Belle Boyd

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					                                  Secret Women:
        Stories of Three Civil War Spies and the Messages They Left Behind

My interest in these women developed because of the communication skills and messages
that were passed by spies especially in the Civil War.
Three women who might not seem alike on the surface, but there are common themes in
their three lives:
        1. Each was willing to die, go to prison and suffer great loss in order to protect
             her view of what our country should be.
        2. Each showed great bravery, courage and perhaps it might be described as
             recklessness in the face of difficult times.
        3. Their escapades, as described by themselves and others, read like the highest
             type of spy novel, with enemies behind every bush and clandestine meetings
             in the middle of the night.
        4. All three ended in unhappy, lonely ways that belied their value to the war
        5. Each left behind their stories in their own words, leaving us a picture of what
             it was like to be a woman and a spy during the bloody Civil War.

                                    Rose Greenhow


       Rose O‟Neal Greenhow would have been described with words like “woman of
substance,” “dignified,” “society leader” and “mannerly.” She was not young,
inexperienced or a brash country bumpkin, like her counterpart Belle Boyd, when she
decided to spy for the Confederacy.

        In fact Maria Rosatta „Rose‟ O‟Neal(e) Greenhow was born in Montgomery
County, Maryland in 1817. She was called “Wild Rose” at a young age and took her
place as a leader among Washington society. She was known to nine presidents and was
the intimate friend and advisor of one – James Buchanan. She met the likes of Daniel
Webster, the Madisons, James Buchanan, Edward Livingston – Jackson‟s Secretary of
State, and, of course, Calhoun during her young years in Washington. She was also close
friends with Kentuckian John J. Crittenden.

        During the course of her life she hobnobbed with many members of nobility. She
was received at the court of Queen Victoria and became engaged to the Second Earl
Granville. In Paris, she was received into the court of Napoleon and was granted an
audience with the Emperor himself.

       Rose was little more than an infant when her father John O‟Neal was killed by a
Negro servant in 1817. After his death, his daughters moved to the nation‟s capital.

Their father left them large tracts of land and money. Rose‟s older sister was married to
Dolly Madison‟s nephew, and Rose married Robert Greenhow, a Virginian lawyer and
linguist. She was a tall, dark beauty with graceful movements.

        Her husband‟s mother was Mary Ann Wills (perhaps an oft-removed relation of
mine). Her husband, by all accounts doted on her and she bore him four daughters –
Florence, Gertrude, Leila and Rose. Rose became adept at intrigue because of listening
in circles for her husband‟s benefit. He was involved in several policy-making counsels
and she was well able to contact and listen for political news that might help him.

        On a February day in 1854 Rose‟s husband was walking along a street in San
Francisco when he slipped off a plank pavement and fell six feet down an embankment to
the street. He picked himself up and paid little attention to his injury. In fact, Rose who
was back east caring for their youngest child didn‟t even know he was hurt. A short time
later, Robert‟s left leg became paralyzed, he suffered acute pain for six weeks. He did
not send for Rose since he had no idea how serious his injury was. He died six weeks
later. Rose sued the city and was awarded $10,000 for the death of Robert.

        Back in Washington, she began to look around for a more modest home and
Jefferson Davis helped her find 398 16th Street, which would later become the center of
Confederate espionage in Washington.

        Soon Rose was traveling and working to elect James Buchanan. She was given
credit for his election and was often seen in concert with the bachelor politician. As an
aside, Buchanan publicly deplored the influence of women in politics, but he was
constantly surrounded by Southern belles, the cleverest of whom was Rose. She used
these times to make connections and wield influence in political circles from California
to Washington.

        When Lincoln was elected, Rose attended Secessionist meetings and within two
weeks of the outbreak of the Civil War she had already committed herself irrevocably
and officially to the Confederate cause. She was approached by Colonel Thomas Jordan,
a soldier and roommate of William T. Sherman at the Military Academy. Jordan gave
her a simple cipher he had devised himself and told her who to contact. Rose
immediately went to work charming young lieutenants, government clerks, secretaries
and aides.

