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Filing Cabinet - Civil War

Belle Boyd,
Confederate Spy

Excerpts from Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, Volume 1, by Belle Boyd, (London: Saunders, Otley, and Co., 1865).

       ...My father was one of the first to volunteer. He was offered that grade in the army to which his social position entitled him; but, like many of our Virginian gentlemen, he preferred to enlist in the ranks, thereby leaving the pay and emoluments of an officer's commission to some other, whose means were not so ample, and whose family might be straitened in his absence from home, an absence that must of course interfere with his avocation or profession.
       The 2nd Virginian was the regiment to which my father attached himself. It was armed and equipped by means of a subscription raised by myself and other ladies of the Valley. On the colours were inscribed these words, so full of pathos and inspiration: -
                        "Our God, our country, and our women."
        The corps was commanded by Colonel Nadenbush, and belonged to that section of the Southern army afterwards known as "the Stonewall Brigade." "The Stonewall Brigade!" --the very name now bears with it traditions of surpassing glory; and I seize this opportunity of assuring English readers that it is with pride we Confederates acknowledge that our heroes caught their inspiration from the example of their English ancestors. When our descendants shall read the story of General Jackson and his men, they will be insensibly attracted to those earlier pages of history which record the exploits of Wellington's Light Division.
        My father's regiment was hardly formed when it was ordered to Harper's Ferry; for the sacred soil of Virginia was threatened with invasion, and it was thought possible to make a stand at this lovely spot, to see which is "worth a voyage across the Atlantic." At the outbreak of the war Harper's Ferry could boast of one of the largest and best arsenals in America, and of a magnificent bridge, which latter, spanning the broad stream of the Potomac, connected Maryland with Virginia. Both arsenal and bridge were blown up in July, 1861, by the Confederate forces, when the Federals, pressing upon them in overwhelming numbers, compelled a retreat.
        My home had now become desolate and lonely: the excitement caused by our exertions to equip our father for the field had ceased, and the reaction of feeling had set in. A general sadness and depression prevailed throughout our household. My mother's face began to wear an anxious, careworn expression. Our nights were not passed in sleep, but in thinking painfully of the loved one who was exposed to the dangers and privations of war.
        My mother, the daughter of an old officer, was left an orphan when very young; she had married my father just as she entered upon her sixteenth year; and now, almost for the first time, they were parted, under circumstances which made the separation bitter indeed. For myself, I endeavoured to while away the long hours of those sunnier days by the aid of my books, and in making up different kinds of portable provisions for the use of my father, to whom I knew they would, in his novel position, be a luxury.
        But, notwithstanding all the restrictions I laid upon myself, and all the self-control I endeavoured to exert, I soon found these employments too tame and monotonous to satisfy my temperament, and I made up my mind to pay a visit to the camp, coûte qui coûte. I had no difficulty in prevailing upon some of my friends to accompany me in an expedition to head-quarters. Like myself, they had friends and relations to whom they felt their occasional presence would be a source of encouragement and solace; and we all knew that such a goodly company as we formed could return safely to Martinsburg at almost any hour of the day or night.
        The camp at Harper's Ferry was at this time an animated scene. Officers and men were as gay and joyous as though no bloody strife awaited them The ladies, married and single, in the society of husbands, brothers, sons, and lovers, cast their cares to the winds, and seemed, one and all, resolved that, whatever calamity the future might have in store for them, it should not mar the transient pleasures of the hour. Since then I have had occasion to observe that such a state of feeling is not unnatural or unusual in the minds of men standing, as it were, on the brink of a precipice, or walking, as it were, over the surface of a mine. "Perils commonly ask to be paid in pleasures," and the payment is doubly sweet when it is taken in anticipation of the debt.

