Hollywood’s Civil War narrative is one that transports its viewers back to the golden age of hoop skirts, mint juleps, and a group of people who just wanted to be left alone with their way of life. Many people trace this ideology of the Civil War in literature and film to the 1930s, but the for-profit Civil War existed long before Scarlett O’Hara fled Atlanta. During the war, buying your way out of service, scamming your way into a government contract, and selling souvenirs of the aftermath of battles were just a few ways people could make a profit off of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, widows suddenly had to find new ways of supporting themselves and their children after the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Belle Boyd was one of these women.
Belle’s story is unique; she had married a Union Naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, in England in 1864. She returned to the United States in 1866 and began travelling across the country, telling the story of her experiences during the Civil War. She performed on the stage until her death in 1900 of a heart attack. Her story intrigued audiences across the country because she served as one of the most influential female spies of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But was she? While there is plenty of evidence that supports her claims of being a Confederate spy, including jail records and mentions of her service in letters from various Confederate soldiers and officers, the true extent of her influence has been put under scrutiny.
Some historians claim that Belle exaggerated all claims. Others say that she was “one of the most active and most reliable of the many secret women agents of the Confederacy.” Boyd’s memoir certainly suggests an air of theatricality; she paints herself as a firebrand woman endlessly devoted to the cause who influenced some of the largest battles of the Civil War. Boyd spent time in Fort Royal, collecting information for General Turner Ashby from the Union soldiers around her. At one point she snuck into a home and listened from the ceiling as General James Shields plotted to entrap Stonewall Jackson. She managed to make her way to General Ashby’s headquarters to tell him the entirety of Shields’ plan that night and return back to her home safely without being caught by the morning. However, she still wrote with a sense of caution, taking care to not reveal what would be a danger to others.
Despite the fact that the war had ended, Boyd had to have an air of caution; there were still secrets she possessed that she could not tell for fear of risking the lives and safety of others. The Atlantic Ocean offered her protection against these threats, but others were not so fortunate. Despite this she still wrote lavishly of her time as a spy. When she could tell a story, she told it with all the art and bravado an actress could muster. She was known for being audacious and upfront, indeed maybe even too audacious by the standards of the time. She was well known amongst her peers as being popular with the soldiers, and she flaunted that popularity often. Most famously, she signed her message to Harry Douglas, “Godby. My love to all the dead boys.”
While she lived, no officer ever challenged her claims; she was highly respected by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, eventually being buried with full military honors. Her adventures earned her widespread fame as she travelled the country with the stage show she based on her life. Those who questioned her story did not speak up until she could not fight back. After her passing, more and more historians began to question her stories, arguing she hardly made an impact and had lied about her experiences.
But how does one defend a woman who was forced to take her show on the road in order to make a living? Can historians take the word of a woman who spent most of the war flirting and charming her way into gaining information from soldiers, unsuspecting or not? Perhaps the best answer is to take Boyd’s stories, and the stories of other female spies on both sides of the conflict, with a grain of salt. Many men and women sold their stories to make a living after the Civil War, whether because they themselves were not able to maintain a steady living or because society did not allow them the opportunity. Hollywood has capitalized on the experiences of the Civil War for a profit, and thus the trustworthiness of even the most innocent sources turned into stage shows is questioned.
But history, like many things, needs to be questioned, and at the end of the day, memoirs by female spies like Boyd that have withstood the test of time deserve more credit than they get. Their stories of heroism and struggle served as inspiration to many generations of women on both sides of the conflict. Many of these women were more than just young girls flirting their way to information. They had hopes and dreams, they suffered losses, and their worlds were turned upside down. But most importantly, the female spies of the Civil War stood up for what they believed in, despite knowing that the consequences could be high, in order to make a difference in their world.
Sigaud, Louis A. “Belle Boyd, Confederate Spy.” Viii. Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, Incorporated. 1944