It's been FOREVER since I've done one of my "Badass Women" posts. Mostly because they were all so long that I exhausted myself. But today I'm feeling feisty, so I'm afraid the only thing that will do is Belle Boyd, Southern spy in the American Civil War. All stories and quotations are from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.
Belle was the eldest of eight children, born to a wealthy Virginia family. She was very much Mommy and Daddy's darling favorite who got her own personal slave, Eliza, and her own pony and everything!
Once when she was a young girl, she was told that she was too young to join her parents at the dinner party they were hosting for important guests. "As the gracious gathering prepared to rise from the table, they were alarmed by a tremendous clatter, the door burst open, and Belle plunged in on horseback, prancing and cavorting around the china and glassware. 'Well, my horse is old enough, isn't he?' she cried. Her father was rushing to deal out justice when the very important guest of honor stopped him, saying, 'Surely so high a spirit should not be thoughtlessly quelled by severe punishment.' It never was. Belle got away with murder" (181-82).
"Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them–eh, screw it. I know it's me."
The thing you need to know about Belle Boyd is that sister. Had. CONFIDENCE. She wasn't a beauty by the standards of the day, but men couldn't resist her. "Everyone agrees she had a certain something; it may have been what we now call "self-esteem" (formerly "narcissism"). In a world of sweet-spoken, self-effacing women, she was a bombshell of cockiness, and her memoir sends the reader reeling from the onslaught of pure ego" (181). And you know what? It seems like the easy way out, but we can probably blame the parents for this.
Belle had her social debut in Washington, to flirt with senators and be impressed by the political life, and then returned home to Virginia just in time for the Civil War to start. That stupid war interrupted so many ladies' romantic lives! Belle's father enlisted and the war came right to their doorstep. Their hometown, Martinsburg, changed hands between Northern and Southern troops a great number of times during the course of the war. And what happens when you get a cocky young miss with an interest in politics who believes she is invincible right in the middle of a storm like this? That's right: espionage.
It all started when, during one of Martinburg's occupations by Union troops, some Union soldiers started a rumor that Belle's bedroom was decorated with Confederate flags. Because of COURSE a whole enemy troop would know who Belle was already. They stormed her house, broke in and went upstairs to see for themselves. Thankfully, her trusty slave Eliza had already hidden all the damning evidence (Belle's life plays out like a movie, so of course she has a trusty slave to provide wisdom and always be one step ahead of the evil Yankees).
The soldiers were disappointed, so they "decided to raise a Union flag over the house. Belle's mother, no shrinking violet herself, said, according to Belle, 'Men, every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.' One of the soldiers cursed her 'in language as offensive as it was possible to conceive,' and Belle drew her pistol and shot him dead" (182-83). When the officer in charge of the occupying forces came to see what the problem was, Belle charmed her way out of it. He even posted sentries around the house for her protection.
She charmed them, too, and made them so comfortable that they instantly started gabbing in front of her about military plans and Union movements. She wrote it all down and signed her name, and sent it to the Confederates. She got caught before the week was out. Awww, bless, baby girl has so much to learn about spying.
The punishment for spying was death. Belle got a warning. Her family was like, "This is not good, not good, get Belle out of here before she gets us all killed." They tried to send her South to go do lady-like things with relatives, but instead she went to visit her father's camp and got herself a job transporting other spies' messages, learning the business from the ground up.
One day while out doing super-secret spy business, her horse shied and ran past Union lines. "Brassy as always, she rode up to the commanding officer and told him she was his prisoner and pleaded winsomely for her release. The gallant officer replied, 'We are exceedingly proud of our beautiful captive, but of course we cannot think of detaining you. May we have the honor of escorting you beyond our lines and restoring you to the custody of your friends? I suppose there is no fear of those cowardly rebels taking us prisoner?'