         Rose is credited by Davis himself for the victory at Manassas, also known as the
Battle of Bull Run. She discovered troop locations, numbers and Federal movements,
ciphered the message, sewed it into silk and sent it in the long, combed hair of a young
woman straight to a young general who passed the message along to Beauregard and
Davis. (Elizabeth Van Lew, as we shall see, was working on the opposite side of this
battle to pass along information, but Rose beat her out on this battle.) Rose was hailed by
her Southern friends as a heroine, but as yet, those of the enemy did not seem to see her
espionage. She was particularly adept at comprehending details of military matters –
fortifications, guns, ammunitions and soldiers. Her reports included maps, diagrams and

drawings. It wasn‟t long before her network of spies included dentists, professors, clerks,
architects and servants. It reached as far as New Orleans and Boston, and across the
ocean to London, Liverpool and Paris. However, Rose‟s adult daughter Florence and her
husband did not even suspect that she was a spy.
        Later, Rose wrote of this time in Washington: “I was, of course, a close observer
of the smallest indications, and often drew accurate conclusions without having any
precise knowledge on their subject. I was in Washington, as the Indian savage in the
trackless forest, with an enemy behind every bush. My perceptive faculties were under a
painful tension, and every instinct was quickened to follow the doublings and windings of
the ruthless foe who was hunting my race unto death, and, of course, no word or
indication was lost upon me.”

        Rose‟s efforts continued, but now she was beginning to catch the eye of the
Lincoln administration. Union General George McClellan said “She knows my plans
better than Lincoln or the Cabinet, and has four times compelled me to change them.”

        Rose knew that her arrest may be imminent, but her spying and passing of
messages did not cease. And her diary during that time, reads like the most elaborate and
highly intriguing spy novel. She described in her journal these meetings:

        “Day after day I waited for the warning‟s fulfillment. It was very exciting. I
would be walking down the avenue with one of the officials, military or state, and as we
strolled along there would pass perhaps a washerwoman, carrying home her basket of
clean clothes, or, maybe, a gaily attired youth from lower Seventh Avenue.
        “But something in the way the woman held her basket, or in the way the youth
twirled his cane, told me that news had been received, or that news was wanted – that I
must open up communications in some way. Or, as we sat in some city park, a sedate old
gentleman would pass by. To my unsuspecting escort the passerby was commonplace.
But to me, his manner of polishing his glasses, or the flourish of the handkerchief with
which he rubbed his nose, was a message.”

        Rose was often defiant and open about her feelings. She probably did not believe
that authorities would ever arrest her since her political power, though faded with
Lincoln‟s election, was still strong.

         On August 23, 1861, Allen Pinkerton, who described her as using “almost
irresistible seductive powers,” and who had watched her by climbing on his fellow men
and spying through her window, arrested Rose at the door of her house. Rose was placed
under house arrest for five months and her house was ransacked on a daily basis. Other
accounts of the time chronicle that Rose was under constant surveillance from the
soldiers even when she slept. Rose described it thus: “Men rushed with frantic haste into
my chamber, into every sanctuary. My beds, drawers, and wardrobes were all upturned;
soiled clothes were pounced upon with avidity, and mercilessly exposed; papers that had
not seen the light for years were dragged forth. My library was taken possession of, and
every scrap of paper, every idle line was seized, even the torn fragments in the grates of

other receptacles were carefully gathered together by these latter-day Lincoln

      Pinkerton hoped to keep the arrest secret so as to catch some of Rose‟s
compatriots, but little Rose ran out into the back yard, climbed a tree and called out,
“Mamma has been arrested. Mamma has been arrested” so his plot was foiled.

       Other female prisoners were soon sent to Fort Greenhow, as Rose‟s home came to
be known. Most of these women were of the “lowest class” as Rose described them but
she was glad to have sympathetic company.

        During this confinement, Rose managed to continue her secret communications
with the South. In the dead of night, in the moonlight, she retrieved documents from the
top of her library shelf and hid them in the folds of her dress and went back to her room
without rousing her drunken guards. Rose knew that when she was searched they had not
looked into her shoes and stockings so she stuffed the papers into her hose and boots.
She smuggled them out through another young female visitor. She later cautioned others
to be sure the cipher did not fall into enemy hands and to destroy it if they must. She sent
a message out with another prisoner at one point directly to Jefferson Davis. She had her
young daughter pass a ball of yarn to another woman right under the nose of the guards
and the woman took the ball of pink wool directly to Davis. When he unwound it, it had
a message for the Confederacy. Rose abandoned the cipher and took long hours to write
messages that seemed meaningless to all but those who received them. For example, one
message was: “Tell Aunt Sally that I have some old shoes for the children, and I wish
now to send someone down to take them, and to let me know whether she has found any
charitable person to help her take care of them.” Interpreted, the message meant Rose
had important information to send across the river and wished for a messenger
immediately. It also meant she was asking if they recipient had any means of getting
        A letter she sent to Secretary of State William H. Seward complaining of her
mistreatment during the arrest was published in a Richmond newspaper. Because of all
the leaks, Fort Greenhow was closed in 1862 and Rose and her 8-year-old daughter were
transferred to Old Capital Prison. She was confined in the old boarding house in the very
same room where she had comforted her hero John Calhoun as he died. Rose got lots of
attention during her stay at Old Capital Prison because of her claims of mistreatment.

