It’s a well-known fact that patriarchal societies tend to dismiss and underestimate women. I’m always delighted to point out ways in which androcentric cultures shoot themselves in the foot by devaluing half their population. While being treated as a piece of furniture might ordinarily be construed as a bad thing, it can come in handy if you’re the sort of girl who wants to be a spy. After all, you can get away with just about anything as long as nobody is paying any attention to what you're doing.
This essay concerns the super spy of the Civil War. Her name was Isabella (Belle) Boyd and she was a true daughter of the South. Born the eldest child of a prominent merchant family in Martinsburg West Virginia, she loved hush puppies, sweet potato pie, and the Confederate cause. When the Civil War broke out, she wanted to do more than knit snuggies for the boys in grey.
Despite the fact that her home town was occupied by Yankees early in the war, it didn’t take long for Belle to display her true colors. Literally. Her first overt act of hostility was to shoot at a Union soldier who broke into her home to swap the stars and stripes for the rebel flag she’d hung outside to celebrate the 4th of July.
Shortly after that incident, she discovered more effective ways of helping the war effort. Her family owned the best hotel in Martinsburg. It became the favorite haunt of bored Union officers who liked nothing better than to regale the local girls with tales of their military exploits. Belle hung on every word, especially when they started yacking about ammunition supplies and troop movements. She carefully encoded what they said and made sure the intel got into the right hands.
Although she excelled at chatting up gullible junior officers, she was also quite adept at skulking. During one spy mission, she crammed herself into an upstairs closet positioned directly over a meeting room where the top Union brass was planning strategy. Armed with the vital info they unwittingly provided, Belle then pulled a Paul Revere and rode fifteen miles past enemy sentries to deliver the skinny personally.
Her daring exploits had won her some minor fame but she outdid herself in the spring of 1862. Hearing that the union army was about to abandon Front Royal Virginia, she raced on foot through the crossfire of both armies until she reached Stonewall Jackson’s advance guard. “Hey General,” she gasped, completely out of breath. “Y’all better high tail it to Front Royal before them Yankees burn the supply depot and blow the bridges sky high.”
The general took her advice and high tailed it, allowing the rebels to claim a victory that day. The battle of Front Royal put Belle over the top and made her the darling of the Confederacy. Unfortunately, her fame came at a price. Spies lose the element of sneakiness when everybody knows who they are. The Union knew all about Belle and the Secretary Of War himself issued a warrant for her arrest. She was duly apprehended and sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC.
If the boys in blue thought they had done something to quash her spirit they were much mistaken. She waved a rebel flag out of the transport train window and even found ways of annoying the guards once she got to prison by singing “Dixie” at the top of her lungs several times a day. (My usual disclaimer. I’m not making this up. In fact, Belle’s actions were so flamboyant that they require very little creative embellishment from me. I’m just reporting the facts.)
The New York Herald made clucking sounds of disapproval over her antics and wrote: “She takes her arrest as a matter of course, and is smart, plucky, and absurd as ever. A lunatic asylum might be recommended for her.”
Belle spent time in and out of prison for the next two years and lost a bit more time recovering from a bout of typhoid fever. In recognition of her sacrifices to the cause, Stonewall Jackson gave her the honorary title of aide-de-camp with the rank of Captain. Since she was too well-known in the north by that time to be useful as a spy, she spent the rest of the war years acting as a courier.
Courier or not, she never lost her abilities to bewitch the enemy. In 1864 during a mission aboard a blockade runner, Belle’s vessel was intercepted by the Union. She batted her eyelashes and somehow convinced Union officer Samuel Hardynge to let her escape along with the Confederate captain of the ship. Hardynge was court-martialed for his gallantry but Belle made it up to him by marrying him in England a few months later. Her new husband became so enamored of his wife’s political views that he enlisted in the Confederate army and shortly afterward got captured and died in a Yankee prison. (You’d think she would have realized what a hapless witling he was after the court-martial.)
Alas, the fortunes of war! Her husband dead, her country surrendered yet Belle always landed on her feet. The crowd around the Appomattox Courthouse had barely thinned out before she published her two-volume memoir called Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison. It immediately became a best-seller. Building on the momentum of her book sales, she next launched a career in the theater billing herself as “the Cleopatra Of The Secession,” and “the Siren of the Shenandoah.” (Good tag lines. I wish I’d thought of them.)
Amazingly enough, everybody loved her on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. When she got too long in the tooth for leading lady roles, she morphed her career yet again and became a hit on the lecture circuit. Not one to slow down, even at the end, she died of a heart attack while on a lecture tour in Kilbourn, Wisconsin. This staunch southern loyalist was buried where she died in a small town in cheese country. You might have heard of it. Kilbourn subsequently changed its name to the Wisconsin Dells. Let us take a moment to pause and marvel at the irony. Dixie’s most adamant supporter was laid to rest a stone’s throw away from that Yankee abomination -- Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show! The truth really is stranger than fiction.