        I fear that at this time many fond vows were exchanged and many true hearts pledged between the girls of the neighbourhood and the occupants of the camp; but it may be pardoned to beauty and innocence if they are not insensible to the virtues of courage and patriotism.
        A true woman always loves a real soldier. In the earliest ages poets and philosophers foretold that the Goddess of Love and Beauty would ever move in the same orbit and in close conjunction with the God of Battles, and the experience of ages has confirmed the judgment of antiquity. Alas! the loves of Harper's Ferry were in but too many instances buried in a bloody grave. The soldier who plighted his faith to his ladye-love was not tried in a long probation, but canonized by an early death. War will exact its victims of both sexes, and claims the hearts of women no less than the bodies of men.
        To return from this digression. Our insouciance was not of long duration. The advance of a Federal army was reported; and General Jackson, with a force amounting to 5000 men, marched out to reconnoitre, and, if possible, to check their aggressive movement. Our people encamped at "Falling Waters," a romantic spot, eight miles from Martinsburg and four from Williamsport; for at this point of the river, it was rumoured, the Yankees had resolved to force a passage.
        It was early in the morning of the 3rd July that we "gude folks" of dear Martinsburg were startled by the roar of artillery and the rattle of musketry; and the intelligence was presently circulated that the Yankees were advancing upon us in force, under the command of Generals Patterson and Cadwallader. It turned out, however, that, at the moment of which I speak, their advanced guard only was in motion; but the skirmish between our people and the enemy was sustained during nearly five hours. On both sides some fell, and, besides the casualties of the Federals in killed and wounded, we took about fifty of them prisoners.
        About ten o'clock General Jackson's army, in admirable array, marched through Martinsburg. They were in full retreat, their object being to effect a junction with the main body, under General J. E. Johnston, who had evacuated Harper's Ferry, and was falling back, by way of Charlestown, upon Winchester.

        Jackson's retreat was covered by a few horsemen under the gallant Colonel Ashby;
and scarcely were these latter disengaged from the streets of the town, when the shrill notes of the fife and the roll of the drum announced the approach of a Federal army, which proved to be 25,000 strong.
        It was to us a sad, but an imposing sight. On they came (their colours streaming to the breeze, their bayonets glittering in the sunlight) with all the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war." We could see from afar the dancing plumes of the cavalry -
                        "the glittering files,
                        O'er whose gay trappings stern Bellona smiles;"
we could before long hear the rumbling of the gun-carriages, and, worse than this, the hellish shouts with which the infuriated and undisciplined soldiers poured into the town.
        At the time of their entry I was in the hospital, with my negro maid and some ladies of my acquaintance, in attendance upon two of our Southern soldiers, who had been stricken down with fever and were lying side by side. These were the sole tenants of the hospital: all the others had been borne off by the retreating army.
        I was standing close by the side of one of these poor men, who was just then ranting in a violent fit of delirium, when I was startled by the sound of heavy footsteps behind me; and, turning round, I confronted a captain of Federal infantry, accompanied by two private soldiers. He held in his hand a Federal flag, which he proceeded to wave over the bed of the sick men, at the same time calling them " - rebels."
        I immediately said, with all the scorn I could convey into my looks, "Sir, these men are as helpless as babies, and have, as you may see, no power to reply to your insults."
        "And pray," said he, "who may you be, miss?"
        I did not deign to reply; but my negro maid answered him, "A rebel lady."
        Hereupon he turned upon his heel and retired, with the courteous remark that "I was a independent one, at all events."
         I hope my readers will pardon my quoting his exact words: without such strict accuracy I should fail to do justice to his gallantry.
         Notwithstanding this interruption to our "woman's mission," the ladies to whom I have before alluded and myself were not discouraged; and before long we contrived to get our patients moved to more comfortable quarters. They were taken away on litters; and, while they were in this defenseless condition, a condition which would have awakened the sympathy and secured the protection of a brave enemy, the Federal soldiers crowded round and threatened to bayonet them.
        Their gesticulations and language grew so violent, their countenances, inflamed by drink and hatred, were so frightful, that I nerved myself to seek out an officer and appeal to his sense of military honour, even if the voice of mercy were silent in his breast. Let me do him the justice to say, he restrained his turbulent men from further molestation, and I had the unspeakable satisfaction of conveying my sick men to a place of safety. The satisfaction was immeasurable; for I never for one moment forgot that insults such as I had just seen offered to defenceless men might at any moment be heaped upon my own father.


