Note: This story is from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery.
The jet boat rides, roller coasters, miniature golf courses, souvenir shops and other tourist attractions of Wisconsin Dells are a long way from the bloody battlegrounds of the Civil War, but there is a connection between this Midwest fun land where families come to play and that terrible conflict where brothers, fathers, and sons sometimes faced each other over the barrels of their muskets. In a peaceful cemetery just a couple of miles from all of the activity in downtown Wisconsin Dells is the grave of one of the most controversial figures of the War Between the States.
Born in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), on May 9, 1843, Maria Isabella Boyd was the daughter of a prominent and proud southern family. Her father, Ben Boyd, was a wealthy merchant, and the fine Greek Revival home he built in Martinsburg in 1853 still stands today at 123 East Race Street. The family had several children who died at early ages and by the start of the Civil War, Maria Isabelle, known as Belle, was the oldest child. She attended Mount Washington Female College in Baltimore from 1856 to 1860, and was formally presented to Washington, DC society just before the war began.
Ben Boyd joined the Virginia Cavalry at the outbreak of hostilities, leaving his wife behind in Martinsburg to care for the teenaged Belle, her younger sister, and brother. From the early days of the war the area around Martinsburg was in the middle of the struggle.
When Union soldiers took the area, the independent and headstrong Belle was suddenly thrust into the limelight. On July 4, 1861, a group of Union troops attempted to raise the Stars and Stripes over the Boyd house. “Our family would rather die first,” Mrs. Boyd declared, and a Union soldier struck the woman with his fist. Pulling a hidden pistol from her dress, Belle promptly shot her mother’s assailant dead.
The teenager was arrested and charged with murder, but the killing was ruled justifiable homicide. Even though she had taken the life of one of their own, many of the Union officers and soldiers admired Belle’s beauty and spunk, as well as her courage in the face of a bully. Remember, these were still the days of chivalry, and the dead soldier’s actions in attacking Belle’s mother were frowned upon by his own comrades.
Belle took advantage of her popularity, mingling with the Union officers and eavesdropping on their conversations. The information she learned was then passed along to Confederate leaders. When one of Belle’s missives was intercepted, such was her popularity (and possibly so gullible were the enemy officers), that she only received a stern reprimand.
By now eighteen years old, Belle continued her spying activities, many times relaying vital information to rebel leaders. She was praised during the Battle of Front Royal in May, 1862 for providing rebel forces with information that helped them capture several vital positions.
Betrayed by a former lover, Belle was arrested on July 29, 1862. Charged with being a spy, she was held for a month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC. But again her charms seem to have prevailed, and the southern beauty was released in a prisoner exchange and went to live with her aunt in Fort Royal, Virginia.
Undaunted by her arrest, Belle continued to gather intelligence for the southern cause. In Fort Royal, she overhead Union General James Shield discussing battle plans and rode on horseback fifteen miles through enemy lines in the dark of night to deliver the news to the Confederate camp. Belle continued her dangerous activities, at times dashing through enemy positions in the heat of battle to bring important news to rebel forces. It is said that more than once her skirts were pierced with bullet holes, but she never wavered in her cause.
Dubbed “La Belle Rebelle” by a French war correspondent, Belle’s daring was recognized by Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, who bestowed upon her the rank of captain and made her an honorary aide-de-camp on his staff. Belle also served as a courier for Jackson and General Beauregarde, as well as a scout for guerilla Colonel John S. Mosby, the “Gray Ghost.” In addition to information, Belle also smuggled medical supplies and weapons to southern forces.
Captured again in June, 1863 in Martinsburg, Belle was held in prison until December 1, 1863, when she was released, suffering from typhoid. Soon after, she went to England to recover her health, and also to deliver information from Confederate President Jefferson Davis seeking aid for the southern cause from European leaders.
Setting sail for America toward the end of the war, Belle’s blockade runner was captured by Union ships. Calling upon her considerable charms, Belle promptly seduced her captor, Captain Samuel Hardinge, and convinced him to allow her to escape to Canada, from which she returned to England. His misdeed found out, Hardinge was later court-martialed and discharged from the Navy. He followed Belle to England, where the couple were married in August, 1864.
The marriage was short lived. Hardinge died a year later, and with the war over, Belle began a stage career and published a book about her activities during the war titled Belle Boyd In Camp and Prison. She returned to America, eventually remarried, and toured for many years, relating her experiences to packed theaters.
Belle Boyd died while performing in Kilbourne, Wisconsin on June 11, 1900. But even in death, Belle continued to be the center of controversy. Union veterans were very opposed that a woman they considered a traitor to her country be buried in the same cemetery as northern war dead. They and their descendants were even more offended when a tombstone was placed on Belle’s grave that read “Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy, Born In Virginia, Died In Wisconsin, Erected By A Comrade” along with a Confederate flag. Strong letters of protest were filed with the Wisconsin governor’s office from veteran’s groups.
In 1953 an effort was made by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to move Belle Boyd’s remains for reburial in Virginia but her daughter resisted and the former spy still rests in northern soil. Or does she?
There are those who swear that on some moonlight nights the ghostly figure of a young woman riding a horse at a fast pace can be seen on the old battlefields of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Could it be the ghost of Belle Boyd, dodging enemy musket balls to deliver messages to a phantom army, still carrying on the cause that she believed in so much?
Congratulations Margaret Bergen, winner of our drawing for a box set of Mona Ingram’s The Women of Independence e-books. We had 90 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – A person who aims at nothing is sure to hit it.