"Belle smiled. The two officers escorted her back to Confederate ground, where her friends were hiding in some bushes. 'Here are two prisoners that I have brought you,' she sang out. And to the officers, 'Here are two of the 'cowardly rebels' whom you hoped there was no danger of meeting'" (184). Her commanding officer rolled his eyes and released the two officers. Belle was an evil little imp when it came to showcasing her own brazenness. In my opinion, this woman is so classless she's practically a Marxist utopia. But I like her, anyway.
Despite being totally obvious and well-known to everybody, "Belle managed to wheedle travel passes from both sides, flirting her way past checkpoints, and dancing as gaily with either army. She had a talent for talk that few could resist . . . word persists that she was generous with more than her conversation; generous to a fault, you might say. If so, no doubt she felt it was a gallant sacrifice for the Cause" (185).
Her spying doesn't sound particularly sophisticated. It is more a combination of Yankee stupidity, luck and her own boldness. As they say in Harry Potter, "Anything's possible if you've got enough nerve."
BELLE: Oh my god, there's a trap being laid for Stonewall Jackson! Eliza, saddle my horse!
ELIZA: It's the middle of the night–don't you think the Yankees at the checkpoints will be suspicious of–
BELLE: Uhhh, I believe you are a slave, so what's with all the back-chat?
YANKEE SENTRIES: It's two a.m. and here comes a lovely Southern girl galloping into enemy territory. Seems legit. Come on through, ma'am!
BELLE: *delivers message, rides back*
YANKEE SENTRIES: *SNORE*
BELLE: Oh, I guess I'll just tiptoe on through the checkpoint and go home, then, shall I? *tiptoes past sentries, goes home*.
STONEWALL JACKSON: *evades trap*
BELLE: DAMN, I'm good. Brb, I have to go make out with a mirror for a few minutes.
Or in another example:
BELLE: If we can get troops over this bridge before the Yankees burn it, we might be able to catch the Yankees with their pants down. Eliza? Carry this message.
ELIZA: I know I'm a slave, but no effing way.
BELLE: Other loyal Confederates, please deliver my execution-worthy message through a war-zone, 'kay?
OTHER CONFEDERATES: Lady, you have GOT to be kidding.
BELLE: Fine, I'll do it. Eliza, saddle my horse.
ELIZA: Whatever you say. I mean, they've started firing and everything, but you're determined to go, so it's been nice knowing you.
BULLETS: *go through her dress*
BULLETS: *go over her head*
BULLETS: Why can't we hit anything? Are we coming out of Storm Trooper guns, or something?
BELLE: *gets knocked off horse by exploding shell*
BULLETS: Okay, she's on foot. Surely we'll get her now.
BELLE: *runs like a cheetah, leaps like a gazelle, soars like a flying squirrel, makes it to Confederate lines*
BULLETS: Wow. There goes all our self-esteem.
BELLE: Sweet fancy Moses, I am the most amazing thing that has ever lived. *cigarette drag*.
She made it to the camp and Stonewall Jackson's aide said "'she was just the girl to dare to do this thing' . . . She described the positions of the Union guns and the whereabouts of the Union forces with, as one officer put it, 'the precision of a staff officer making a report, and it was true to the letter'" (186). They made it across the bridge in time.
Unfortunately, that ole hubris'll get ya every time. At a rebel dinner party, she was given a letter to carry to Stonewall. An old servant pulled her aside and told her the "rebel" was actually a Yankee spy trying to trap her. Belle was like, "WHATEVS, SLAVE. You aren't glamorous, so you couldn't possibly know anything about spy work." She carried the message and got arrested. Because you always–No, seriously, listen to me–YOU ALWAYS TAKE THE ADVICE OF THE WISE OLD FAMILY RETAINER. ALWAYS.
Thankfully, the long-suffering Eliza had thought to burn the most incriminating documents in the stove, but it wasn't enough. Belle was taken to the Old Capitol Prison. And, of course, she charmed the absolute pants off of everyone there. All the other prisoners loved her and entertained her. The guards gave her better food, and she had a growing crowd of admirers outside the walls who sent her in candy and supplies. She was pretty much Velma Kelly.