          Though not the accommodations she was used to, perhaps the isolation was the
hardest on Rose. She was not allowed visits or notes, or bundles from home as other
prisoners were. Her young daughter years later remembered her time in the prison:
         “I do not remember very much about our imprisonment except that I used to cry
myself to sleep from hunger…There was a tiny closet in our room in which mother
contrived to loosen a plank that she would lift up, and the prisoners of war underneath
would catch hold of my legs and lower me into their room; they were allowed to receive
fruit, etc., from the outside, and generously shared with me, also they would give mother
news of the outside world.”

        Rose left Old Capitol Prison in June of 1862, wrapped in a Confederate flag under
her shawl. She was headed for freedom in the South. Never had Old Capitol Prison had
such a queenly prisoner, although Belle Boyd would soon move into take her place.
Rose signed a pledge that she would not return to the North, but she never took an oath of
allegiance to the Union.
        After a brief stay in Richmond, Rose traveled to Europe to secure funds vitally
needed for the Confederate war effort. She had published her memoirs in Britain by this
time “My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington” and it
became a bestseller. Both Napoleon and Queen Victoria received her.

        On October 1, 1864 Rose was returning to the South on the Condor. The ship ran
aground along the North Carolina coast and Rose, fearing capture by Union ships
blockading the area, demanded that she be taken ashore in a smaller boat. The ship‟s
captain was reluctant, but after her railing that she would not go back to prison, he
agreed. A storm raged and Rose insisted on carrying aboard several mail bags, presumed
to be secret dispatches from Europe, as well as a large quantity of gold from her book
sales. The little boat capsized in the rough surf and Rose went over the side clutching her
bags of $2,000 in gold. The men on board were all saved by clutching to the overturned
boat, but Rose refused to release her hold on the golden sovereigns and so she was taken

        The Condor was being fired upon, but ended up being safe under the Confederate

        Her body washed ashore and was discovered by a Confederate soldier who did
not recognize her, but did find the gold in the bag still linked by a chain around her neck.
He took the gold and dragged her body back to the water‟s edge, pushing her back into
the sea. Her body washed ashore a second time and this time was identified. The soldier
reportedly was so full of guilt when he found out who he had robbed that he returned the

       The dispatches she carried were never found.

        Rose was buried in Wilmington NC under the inscription – Mrs. Rose O‟N.
Greenhow, a bearer of dispatches to the Confederate Government. Erected by the Ladies
Memorial Association. On the back of her plain marble cross marker it says “Drowned
off Fort Fisher - from the Steamer Condor, while attempting to run the blockade. Sept.
30, 1964.

                                       Belle Boyd
        Described in terms such as “dramatic,” “joyous recklessness” and “the best pair of
legs in the Confederacy,” Belle Boyd treated her role of spy as a funny game or an act on
a stage. Perhaps the most outspoken and gallant of the female spies, we will talk about,
Belle became a spy at the age of 17.

        She was known for her love for the boys in gray and even the boys in blue. When
it came to flirtation and male companions, Belle was known not to be too picky. She
claimed she had to enamor herself to both sides in order to accomplish her complicated
spy game, but there was no doubt that she enjoyed her escapades as well. Her detractors
often faulted her for consorting with common soldiers, being at times under-dressed or
even dressing in men‟s clothing. Perhaps her capping achievement was persuading a
Northern captor to marry her and switch sides.

          During her lifetime, Belle could have read about herself in at least two historical
novels. She was imprisoned twice, “reported” to the North nearly 30 times and arrested
about 7 times before the age of 21. She is perhaps best known because Gen. Stonewall
Jackson made her an honorary member of his staff with the rank of captain for the
intelligence she provided in the capture of Front Royal, Virginia.

