Childhood & Early Life
She was born on May 9, 1844, to Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd in Martinsburg, Virginia (at present West Virginia) as their eldest child. Her father owned a shop.
She was vivacious, courageous, witty, and spontaneous and had strong willpower since her childhood. She led an extremely pleasant and care-free childhood that was marked by her domination over her siblings. Her tomboyish and daredevil attitude was exhibited in her riding a horse in the middle of a party held by her family where she was not allowed as a child.
After her preliminary education she joined the ‘Mount Washington Female College’ in Baltimore in 1856 and studied there till 1860.
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Though most of Martinsburg supported Union, her family had strong conviction for the cause of the Confederate. While her father volunteered in the Virginia infantry, she came forward to raise funds to aid the Confederate at the very outset of the ‘American Civil War’.
Following an encounter at the Falling Water town, the Union troops came to Martinsburg on July 3, 1861. When the Union occupied Martinsburg, Belle Boyd freely mixed with the soldiers and after extracting whatever information she could manage, forwarded them to the Confederate officers through messengers.
When a group of Union soldiers came to know that there are Confederate flags in her room, they came to her family residence on July 4, 1861, to check and raise their own flag. However, she along with her mother prohibited the group to enter the house. This was followed by an altercation and when one of the soldiers hurled abusive languages at her mother and tried to enter forcefully, Belle Boyd straightaway took a pistol, shot the soldier and killed him.
She had to undergo a trial and following investigation the Union commanding officer concluded that her action in such situation was appropriate and she was released on defensive ground. Albeit her release, her house was kept under high vigil with sentries keeping watch around the house as also on her movements.
Instead of getting worried she took advantage of the situation and with her flirtatious best she was successful in alluring one of the soldiers, Captain Daniel Keily. She extracted substantial information from him and through her slave Eliza Hopewell transferred those to the Confederate soldiers.
When her first espionage effort was exposed, she was captured and warned of facing a possible death sentence. Instead of panicking she comprehended that she required alternate and better techniques of communication.
She resolved to give her service in the South and became an informer of General P.G.T. Beauregard and General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederate passing on information and also medical supplies.
Eventually her whereabouts and functioning was publicized by the press who gave her the epithets “Cleopatra of the Secession”, “Rebel Joan of Arc", “Siren of the Shenandoah" and “La Belle Rebelle" for her courage and zeal. The quickly acquired celebrity status however landed her in confinement but she was acquitted after a week when she resumed her espionage work.
On one of the evenings in May 1862, while Union General James Shields and his staff discussed among themselves in a local hotel, she took cover in a closet to secretly overhear their conversation. She came to know that the general has orders to move east from Front Royal, Virginia. Overcoming Union lines and carrying fake documents to deceive the sentries she rode that night and conveyed the information to Confederate Colonel Turner Ashby.
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On July 29, 1862 she was incarcerated and sent to Washington, D.C. at the ‘Old Capitol Prison’. Following an inquiry on August 7, she was kept in confinement and later freed on August 29, in an exchange deal at Fort Monroe.
Next year she was again arrested and kept behind bars for five months.
In May 1864, while she was on her way to England to courier Confederate documents there, her ship was intercepted by the naval ship of the Union which led to her arrest with charges of espionage.
There she fell in love with Samuel Hardinge, a Union officer and one of her incarcerators. The relationship, that culminated into marriage and blessed them with a daughter, also made Samuel Hardinge serve an imprisonment term for helping Belle Boyd.
She moved to England in 1864 and began working as an actress. She also ventured into writing about her adventures during the war.
In 1865 she wrote ‘Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison’, a memoir where she also mentioned her husband Hardinge’s contributions.
Her debut stage performance ‘The Lady of Lyons’ happened in Manchester in 1866. Thereafter she moved back to the US where she performed in ‘The Honeymoon’ in New York in 1868 and took retirement the next year.
In 1886 after a long gap, owing to financial difficulties, she made a comeback to the stage.
The later stage of her life, starting from around 1887, saw her touring the United States and giving thrilling lectures about her espionage during the war.
Personal Life & Legacy
Her first husband Samuel Hardinge died in 1866 and on November 11, 1869 she moved back to the US and the same year she married ex-Union officer John Swainston Hammond. The couple had four children and they divorced in 1884.
In 1885 she married Nathaniel Rue High, a young actor.
On June 11, 1900, she succumbed to a heart attack in Kilbourne City (at present Wisconsin Dells) in Wisconsin. She went there to address members of a GAR post while on a tour in the United States. She was interred in Wisconsin at the ‘Spring Grove Cemetery’.