Fourth of July - The Yankee Flag is hoisted in Martinsburg - Great Excitement - My first Adventure- An Article of War is read to me - Miss Sophia B.'s Walk.

       THE morning of the 4th of July dawned brightly.
        I need hardly say, for it is well known, that the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence has, in each succeeding year from that of its birth, been hailed with triumphant acclamations by a nation still too young to moderate its transports and lend its ear to the voice of reason rather than to the impulse of passion.
        The Yankees were in undisputed possession of Martinsburg; the village was at their mercy, and consequently entitled to their forbearance; and it would at least have been more dignified in them had they been content to enjoy their almost bloodless conquest with moderation; but, whatever might have been the intentions of the officers, they had not the inclination, or they lacked the authority, to control the turbulence of their men.
        The severance of the North from the South had now become in feeling so complete, that we Martinsburg girls saw the Union flag streaming from the windows of the houses with emotions akin to those with which the ladies of England would gaze upon the tricolour of France or the eagle of Russia floating above the keep of Windsor Castle. Those hateful strains of "Yankee Doodle" resounded in every street, with an accompaniment of cheers, shouts, and imprecations.
        Whisky now began to flow freely; for, amid the motley crowd of Americans, Dutchmen, and other nations, the Irish element predominated. The sprigs of shillelahs were soon at work, and the "sons of Erin" proved that they could use their sticks with no less effect in an American town than at an Irish fair. They set at defiance the authority of those among their officers who vainly interposed to quell the tumult and restrain the lawless violence that was offered to defenceless citizens and women.
        The doors of our houses were dashed in; our rooms were forcibly entered by soldiers who might literally be termed "mad drunk," for I can think of no other expression so applicable to their condition. Glass and fragile property of all kinds was wantonly destroyed. They found our homes scenes of comfort, in some cases even of luxury; they left them mere wrecks, utterly despoiled and mutilated. Shots were fired through the windows; chairs and tables were hurled into the street.
        In some instances a trembling lady would make a timid appeal to that honour which should be the attribute of every soldier, or, with streaming eyes and passionate accents, plead for some cherished object - the portrait, probably, of a dead father, or the miniature her lover placed in her hand when he left her to fight for his freedom and hers - upon which many a secret kiss had been pressed, many a silent tear had fallen, before which many an earnest prayer had been breathed.
        To such supplications the reply was invariably a volley of blasphemous cursesand horrid imprecations. Words from which the mind recoils with horror, which no man with one spark of feeling would utter in the presence even of the most abandoned woman, were shouted in the ears of innocent, shrinking girls; and the soldiers of the Union showed a malignant, a fiendish delight in destroying the effigies of enemies whom they had not yet dared to meet upon equal terms in an open field of battle.
        Surely it is not strange that cruelties such as I have attempted to describe have exasperated our women no less than our men, and inspired them with sterner feelings than those which inflame the bosoms of ladies who know nothing of invasion but its name, who have never at their own firesides shuddered at the oaths and threats of a robber disguised in the garb of a soldier.
        Shall I be ashamed to confess that I recall without one shadow of remorse the act by which I saved my mother from insult, perhaps from death - that the blood I then shed has left no stain on my soul, imposed no burden upon my conscience?
        The encounter to which I refer was brought about as follows: - A party of soldiers, conspicuous, even on that day, for violence, broke into our house and commenced their depredations; this occupation, however, they presently discontinued, for the purpose of hunting for "rebel flags," with which they had been informed my room was decorated. Fortunately for us, although without my orders, my negro maid promptly rushed upstairs, tore down the obnoxious emblem, and, before our enemies could get possession of it, burned it.
        They had brought with them a large Federal flag, which they were now preparing to hoist over our roof in token of our submission to their authority; but to this my mother would not consent. Stepping forward with a firm step, she said, very quietly, but resolutely, "Men, every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us."
        Upon this, one of the soldiers, thrusting himself forward, addressed my mother and myself in language as offensive as it is possible to conceive. I could stand it no longer; my indignation was roused beyond control; my blood was literally boiling in my veins; I drew out my pistol * and shot him. He was carried away mortally wounded, and soon after expired.