       Belle Boyd was born Maria Isabella Boyd in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West
Virginia) on May 4, 1844 (or by some reports May 9, 1843) to a prominent family. Her
kinsmen boastfully traced themselves back to an ancient Scottish clan and had family in
New Orleans and Kentucky. She did have a family connection to George Randolph, who
became the Confederate Secretary of War.

        Known for her embellishments later in life, Belle described her childhood home
as an idyllic two-story white house on a large farm. Her mother was notoriously mild-
mannered and let the young tomboy Belle do just as she wished. Though not wealthy the
family did see that she had a good education and at the age of 12, she was sent to the
Mount Washington Female College at Baltimore. There she learned to dance and speak
with the uniformed officers and high society of Baltimore until she was 16.

        When Fort Sumter fell and the South succeeded, Belle headed home to
Martinsburg. Her 44-year-old father, though older, joined the Confederate military and
Belle began her efforts to support the South. Later there would be debate about whether
dashing Belle Boyd was beautiful or not. Some said she was handsome, some said she
had too prominent a nose, some said she had too much character to be pretty. But most
found her looks noticeable in some way. She had “shining blue eyes, a heavy head of
light brownish hair, and, last but not least, a fine figure which many commented on,
despite Victorian proprieties.” I‟ve already mentioned her legs.

        Belle‟s father‟s regiment, the Virginia 2nd, was defeated and retreated through the
home town. Belle promptly went to the hospitals to help the wounded. One day a Union
soldier came in waving a flag over the soldiers beds and calling them “damned rebels.”

Belle, by all accounts, took him to task for this display. The next day she would kill
herself a Yankee soldier in a highly controversial incident that probably truly marked the
beginning of her spy career.

        Union soldiers were making their drunken way through town and naturally settled
on the Boyd house, which still flaunted its Confederate flags. Though Belle and her
mother managed to remove the flags before the Union soldiers could tear them down,
they refused to allow the soldiers to hang an American flag from their roof.

        Belle‟s mother reportedly said “Men, every member of this household will die
before that flag is raised over us.” The soldier cursed and pushed her aside and Belle said
“I could stand it no longer; my indignation was aroused beyond control…I drew out my
pistol and shot him.” A near riot followed with soldiers firing shots at the house and
threatening to burn it down.

        Other guards arrived to stop the rioting. Confederate sympathizers in town were
clear about their support of the Boyds in this incident, so the Union officers held a
hearing, but nothing happened. Union officers began calling on the Boyds every day to
ensure they had no complaints about their treatment. Belle at first angered her Southern
neighbors by fraternizing with the enemy. But she claimed she was doing this to
experiment with espionage. Whatever she could learn from these officers, she “regularly
and carefully committed to paper” and sent on to her heroes Stonewall Jackson or Jeb

        Soon her first mistake tripped her up. She did not have a cipher or code for her
messages and she made no effort to disguise her handwriting. One of her notes reached
Union headquarters and she was called on the carpet by the colonel in charge. He read
her the articles of war and sternly assured her she could be sentenced to death for such

        Obviously, he thought that was enough to scare the young woman, but it only
made her more devious in her efforts. There were rumors that something more might
have changed his mind. A reporter at the time sent a private letter to his managing editor
claiming that the young Belle was “closeted four hours” with General Shields. He did
not believe that she was an “accomplished prostitute” however as some other papers at
the time were reporting.

       These first threats did get Belle‟s attention. She enlisted the help of an old Negro
man to carry messages in a watch from which the insides had been removed. She also
engaged another young woman to carry messages.

        In her diary, Belle gives few details about her actual spy methods. It is said that
she was inspired by stories she heard about Rose Greenhow‟s famous female helpers.
Belle had become so well-known to the Union troops only the rawest and most
susceptible could be taken in by her at this point. However, she did enlist a whole group
of trained young girls from 16 up who gathered information and passed it on to her.

Belle worked for a while with Colonel Turner Ashby, who traveled as a veterinarian in
civilian clothes, and moved freely among the Union camps caring for horses and
gathering espionage.