She even "scratched up a romance with a Confederate officer diagnoally across the hall; they sent each other notes fastened to a large marble rolled back and forth" (188). "Carl Sandburg wrote that there was no reason on earth she couldn't have been summarily shot instead. As usual, she'd landed on her feet" (189).
She was let go after a month in a prisoner exchange. One snotty young woman wrote of all the hubbub, "'I hope she has succeeded in making herself sufficiently notorious now'" (187). Belle's fellow prisoners somehow scratched together enough cash to buy her a gold and diamond watch to remember them by. Well, whores will have their trinkets. She said, "Thanks for all the laughs, fellas, but I have a parade I have to go star in. Hope you all don't get shot!" I'm not kidding about the parade: she was released in Richmond where the city greeted her as a hero and the city band serenaded her all the way to her hotel room.
Now a bonafide celebrity, she bought a bunch of fancy clothes and tried to make a go of it as a society lady. Well, I hope those clothes she bought were all prisoner-gray, because she just couldn't keep out of trouble and got arrested again soon thereafter. She had another mob of groupies outside (OMG, Belle, we love you! *tears open bodice, throws panties*).
Her father pulled some strings in Washington and got Belle released, but "banished" to the South. Since Martinburg had been annexed to West Virginia and was now technically in the North, it meant she could never visit home again. According to Belle, her father's death instantly after was the result of his grief at never being able to see her again. Whatever line of reasoning gets you through the night, sweetheart.
So she got on a blockade-runner's ship heading to England, with $500 in Southern treasury gold (an ENORMOUS sum for a country whose currency was plummeting through the ground) given to her in good faith that she would use it to drum up diplomatic and military support in Europe. She called herself Mrs. Lewis, but pretty much told everyone who she really was, anyway, because she is the
worst best? no, worst, definitely worst spy ever. The blockade-runner's ship was spotted by the Yankees. Belle had to burn her letters of introduction, which meant that she couldn't officially act as diplomat for the South in Europe . . . so I guess she just got to keep the $500. Nice.
The ship was boarded by Lieutenant Hardinge, who fell head-over-penis in love with Belle, took her on his Yankee ship as a passenger instead of a prisoner (though he took Captain Henry,the blockade-runner, as prisoner), and proposed to her the next day. She was like, "Uhhhh, no." So he took her on a shopping trip to New York, dazzled her, and proposed again. And she was like, "Yeah, alright." But because Belle is a flat-out she-devil, she distracted her new fiance just long enough for Captain Henry to escape his captivity and flee to Canada. Hardinge got arrested for his "complicity" in Henry's escape.
Belle could have abandoned him to his fate, but she must have grown to like him because she pulled some blackmail strings, got Hardinge released, and they got married in London. Then, like a dumbass, Hardinge sailed back to America a week later and got arrested again. So Belle decided to blackmail Abraham Lincoln. "She has, she explains, written her 'personal narrative' for publication and it was chock-full of 'atrocious circumstances respecting your government' . . . However, if Lincoln will release her husband, she won't publish what she knows. Hardinge was released'" (193). Her letter to Lincoln, by the way, never made it to the official files; it was in the Lincoln papers, which were sealed until 1947.
Hardinge tried to make it back to his wife, but no one knows what really happened to him. He was weakened from prison and might not have made the crossing to England. He just disappears from her memoirs. She normally wouldn't have cared–they'd only been married a week before he left–but she was pregnant and needed money. The war was over, so how was she to earn a living if spying was no longer an option? She published her memoirs (minus the Lincoln stuff) and then went on the stage, because she knew everyoooooone wanted to watch her. Which is probably what she should have done all along.
Tell me: if Belle Boyd grandstands and praises herself when no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
She married a former Union officer (because that worked out so well for her in the past) and they popped out a bunch of kids over 15 years, but then got divorced, upon which she married a penniless actor seventeen years younger than she was. She died in 1900, apparently flirtatious to the very last.