July 29

This Day in History

Civil War

Jul 29, 1862:

Confederate spy Belle Boyd is captured

Confederate spy Marie Isabella "Belle" Boyd is arrested by Union troops and detained at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. It was the first of three arrests for this skilled spy who provided crucial information to the Confederates during the war.

The Virginian-born Boyd was just 17 when the war began. She was from a prominent slaveholding family in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1861, she shot and killed a Union solider for insulting her mother and threatening to search their house. Union officers investigated and decided the shooting was justified.

Soon after the shooting incident, Boyd began spying for the Confederacy. She used her charms to engage Union soldiers and officers in conversations and acquire information about Federal military affairs. Suspecting her of spying, Union officers banished Boyd further south in the Shenandoah, to Front Royal, Virginia, in March 1862. Just two months later, Boyd personally delivered crucial information to General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson during his campaign in the valley that allowed the Confederates to defeat General Nathaniel Banks's forces at the Battle of Winchester. In another incident, Boyd turned two chivalrous Union cavalrymen who had escorted her back home across Union lines over to Confederate pickets as prisoners of war.

Boyd was detained on several occasions, and on July 29 she was placed in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. But her incarceration was evidently of limited hardship. She was given many special considerations, and she became engaged to a fellow prisoner. Upon her release one month later, she was given a trousseau by the prison's superintendent and shipped under a flag of truce to Richmond, Virginia. Boyd was arrested again in 1863 and held for three months. After this second imprisonment, she became a courier of secret messages to Great Britain. In 1864, her ship was captured off the coast of North Carolina, and the ship and crew were taken to New York. Captain Samuel Hardinge commanded the Union ship that captured Boyd's vessel, and the two were seen shopping together in New York. He followed her to London, and they were married soon after.

Boyd was widowed soon after the end of the war, but the union produced one child. Still just 21, Boyd parlayed her spying experiences into a book and an acting career. She died in Wisconsin in 1900.

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