By Peter and Cynthia Dalton
It was about 1:00 o’clock on the afternoon of May 23, 1862, when a young servant entered the parlor where eighteen-year-old Belle Boyd was reading to her grandmother in her home in Front Royal. The young man was in a state of great excitement. He shouted: “Oh, Miss Belle, I t’inks de revels am a-coming; for the yanks are a-makin orful fuss in de street.”
Belle rushed outside and stopped a federal officer who was just then passing by. She queried him as to what the commotion was all about. The captain replied: “The Confederates were approaching the town in force, under Generals Jackson and Ewell, that they had surprised and captured the outside pickets, and had actually advanced within a mile of the town without the attack being even suspected.”
Belle hastened upstairs, grabbing her opera glasses, and took just enough time to lock the “Special Correspondent” to the New York Herald, a Mr. Clark, in his room. It was her desire that he might be apprehended by General Jackson and spend some quality time in Libby Prison.
Hurrying on to the balcony and, using her binoculars, Belle was able to spot the “advance guard of the Confederates at the distance of about three-quarters of a mile, marching rapidly upon the town.” Boyd knew her father, Benjamin Boyd, was serving as a member of the Stonewall Brigade, and was marching with these troops. She believed she must act swiftly to insure his well-being, as well as that of the entire Rebel Army.
Boyd House in Front Royal
Boyd quickly departed the balcony and passed to the street in front of her grandmother’s house. There several “pro-Confederate men” were standing about. She asked if they would hurry to Jackson to give him valuable information on the disposition of Federal troops inside the town. “Without it I had every reason to anticipate defeat and disaster.” Each of the men she queried, however, replied: “No, no. You go.” And go she did.
Dressed as she was in “a dark blue dress with a little fancy white apron over it; and this contrast of colors, being visible at a great distance, made me far more conspicuous than was just then agreeable.” Grabbing a white sun-bonnet Belle “started at a run down the street, which was thronged with Federal officers and men. I soon cleared the town and gained the open fields, which I traversed with unabating speed, hoping to escape observation until such time as I could make good my way to the Confederate line…”
In her biography Boyd noted that her “escape was providential: for although I was not hit, the rifle-balls flew thick and fast about me, and more than one struck the ground so near my feet as to throw the dust in my eyes.” Additionally, Union soldiers stationed at the hospital turned their attention to Boyd’s exit from town and opened fie upon her as well. Several shots pierced parts of her clothing but “none reached her body.” Certainly, being the target of Federal small arms fire was conceivable, though I question why Federal soldiers would shoot at an unarmed female civilian.
Belle also claimed she was also exposed to “cross-fire from the Federal and Confederate artillery, whose shot and shell flew whistling and hissing over my head.” One of the shells struck the earth “within twenty yards of my feet; and the explosion, of course, sent the fragments flying in every direction.” Boyd was forced to throw herself upon the ground to avoid injury.
Being exposed to artillery “cross-fire” during the 1:00 PM time period is highly unlikely. The first artillery rounds fired were those from Lieutenant Charles Atwell’s Battery E., Pennsylvania Light Artillery’s ten-pounder Parrotts. Lucy Buck, whose parents owned Bel Air manor, reference the artillery “on both sides were carrying on a most animated dialog.” One of the shells is reported to have whistled “over the house and cutting the twigs off the aspen in front of the porch.” One exploded in their barn and another crashed into the Happy Creek Mill just a short walk from her house. By most accounts, however, the shelling did not begin until at least 2:15, more than forty-five minutes after Boyd’s rendezvous with Douglas. Further, Confederate counter-battery fire was not inaugurated until a little after 3:00 PM.
Regardless, Boyd soon came within sight of the 1st Maryland, CSA, and the Louisiana Brigade. She claimed these units “gave her a loud cheer, and without waiting for further orders, dashed upon the town at a rapid pace.” Grateful, Boyd claimed she “sank upon her knees and offered a short but earnest prayer to God.”
General Richard Taylor, commanding the Louisiana Brigade, did himself make note of his encounter with Belle Boyd. He wrote: “There rushed out of the wood to meet us a young, rather well-looking woman, afterward widely known as Belle Boyd.” She relayed that “the town was filled with Federals, whose camp was on the west side of the river, where they had guns to cover the wagon bridge, but none bearing on the railway bridge.” “Convinced of the woman’s statements, I hurried forward at ‘a double’ hoping to surprise the enemy’s idlers in the town.”
It was at this juncture Belle Boyd spotted an acquaintance of hers, Henry Kyd Douglas. In her recollections, though, it is interesting to note she calls him “Harry.” Regardless, after catching her breath she ran to him and told him “to hurry on the cavalry, with orders to them to seize the bridges before the retreating Federals should have time to burn them.”
Henry Douglas recalled the meeting somewhat differently. Douglas recollected seeing “the figure of a woman in white glide swiftly out of town on our right and, after making a little circuit, run rapidly up a ravine in our direction… She seemed when I saw her, to heed neither weeds nor fences, but waved a bonnet as she came on, trying, it was evident, to keep the hill between herself and the village.”
General Richard Ewell suggested that Douglas ride out to meet her. Douglas did so, describing her as a “romantic maiden whose tall, supple, and graceful figure struck” him when he came within sight of her. He was “startled, momentarily, at hearing her call my name. But I was not much astonished when I saw that the visitor was the well-known Belle Boyd whom I had known from her earliest childhood.”
Henry Kyd Douglas
According to Henry, when Belle caught her breath, she told him to inform Jackson that “the Yankee force is very small – one regiment of Maryland Infantry, several pieces of artillery, and several companies of cavalry. Tell him I know, for I went through the camps and got it out of an officer. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all.” Douglas claimed he delivered the message “speedily” to Jackson. The intelligence provided to Jackson was, unfortunately, information he, for the most part, already knew. It was the reason he had asked, earlier that morning, for the 1st Maryland CSA to lead the attack.
