaper headlines.  Across the country and even across the world, stories circulated about the exploits of the “Cleopatra of the Secession” and the “Siren of the Shenandoah.”  French papers referred to her as La Belle Rebelle. Despite her growing reputation, Belle never considered herself to be a secret agent.  “I never had a consciousness that I was a spy,” she reflected, “I only wanted to help my friends.” 

Her concern for her southern friends seemed to also be sprinkled with a love of both spying and flirting.  One by one, unsuspecting Union boys would fall prey to her magic and spill out valuable secrets, which she would convey to the southern forces.  One of those marks, a handsome Irishman named Captain Keily, freely discussed Union battle plans as he courted young Belle.  She would later note that she was indebted to him for “some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers and last, not least, a great deal of very important information.”

Despite her natural talents, Belle’s on-the-job spy training was often insufficient.  For instance, she hadn’t thought about disguising her handwriting or coding her messages when she began.  One of her early communications was intercepted by federal soldiers and resulted in her being summoned to Union headquarters.  The colonel in command asked Belle if she was aware that she could be sentenced to death for the incident.  Feeling sure he would not have asked the question if he indeed planned a harsh punishment for her, the plucky teenager’s eyes swept across the colonel and the other officers in the room.  With a full curtsey and an innocent smile, she swirled out of the room saying “Thank you, gentlemen of the jury.”

Needless to say, not all the Union officers she would later encounter, would let her swirl away with a smile.  During the remainder of the war, Belle would be regularly arrested, but usually saw freedom with a few weeks.  One sentence, though, in the summer of 1862 at Old Capitol Prison in Washington D. C., stretched out for five months.  Very likely, the prison officials were more than glad to see her depart.  She was, after all, not exactly a model prisoner.  She waved a Confederate flag though the barred outside window as she sang Dixie at top volume.  In addition, the clever teenager developed a unique method of communicating with her supporters on the outside.  One of them would shoot a rubber ball into her cell with a bow and arrow, and she would enclose a message in the ball and toss it back through the window.

Not only did her stretches in prison not stifle her southern spirit, they didn’t particularly slow down her espionage activities.  The next spring, saddened by the death of her father, Belle decided to travel to England to boost her spirits a bit.  When Jefferson Davis learned of her plan, he gave the order to the Confederate secretary of state to provide her with several secret dispatches he wanted to communicate to European officials.  In the spring of 1863, she set sail for England aboard the blockade runner, the Greyhound.

Unfortunately, Belle’s ship was soon overtaken by the Union man-of-war, the Connecticut.She was able to burn the dispatches, but her reputation had proceeded her and Belle was once again in trouble with the Union forces.This time, however, she turned her southern charms toward one of her Union captors, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge.  It may have started as a ploy for leniency, but it soon turned into a love affair. 

In fact, Belle seemed to be infatuated with the handsome young lieutenant at first sight.“My Southern ‘proclivities,’ strong as they were,” she later wrote,  “yielded for a moment to the impulses of my heart, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, what a good fellow that must be!’ ”  Her “impulse of the heart” would linger because they would eventually marry in England…after he had served time a Union prison for allowing Belle to escape to Canada.

Despite her later exploits, Belle’s indomitable Southern spirit would never soar higher than in late May 1862, a short time after her ride to bring the information to Colonel Ashby.  She had been steadily gathering more detailed information about the positioning of the Union troops and was convinced that there was still time for Jackson’s troops to surge through Front Royal and thwart the plan to encircle him. 

Belle knew the time for action had arrived when her maid breathlessly announced that the Rebels were coming.  Belle grabbed some opera glasses and ran to the balcony to scan the countryside for her beloved Confederates.Her heart raced as she saw the advanced guard only about three-quarters of a mile from town.  She had previously learned from a friendly Union soldier that his troops planned to set the bridges on fire to prevent the southerners from storming Front Royal. 