        Our persecutors now left the house, and * All our male relatives being with the army, we ladies were obliged to go armed in order to protect ourselves as best we might from insult and outrage.   we were in hopes we had got rid of them, when one of the servants, rushing in, cried out -   "Oh, misses, missus, dere gwine to burn de house down; dere pilin' de stuff ag'in it! Oh, if massa were back!"
        The prospect of being burned alive naturally terrified us, and, as a last resource, I contrived to get a message conveyed to the Federal officer in command. He exerted himself with effect, and had the incendiaries arrested before they could execute their horrible purpose.
        In the meantime it had been reported at head-quarters that I had shot a Yankee soldier, and great was the indignation at first felt and expressed against me. Soon, however, the commanding officer, with several of his staff, called at our house to investigate the affair. He examined the witnesses, and inquired into all the
circumstances with strict impartiality, and finally said I had "done perfectly right." He immediately sent for a guard to head-quarters, where the élite of the army was stationed and a tolerable state of discipline preserved.
        Sentries were now placed around the house, and Federal officers called every day to inquire if we had any complaint to make of their behaviour. It was in this way that I became acquainted with so many of them; an acquaintance "the rebel spy" did not fail to turn to account on more than one occasion.
        When the news reached the Confederate camp at Darksville, seven miles from Martinsburg, on the Valley Road, that I had shot a Yankee soldier in self-defence, together with the false report that for so doing I had been thrown into the town gaol, the soldiers with one accord volunteered to storm the prison and rescue me, or die to a man in the attempt. It is with pride and gratitude that I record this proof of their esteem and respect for what I had done. It is with no less pleasure I reflect that their devotion was not put to the test, and that no blood was shed on my account.
        And now, for seven consecutive days, General Jo. Johnston sent in a flag of truce offering battle to General Patterson: this challenge Patterson persistently declined. I am not so ignorant of warfare as not to know that strategic reasons justify the most daring general in refusing battle whenever and wherever he pleases.
        "If thou art a great soldier, come and fight." "If thou art a great soldier, make me come and fight."
        But, though the Federal commander had a perfect right to choose his own battle-field, he had, in my opinion, no right to couple his refusal of the challenge with a threat that, as soon as Johnston should think fit to make an aggressive movement, he would at once shell Martinsburg, which sheltered the non-combatants, the women and the children, the sick and the infirm.
        Meanwhile, my residence within the Federal lines, and my acquaintance with so many of the officers, the origin of which I have already mentioned, enabled me to gain much important information as to the position and designs of the enemy. Whatever I heard I regularly and carefully committed to paper, and whenever an opportunity offered I sent my secret despatch by a trusty messenger to General J. E. B. Stuart, or some brave officer in command of the Confederate troops. Through accident or by treachery one of
these missives fell into the Yankees' hands. It was not written in cipher, and, moreover, my handwriting was identified. I was immediately summoned to appear before some colonel, whose name I have forgotten; but I remember it was Captain Gwyne who escorted me to head-quarters. There I was alternately threatened and reprimanded, and finally the following "Article of War" was read to me in a most emphatic manner' and with the caution that it would be carried out in the spirit and the letter: -
        "Whoever shall give food, ammunition, information to, or aid * and abet the enemies of the United States Government* I had been confiscating and concealing their pistols and swords on every possible occasion, and many an officer, looking about everywhere for his missing weapons, little dreamed who it was that had taken them, or that they had been smuggled away to the Confederate camp, and were actually in the hands of their enemies, to be used against themselves.       in any manner whatever, shall suffer death, or whatever penalty the honourable members of the Court-martial shall see fit to inflict."
        I was not frightened, for I felt within me the spirit of the Douglas, from whom I am descended. I listened quietly to the recital of the doom which was to be my reward for adhering to the traditions of my youth and the cause of my country, made a low bow, and, with a sarcastic "Thank you, gentlemen of the Jury," I departed; not in peace, however, for my little "rebel" heart was on fire, and I indulged in thoughts and plans of vengeance.

        From this hour I was a "suspect," and all the mischief done to the Federal cause was laid to my charge; and it is with unfeigned joy and true pride I confess that thesuspicions of the enemy were far from being unfounded.


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