05 April 2013

Traitors & Turncoats: Isabella Marie Boyd

By Mirella Patzer

Born in Virginia, Isabella (Belle) was the eldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd. Despite the fact she was never considered pretty, she was a strong-willed and assertive child, afraid of nothing. Being of the female gender never hindered her. She could race through the forest or climb trees with the most spry of lads. With her mischievous, fun-loving, and strong personality, she clearly dominated all her brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. 

 Well educated, she graduated from the Mount Washington Female College at Baltimore. Afterwards, her family arranged for her social debut in Washington where she soon gained a reputation for her good nature and fun-loving spirit.

Isabella Marie Boyd
May 9, 1844 – June 11, 1900

Her carefree life changed forever on July 4, 1861. A band of Union army soldiers rode up to their home. When they saw the Confederate flag flying, they tore it down and hung a Union flag in its place. This angered Belle, but she wisely bit her tongue and kept silent. That is until one of the soldiers cursed her mother. That was when she pulled out a pistol and shot the man down.

That got her arrested. A board of inquiry exonerated her, but she remained under suspicion. They posted sentries around her house and officers kept close track of all her activities. Not one to be easily intimidated, Belle acted as if it didn’t bother her in the least. In fact, she chose to profit from her restricted circumstances and struck up friendships with several of the men. Her charms worked especially well on Captain Daniel Keily who soon began revealing military secrets to her.

Captain Daniel Kiely is seated on the right

Along with the many flowers he sent her, came tidbits of important information, the details of which she conveyed to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell. Eliza would carry the messages in a hollowed-out watch case. It was not long, however, before Belle and Eliza were caught. Belle was once more arrested, but this time, if convicted, she faced the death penalty. Luck, however, was on her side and she was freed.

Having come so close to death would have scared most people. Not so Belle. The only lesson she learned was that she needed to find a better way to communicate.

One evening in mid-May 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel.

Union General James Shields

She hid in the closet in the room, eavesdropping through a knothole she had enlarged in the door. She learned that Shields had been ordered east from Front Royal, Virginia, a move that would reduce the Union Army's strength at Front Royal. 

That night, she rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Colonel Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. She then returned to town.

Colonel Turner Ashby

When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, she ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson's men, braving enemy fire that put bullet holes in her skirt.

Stonewall Jackson

She urged an officer to inform Jackson that the Yankee force was very small and told him to charge right down so he could them all. Well, Jackson did just that and that very same evening, he penned a note of gratitude to Belle. For her actions, sge was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. Jackson also gave her captain and aide-de-camp status.

But her lover turned coat and he gave her up. She was arrested on July 29, 1862, and brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington where an inquiry was held on August 7, 1862 concerning violations of orders that she was to have kept in close custody.

Lady Luck continued to smile down upon her. She was held for a month before being released on August 29, 1862, when she was exchanged at Fort Monroe. She was later arrested and imprisoned a third time, but again was set free.

In 1864, she traveled to England where she met and married a Union naval officer named Samuel Wylde Hardinge. Never one to be happy with the quiet life, she became an actress in England.

After her husband, Samuel, died, she returned to the United States on November 11, 1869. There she met and married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans. But their marriage was a bitter, acrimonious one and did not last. The couple divorced in 1884. She soon married Nathaniel Rue High. A year later, she began touring the country giving dramatic lectures of her life as a Civil War spy.

While touring the United States, at the age of 56, she suffered a fatal heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin on June 11, 1900. Her grave can be found in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Dells.