With this critical information and other up-to-date intelligence, Belle knew she was the vital link to achieving a southern triumph.  “I was in possession of much important information,” she later noted, “which if I could only contrive to convey to General Jackson, I knew our victory would be secure.”  She approached several men she knew to be southern sympathizers, standing outside her door. Thinking one of them might agree to carry the information to Stonewall Jackson, she asked which one would volunteer.As they quickly dropped their eyes toward the ground, Belle soon realized that if the information was going to be relayed, it would be up to her.  She recalled their lackluster response with a touch of cynicism. “They all with one accord said, ‘No, no.  You go’.”

Without hesitation, Belle did just that.  Grabbing a white sunbonnet, she headed down the street at a run.  “I soon cleared the town and gained the open fields,” she would reflect, “which I traversed with unabated speed, hoping to escape observation…”  She knew, however, that escaping observation would be no easy matter.  For one thing, she was wearing a dark blue dress with a white apron.  “This contrast of colors, being visible at a great distance,” she added with a composed understatement,  “made me far more conspicuous that was just then agreeable.” 

Her concern was soon justified.  When the Federal pickets saw the blue-and-white clad teen running toward the southern troops, they immediately commenced firing at her.  Following their lead, union infantry also opened fire on her.  “Besides the numerous bullets that whistled by my ears,” she recalled, “several actually pierced different parts of my clothing, but not one reached my body.”  As if the northern artillery fire wasn’t bad enough, Belle said she was also caught up in crossfire between the two sides, “whose shot and shell flew whistling and hissing over my head.”

Although fate had spared her from the bullets, it soon threw another potential calamity in her path.  A Federal shell exploded within twenty feet of her, sending fragments flying in all directions.  “I had, however, just time to throw myself flat upon the ground,” she declared, “before the deadly engine burst; and again Providence spared my life.”  Springing back into action, she faced more heavy fire, yet continued her frenzied race.“I often marvel and even shudder,” she would recall in her memoir, “when I reflect how I cleared the fields and bounded over the fences with the agility of a deer.”

When Belle finally neared the leading edge of the Confederate troops, she frantically waved her bonnet to the soldiers to indicate they should charge ahead quickly.  She recalled that “the 1st  Maryland ‘rebel’ infantry and Hay’s Louisiana Brigade, gave me a loud cheer and, without waiting for further orders, dashed upon the town at a rapid pace.” 

But a potential catastrophe loomed ahead.  As Belle scanned the horizon, she could see no more Confederate troops.  The horrifying thought occurred to her that the relatively small number of troops she waved on might not be strong enough to counter the Union resistance.  “My heart almost ceased to beat within me,” she wrote.  Overcome by the combination of fatigue and the fear that she had sent the soldiers to their death, she said she “sank to her knees and offered a short but earnest prayer to God.”

Fighting against exhaustion and anxiety, Belle struggled to her feet and continued her race when she caught sight of the rest of the troops.  “To my unspeakable, indescribable joy,” she remembered, “I caught sight of the main body, fast approaching…” In amongst the troops, she recognized an old friend,  Major Harry Douglas.  She breathlessly told him about the union’s plan to burn Front Royal’s bridges before they could get there.  Douglas galloped off to report Belle’s information to Stonewall Jackson.

Stonewall then rode forward and thanked Belle for the valuable intelligence.He offered her a horse and escort to return to town.  She said that she thanked him but told him she would go as she came and that timing was vital.  Acting on her information, Stonewall and his men charged toward town.  As Belle had anticipated,  success or failure would be determined by seconds.  The Union soldiers had already set a major bridge on fire when the Confederates charged into town.  Defying the burning timbers, Jackson’s men grabbed and kicked the flaming boards into the water, saving the bridge so their forces could cross and storm the northern troops.

History would record the move as one of Stonewall’s major victories in his highly successful campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.For Belle Boyd, however, the harrowing incident was simply her way of “helping her friends.”  As she looked back over her life, the stretches in Union prisons would fade into the background as her mind replayed visions of her crazed race across the battlefield.  Foremost among those visions were likely the cheers from the soldiers as she waved them forward with her bonnet.“Their shouts of approbation and triumph rang in my ears for many a day afterwards,” she reflected, “and I still hear them not infrequently in my dreams.” 


I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!

Submitted: August 02, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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