Oh, Those Helpless “Belles”


“Short on looks, long on charm,” my grandmother Nannie would have drawled. “Belle Boyd looks more like a Founding Father than a Confederate Jezebel.”

“Sir, he cursed my mother in language as offensive as one can imagine,” the young lady said softly.  She bit her lower lip, and her hands, demurely covered in mitts, trembled slightly.  Had she less reserve, her fingers would have plucked her skirt in dismay.

She’s only seventeen years old, the Union officer grimly reminded himself, while taking note of her dark eyes, suddenly all the more luminous because of the tears.  Yes, war was a man’s business, a woman’s sorrow, and a child’s loss of innocence.  This slip of a girl had paid enough of a price.  She had shot an enlisted man for forcing his attentions on her mother.

“Now, now, my dear,” the officer said gruffly.  “You did perfectly right in defending your family honor. That soldier failed to act as a gentleman and deserved to die. Neither I nor my fellow officers will permit anyone to burn your home.”  He handed her a handkerchief, and she sniffed and dabbed her nose daintily.  “There, there my dear, be assured you are under my protection.”

Less than a week later, Belle Boyd, daughter of a prominent planter in the Shenandoah Valley, was flirtatiously snaring information from Federal soldiers and passing it to Confederate operatives.  Again, she charmed the commanding colonel and slipped the hangman’s noose.

The enemy succumbed to her feminine ways at every turn.  Her horse “ran away” through Federal lines. The soldiers who escorted her back were taken prisoner by the Confederates.  Ever coquettish, Belle sent the colonel in charge of Union-occupied Front Royal, Virginia, a bouquet of flowers and a request to enter the town to visit relatives.  The next day she left Front Royal with vital information for Stonewall Jackson that won the day for the Confederates.  Legend has it that she moved among the soldiers, waving her bonnet and giving directions.

And on went the intrigue. When Belle fell into Union hands, she managed to be comfortably housed and fed.  She even got engaged (temporarily) and acquired a new trousseau before her release.

She was just beginning her international spy career when a Union vessel captained by Samuel Hardinge seized her ship sailing from North Carolina to Europe. Belle, however, stole the Yankee’s heart and coaxed him to her side.  Hardinge was court-martialed for facilitating the escape of the Confederate who had commanded Belle’s ship.

The love-struck Union officer followed his southern belle to exile in England and mysteriously died soon after.  Some people raised suspicious eyebrows at the twenty-one year-old Belle Boyd.  After all, she already had committed murder, treachery, and espionage.

Belle shrugged and took to the stage. She had more roles yet to play.

Note: This “story” is only a send-up of stereotype. For accounts of a truly remarkable heroine of the Civil War—and much more—go to the Harriet Tubman website.


Never forget—in the words of Frederick Douglass:

“If this war, with its terrible experience of blood and death, has any lesson for the American people, it is to show them the vanity and utter worthlessness of all attempts to secure permanent peace and prosperity while disregarding and trampling upon self-evident rights and claims of human nature.”—as quoted in The Mind of Frederick Douglass by Waldo E. Martin (University of North Carolina Press, 1984).

In the 21st century, the struggle goes on. The History Department at the University of California Berkeley lists representative publications by Dr. Martin. The Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, a comprehensive statewide initiative, examines the causes of this national tragedy.

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