         In 1862, Belle was arrested and taken to Baltimore. Her prison was a comfortable
hotel where she regularly entertained her captors and seemed to enjoy herself. General
Dix, the same man who presided over the Greenhow hearing, could find no specific
evidence against her and so he eventually let her go with a stern warning. Obviously the
men of the North had no idea who they were dealing with because Belle was not deterred
at all by this incident.

         Belle returned to her family in Martinsburg, but she longed to go to Richmond.
She went to the union commander to request a pass to Richmond and he was patronizing
in his refusal, saying that he could not send her out to General Jackson‟s lines when all
Jackson‟s men would soon be wiped out. In her memoirs Belle says, that the commander
forgot “a woman can sometimes listen and remember.” She paired up with a young
captain of the Union army who could show her around. To him she said she was
“indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and last, not least,
for a great deal of very important information….” She gathered when the Union army
was meeting to plan their drive and she hid in a closet, enlarging a small knothole in the
floor, to hear their strategy. She gathered names, figures and placement of scattered
armies. She didn‟t understand a lot of what they said, but she memorized it.

        She didn‟t trust these important messages to a servant and took out on a horse in
the middle of the night herself to get the messages to Colonel Ashby. By the time the
Union soldiers were rousing in the morning, a worn out Belle was already back in her
bed. On another occasion, she asked to travel and was told she could only go if a young
Union soldier went with her. Though not ideal, Belle agreed and when a man passed her
several crucial papers that he said had to get to General Jackson, she gave some of the
vital papers to her black maid, figuring she would not be searched. She held the most
important papers in her own hand and even passed some over to the young Union soldier
to hold in a basket for her. When they were flagged down by detectives and arrested,
Belle was cool as could be.

       At the headquarters, the colonel in charge asked if she was carrying any
messages. Belle knew the less important papers would quickly be found in the basket so
she passed them quickly to the colonel, all the while keeping the most vital papers in her
own hand. When he questioned what she was holding, she said, “This scrap? Nothing.
You can have it.” She moved forward to hand it to him. She said later, that if he had
reached to take it, she would have swallowed it. But he did not, instead turning to the
young man with her and berating him for carrying such messages. Belle and her maid
were released. Their young Union „friend‟ stayed behind under arrest and Belle left with
her most vital paper and her maid‟s papers still in her possession.

      Back in Martinsburg, Belle wondered how to get her messages to Jackson to let
him know of the mounting forces planned against him. On May 23, 1862, she got her

chance. Jackson was advancing on Martinsburg and the Union army was in disarray,
trying to bolster for his arrival. When Belle saw her father‟s regiment about ¾ of a mile
from her home, she desperately tried to find someone to carry all the messages to
Jackson‟s regiment but no one would brave the tip. So Belle went herself, charging on a
horse through open fields and past the Union soldiers with their heavy guns and
equipment. She reported that she felt the rifle balls “flying thick and fast” as she crossed
the lines. She threw herself off her horse and ran ahead over fences and hills. “I shall
never run again as I ran…on that day” she said later.

        An uprising of support and cheers arose from the Confederate ranks as they saw
the woman rushing toward them and swinging her bonnet wildly. Belle quickly told
those in charge of the specifics of the small Union force left in Martinsburg and urged the
Confederates forward. She confirmed for them the locations and manpower they would
face. Then she just as quickly informed them she must get back. Later, when she would
see Confederate men in town in front of the Union soldiers, she would act surprised. She
was determined to carry her espionage on to the end. Jackson and his men would take
three thousand prisoners, thousands of arms and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth
of stores that the Union army did not have time to destroy or move in the onslaught.

       Jackson wrote a short note of thanks to Belle for her part in this movement.
       “I thank you, for myself and for the Army, for the immense service that you have
rendered your country today.”

        Another woman turned Belle in as a dangerous enemy and she was arrested in her
house for a short time, but the General, who liked her so much, quickly released her yet
again. However, this time Belle, who was used to throwing caution to the wind, was
taken in by a man who claimed to be a furloughed Southern soldier on his way home.
She asked him to carry some messages for her and he, truly a Union agent, turned her in
yet again. This time she was arrested and taken to Washington DC. Belle was truly
frightened, knowing she was in a dangerous situation. Plus, her heart had been broken by
the lying agent.

        Belle was placed in the famous Old Capital Prison in DC. Surrounded by other
sympathetic Southern prisoners, Belle refused to take the oath of loyalty or answer any
questions. Others who were in prison at the time often describe her as singing. Belle
struck up a romance with a young Confederate prisoner who was in the cell across from
her. She had known Lieutenant McVay in childhood and now they struck up a prison
romance. Soon they were engaged. But they were not to be together long.

