Belle Boyd was just a normal woman living the life of a slaveholder’s daughter in Martinsburg, Virginia. Until she wasn’t.
Boyd, who was born on this day in 1844, became one of the Civil War’s best-known Confederate spies. After the war, she was able to monetize her reputation with writing and speaking tours. Although Boyd was able to transcend the social expectations of her as a wealthy white woman and do something that she felt was meaningful, she was never able to see or acknowledge the double standard of her treatment of Eliza Corsey, a black woman who was at first her slave and then after the war stayed on as her servant.
Boyd, then 18, had only recently returned from going to a finishing school and making her formal society debut when her hometown of Martinsburg was captured by Union forces, writes Karen Abbott for The New York Times. The soldiers looted homes and businesses. “One particularly drunken and unruly group invaded the Boyd home and tried to raise a Yankee flag over its door,” Abbott writes. One of the soldiers physically threatened Boyd’s mother, Mary Boyd, Abbott writes, and “Belle took a Colt 1849 pocket pistol and shot him dead.”
Although Boyd was cleared at a subsequent trial, her life had taken a turn. After she was released from prison, she became a colorful spy who openly operated under Union noses. As a courier, she delivered messages to Stonewall Jackson and other nearby Confederate generals, writes Abbott. But that wasn’t the only thing:
She stole weapons from Union camps, weaving arsenals of sabers and pistols through the steel coils of her hoop skirt, and smuggled precious quinine across the Potomac River to secessionist towns in Maryland. Not all of her endeavors were altruistic; she charged $3 to carry letters across the lines and $2 for liquor, and once attacked a Confederate soldier who refused to pay for his bottle (30 rebel men were badly wounded in the ensuing brawl).
All this was enough to get her a reputation with the locals, who shamed her as sexually promiscuous and “fast.” She did stick out, writes Abbott:
Female spies typically represented one of two extremes: the seductress who employed her wiles to manipulate men, and the cross-dresser who blended in by impersonating them. Belle was both, often within the same encounter, wheedling information out of Union officers while wearing Confederate garb, often to comic effect.
Throughout it all, she was accompanied by Corsey. According to Corsey’s granddaughter, as told in the introduction to a 1998 version of Boyd’s memoirs, Corsey was a runaway slave from the Deep South who “found refuge with the Boyds as their slave.” Boyd considered Corsey a “trusted confidante,” but held that slavery was an “imperfect form of society” whose “final extinction… [had] not yet arrived.”
In other words, historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes in the introduction to Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, “Boyd’s defiance of gender conventions did not extend to revising American race relations.”