A Woman to Know: Maria “Belle” Boyd

I have lied, sworn, killed (I guess) and I have stolen. But I thank God that I can say on my death bed that I am a virtuous woman. — Maria “Belle” Boyd

I have lied, sworn, killed (I guess) and I have stolen. But I thank God that I can say on my death bed that I am a virtuous woman. — Maria “Belle” Boyd

(image via Library of Congress)

When the Civil War broke out, Belle was just 18. She’d returned home to Martinsburg, Virginia, fresh from finishing school and debutante training, to find her town occupied by Union troops. When one soldier broke into her house and threatened to hang a Union flag over the portico, Belle grabbed a nearby pistol and shot him — from then on, she said, she found herself obsessed with “thoughts and plans of vengeance.”

Her life took a turn away from the trappings of high Southern society. She began working as a Confederate spy and the “Siren of Shenandoah.”

She batted her eyelashes and used her feminine wiles to charm the Union soldiers occupying her town. She smuggled equipment across borders and snuggled up to enemy leaders at parties, prying them for information she’d relay to her Confederate compatriots. She targeted generals and other high-ranking officials, infiltrating their gatherings to flirt and canoodle, all the while eavesdropping conversations or even hiding precious documents in her hoop skirt. Her contemporaries — both Southern and Northern — reviled her tactics. They called her “a village courtesan” or “the fastest girl in Virginia, or anywhere else for that matter.”

She didn’t do this by herself, however — she traveled with enslaved handmaidens who helped her ferry messages and contraband. When the Civil War ended, Belle toured the country promoting a tell-all memoir detailing her scandalous spy days. The former slaves who helped her, of course, didn’t come along for the celebrity ride.

Later in life, though, Belle’s fame faded. Impersonators dressed as her and stole speaking engagements, so Belle spent time trying to unmask them and prove her true identity. She survived three divorces (one to a Yankee), spent time in a mental institution and all the while tried to resurrect her career.

At the end of her life, she died alone and penniless. “Fortune has played me a sad trick by letting me live on and on,” she said.

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