        Belle‟s imprisonment did tell on her by all accounts. She lost weight, suffered in
the heat and lost some of her sparkle. However, good news came in late August. Belle
was to be sent South with some other prisoners in an exchange. The North didn‟t seem to
know what to do with the 18-year-old young woman. However, her fiancée would have
to remain behind. As she traveled throughout the South and he languished in prison, their
romance soon cooled and ended.

        In Martinsburg behind Union lines again, Belle was arrested. In July of 1863 she
was sent to spend another hot sweltering summer in Carroll Prison. In this prison, she
managed to obtain some rubber balls, which she filled with messages she garnered from
her captors. She tossed the balls as far as she could out her window where they were
retrieved by Confederate sympathizers. She also aided in the escape of another prisoner.

        Belle grew seriously ill in prison and was eventually released and sent to
Richmond with dire warnings not to continue her spying. During this sad time, Belle‟s
father died and she herself could not recover from her illness. So she decided to make
way for England.

        She went to Wilmington, NC, the same port where Rose Greenhow would later
die. On May 8, 1964, Belle set sail on the Greyhound under the name of Mrs. Lewis.
The risk was heavy, because Southerners carrying messages to England were not treated
kindly by the Union fleet. Soon after setting sail, the Greyhound was fired upon and
boarded by a Union ship. Belle had to burn the missives she was carrying. She was
again under arrest, but this time she would once again fall in love.
        Ensign Samuel Hardinge boarded her ship and immediately sparks flew between
the two.
        Belle described him as “made of other stuff than his comrades…His dark brown
hair hung down on his shoulders; his eyes were large and bright…my „Southern
proclivities,‟ strong as they were, yielded for a moment to the impulses of my heart, and I
said to myself, “oh, what a good fellow that must be.”

        It is unclear whether Belle managed to overcome her heart or not, but soon she
had embroiled young Hardinge in deep trouble with her. They became engaged
thereafter, while she was still in custody, and one day she sent him on an errand so she
could help the Southern captain of the Greyhound escape. Hardinge was in trouble over
the escape, but he was more concerned about what would happen to Belle.

        Belle requested to be sent to Canada and she was. Hardinge was arrested, tried
and dismissed for neglect of duty from the Navy. He spent the next few months tracing
Belle from Canada to England to Paris and back to England. They were married in a
huge event in London on August 25, 1864.

        Belle had indeed managed to turn her young man from his Union ways. He
returned to America, but she was afraid to do so because of the Union threats against her.
Hardinge returned to Boston, visited his family in Brooklyn and then went on to Belle‟s
family in Virginia. It is rumored that he carried messages for the South.

        Hardinge was promptly arrested and spent the rest of his days traveling from
prison to prison while Belle did everything she could to raise money for his release. She
raised funds from friends and sympathizers, but she also sold her jewelry and her
wedding trousseau. This was just the beginning of Belle‟s constant money problems.

        Her husband was eventually released and returned to England to her, but he lived
only for a few months. He died of ailments growing out of his imprisonment and left
Belle a widow at 21.

       When President Andrew Johnson gave amnesty to Rebels in May 1865, Belle
returned to the United States with her young daughter. At first Belle was quite a well-
known and luminary on the stage, but she eventually began playing one-night lower end

       Perhaps most surprising is Belle‟s interview with a Toledo Blade reporter in 1886,
where she reneged on her loyalty to her “beloved South”:

        She begs to be remembered, not as Belle Boyd, „the Rebel Spy,‟ but as Belle
        Boyd, who, having learned the true beauty of the stars and stripes, would be
        willing to take her life in defense of that government she once sought to destroy.
        Belle spent out her life on the stage, acting out her daring adventures in a
theatrical career and died on June 11, 1900 at speaking event in Wisconsin. She
constantly struggled for money to survive and in the end many who saw her could not
believe the beaten down, ill-looking, woman they saw was actually the swash-buckling
Belle Boyd of legend. She was arrested once for peddling on the street, speaking to raise
money without a license. She wrote her memoirs Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison and did
her best to capitalize on her early adventures, but in the end she just seemed sad and
living only off her glory days.
        She has been remembered. In 1952, a motor cruiser used to transport tourists over
the Wisconsin River was christened in her name. In 1962, her hometown of Martinsburg
issued a gilt coin with her profile. The Belle Boyd House is included in the Civil War
Discovery Trail, a series of historic places and battlefield sites of the war. A Boyd
Museum is also located in Martinsburg today.