Belle recalled that after Douglas conveyed his report to Jackson, the general rode up to her and asked if she would “have an escort and a horse wherewith to return to the village.” Belle thanked him but indicated she “would go as I came.” Douglas does not mention Jackson making this offer to her. Regardless of the details and accuracy of Boyd’s dash for the Confederate Army, attempting this in the middle of a battle certainly exhibited a great deal of daring and courage on her part.
When Douglas returned to Jackson the 1st Maryland and Louisiana troops were already rushing into Front Royal. Jackson suggested Henry follow the troops into town and try to speak with Belle Boyd one more time and see if he could obtain any additional intelligence. Douglas did so and as he rode up to her “she received me with much surprised cordiality, and as I stooped from my saddle she pinned a crimson rose to my uniform, bidding me remember that it was blood-red and that it was her ‘colors.’”
Though there is no mention made of any additional information being conveyed, Bell had been given, “by a gentleman of high social standing,” two packages while visiting Winchester the previous day. One package he said was “of great importance.” The second package he said was a “trifle.” We know from the diary of Julia Chase that among these items, some ”50 letters,” were taken away from her by officers serving under Colonel George Lafayette Beal of the 10th Maine Infantry prior to her departure from Winchester.
In addition to the packages, we know the mysterious “gentleman” had also given Belle a confidential note. She was told it “had to reach General Jackson or his equal.” While confronting Belle Boyd, Colonel Beal had noticed a note partially concealed in her hand. When asked about it, Boyd responded: “What-this little scrap of paper? You can have it if you wish. It is nothing.” The bluff worked as Beal declined to examine the document. If true, it was a significant gaffe on his part. It must be assumed, though, that this part of her mission would have been accomplished during one of her two encounters with Henry Douglas.
Though a great deal of the detail in her 1866 account of the incident does not compare accurately with accepted history, Boyd claimed in her memoirs she “received a thank you note from Jackson.” The note is reputed to have read: “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you rendered your country today. Hastily I am your friend, T. J. Jackson, CSA.”
The victory at Front Royal was indeed complete and Jackson’s 6th Virginia Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Flournoy, would indeed serve the fatal blow to Colonel John Reese Kenly’s force. The 6th Virginia Cavalry would provide the coup-de-grass scooping up more than 750 members of the 1st Maryland Union Infantry, the 29th Pennsylvania Infantry, and Atwell’s artillerists.
Belle Boyd would note: “The day was ours; and I had the satisfaction to know that it was in consequence of the information I had conveyed at such risk to myself General Jackson made the flank movement which led to such fortunate results.” “The Confederates, following up their victory, crossed the river by the still standing bridges, and pushed on by the road which led to Winchester.”
Boyd, however, would soon begin to pay the consequences for her profession. On July 29, 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton issued a warrant for her arrest. Lucy Buck mentions on July 30: “Belle Boyd was taken prisoner and sent off in a carriage with an escort of fifty cavalrymen today. I hope she has succeeded in making herself proficiently notorious today.” Boyd was brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. and was held there for a month. She was released on August 29, after being exchanged at Fort Monroe.
It is interesting to note Belle Boyd had been born in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1844. Henry Douglas, on the other hand, was six years her senior, having been born in 1838. He had grown up in a small hamlet called Ferry Hill Place, on the opposite side of the Potomac river from Shepherdstown. The two towns are about eleven miles distant from each other and it would not have been an insurmountable obstacle for him to have known Belle Boyd “from her earliest childhood.” Still, it is interesting to note she could not correctly recall his first name.
Prior to the Front Royal escapade Boyd had previously gained considerable notoriety with Federal officers. On July 4, 1861, a group of Union soldiers had arrived at the Boyd residence in Martinsburg looking for Confederate flags rumored to be stored there. In retribution Union soldiers hung a federal flag outside of the house. One of the combatants made the mistake of cursing at Belle’s mother which so angered her that she pulled out a pistol and fatally injured the soldier. A Federal board of inquiry would eventually exonerate her of the murder charge.
In total Belle was arrested at least six times, imprisoned three times, and exiled twice. On one occasion she was exiled to Canada, but instead headed for England. Likely more an adventurer than a true Confederate ideologue, Boyd would marry two Union men—first in 1864, Samuel Hardinge, a Union naval officer with whom she had a daughter, Grace. Later in 1869 she would marry John Hammond, a former Union officer. Together they would have four additional children.
Boyd became an actress in England after her husband’s death in order to support her daughter. Later in 1866, she and her child returned to the United States. Boyd assumed the stage name Nina Benjamin and performed in several cities. She subsequently began touring the country giving dramatic lectures on her life as a Civil War spy. She died of a heart attack in Kilbourn City, Wisconsin on June 11, 1900 at the age of 56. She was buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells, with members of the Grand Army of the Potomac as her pallbearers. Her stone would read:
BORN IN VIRGINIA
DIED IN WISCONSIN
ERECTED BY A COMRADE
Belle Boyd’s Grave in Spring Grove Cemetery, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.
Buck, Lucy Rebecca. Shadows on My Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia. The University of Georgia Press. Athens, Ga. 1997.
Boyd, Belle. Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge. 1998.
Mahon, Michael G. Winchester Divided: The Civil War Diaries of Julia Chase and Laura Lee. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pa. 2002.
Douglas, Henry Kyd. I Rode with Stonewall: The War Experiences of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill. 1984.
Ecelbarger, Gary. Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Ok. 2008.
Scarborough, Ruth. Belle Boyd: Siren of the South. Mercer University Press. Macon, Georgia. 1997.
Taylor, Richard. Destruction and Reconstruction.