                                   Elizabeth Van Lew
        The Union troops that Rose Greenhow helped defeat at Bull Run had been on the
way to capture Richmond, Virginia. Richmond was the center of slave trade, as well as
the headquarters of the Confederate forces. Over and over again Union generals
attempted to capture Richmond. Finally, General Ulysses S. Grant succeeded, four years
into the Civil War. After Grant captured Richmond, he had tea with one of the most
successful spies of the War – Elizabeth Van Lew.

        By every rule of background Miss Elizabeth Van Lew (for she never married)
should have been among the Confederate women who hurried in and out of Jefferson
Davis‟ “Gray House” on fashionable Clay Street in Richmond. She was the daughter of a
prominent citizen and their 3 ½ story mansion stood on one of the city‟s most
commanding hills – Church Hill – and featured limestone from Scotland , semi-circular
steps and four huge pillars. Elizabeth grew up with all the privileges of wealth.
        Like Rose, Elizabeth was in her forties when the War began. She was described
as a “pleasing, pale blond” with an “almost unearthly brilliance” in her blue eyes. A
friend described her as “small but commanding…a Napoleonic woman.” From her
picture, you can see that Van Lew would not have been considered beautiful, at least by
today‟s standards. She described herself as “uncompromising, ready to resent what
seemed wrong, quick and passionate but not bad tempered or vicious.” According to
General George Sharpe, Chief of the Bureau of Military Information, “For a long time,
she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city
of Richmond.”

       So how did such a Southern lady become a spy for the Union in the capital of her
enemy? From early in her life, Elizabeth had been seen as a freak in Richmond, a woman
who existed to protest against the beliefs of her class and region. Some believe it was
because her father was originally from New York and her mother the daughter of the
mayor of Philadelphia. She was sent to Philadelphia herself for finishing school and
came back doubly influenced by the strong abolitionists that abounded in that city.

        “From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilege to differ in many
things from the…opinions and principles of my locality…This has made my life sad and
earnest,” she wrote in her diary.

        Elizabeth was 25 when her father died and she and her mother and brother
inherited his slaves. They promptly freed them. Some of them stayed on with the family
as paid servants. Elizabeth even paid to send one of the young women to school in
Philadelphia. She also bought and freed relatives of her own servants.

         Four days after the War began on April 17, 1861, Elizabeth saw the Confederate
flag raised over her city. She had already begun writing to Federal officials to tell them
of all that was happening in the city. She began by sending information about the
“succession mania,” but soon she was sending notes about troop locations, numbers,

conditions and movements. Once regular mail was no longer safe, her servants agreed to
be messengers. People understood her general sentiments, but must have thought her
attitude would change in the midst of war. They came and asked her and her mother if
they would sew shirts for the Confederate troops. The Van Lews declined and shortly
thereafter began to receive “personal threats.” Out of fear they reluctantly agreed to take
religious books to the Confederate camps.

        After the Union defeat at Bull Run, Richmond was flooded with injured
Confederate troops and with Union prisoners who were housed in Libby Prison.
Elizabeth went forward and requested to be nurse to the prisoners. Those guarding them
were outraged at first by the idea. But Miss Lizzie convinced them that Christian charity
was her reason and eventually she was allowed to care for these “thankless, unworthy”
men. Elizabeth took them clothes, food, medicines, bedding and convinced the doctors to
transfer the sickest men to hospitals.

        This did not escape the attention of other locals. In one paper the following was
written, “Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted
public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners… Whilst every true
woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering
to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and
giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and
murder… Out upon all pretexts to humanity!...The course of these two females, in
providing them with delicacies, bringing them books, stationery and paper, cannot but be
regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsement of the cause and
conduct of these Northern vandals.”
        The Van Lews were not deterred. They expanded their activities. In fact,
Elizabeth passed coded notes to the prisoners hidden in baskets of food. She gave them
books that included significant words or numbers faintly underlined. The books might
also have a message penciled lightly between lines, even in some cases messages spelled
out with tiny pin pricks between the lines. Soon the prisoners began to trust her and relay
information they overheard from guards, doctors and other nurses. They also observed
troop movements and supplies out their windows and relayed this information to

        There is no record of the day Elizabeth first sent messages through the lines, but it
appears she was slipping information to Union agents who had found their way into
Richmond. However, she was not limited. Her servants were ready to leave the mansion
on moment‟s notice, carrying messages while they went on innocent-looking errands.
The Van Lews had a small garden and that offered excuse for the Negroes to go in and
out of Richmond. Few people would stop an old colored man on a horse and poke into
the soles of his muddy brogans. Few would search a servant‟s basket of eggs well
enough to uncover an empty shell with a coded message inside. Van Lew‟s dispatches
were often written with a liquid that looked like water. An application of milk made the
words written in the colorless liquid turn black. She set up five relay stations for getting

information to Union officials. Her family, without hesitation, spent their fortune on this
activity, until it was all gone.

        Unlike the other spies we‟ve discussed, Elizabeth did not dare keep a complete
journal. “Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would not be
of value,” she did write. “Keeping one‟s house in order for Government inspection with
Salisbury prison in prospective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with
anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment. The
threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community – who can write of them? I
have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things…I have turned
to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen
peeping around the columns and pillars of the back portico… I shall ever remember the
pale face of this dear lady (her mother)… for her arrest was constantly spoken of, and
frequently reported on the street, and some never hesitated to say she should be hanged.”
Years later she told a Richmond child that she had hidden messages by unscrewing the
top of the andirons in her bedroom.

       Elizabeth‟s memoirs, unlike those of her Confederate counterparts, was never
intended for publication or to earn money. She kept it “buried for safety” throughout the
years of the war and it was not found until after her death, buried in the backyard. Even
then, many sections had been cut out, apparently to protect people after the war.

         The threats were not idle. One threatening note was found in her papers after she
died. It included a crude skull and crossbones drawn at the top of the paper and a
childish drawing of a house on fire. At the bottom was written FIRE in big letters. The
note went on to say “Mrs. Van Lough look out for your fig bushes. There aren‟t much
left of them now. White caps around town (the white caps were a secret proslavery
society). They are coming at night. Look out! Look out! Look out! Your house is going
last. Please give me some of your blood to write with.”

        Elizabeth actually even went to Jefferson Davis himself one time to request
protection. Not many spies from one government would have the nerve to ask the head
of the opposing government for aid. Davis told her to talk to the mayor. However,
Elizabeth thought of a better idea. She knew there was a housing shortage and the man
who was in charge of the Union prisoners was looking for a home. She offered him their
home and it did give her peace while he was there.

         Elizabeth had always been seen as odd by her neighbors, but now she began to
play up on that oddity. She mumbled and hummed to herself as she walked down the
street, she bent her head to one side and held imaginary conversations. The prison guards
gave her a new name “Crazy Bet” and it stuck. She began combing her curls less
carefully and wearing her oldest clothes and bonnets. There is some controversy about
these descriptions of “Crazy Bet” because it was not until after her death that these
descriptions surfaced. They are not recorded in the stories of the day, but only as the
scholars looked back on her life. And they certainly do not mitigate the fact that her

detailed and determined passage of messages was what made her successful, not her

        But nothing changed in Elizabeth‟s bravery when it came to spying. She had
liberated a young slave named Mary Elizabeth Bowser, then sent her to school in
Philadelphia. Now she requested Mary Elizabeth to return and become the new house
servant for Jefferson Davis. The Union now had its spy right in the household of the
Confederate President.
        Elizabeth had many close calls. She once had to get a critical message to Grant so
she wrote a ciphered message, tore it in strips and then rolled each one into a tiny ball.
The message was ready but Van Lew did not have a messenger. Desperately she grabbed
her basket and headed down to the market hoping to spot a messenger there. The peach
seed was one sign of those who carried messages. A passerby whispered to her that he
was going through that night, but Elizabeth, though desperate, was not sure she could
trust him. She turned and hurried home. The next day she saw the same man marching
by with a regiment of Confederate soldiers.

         At another time the Confederate army had become desperate for horses.
Therefore, animals were being confiscated from private residences around Richmond.
Elizabeth needed her horse for late-night travels so she hid him in the smoke house when
she knew the soldiers were coming. A few days later Confederates learned of this and,
being warned again, this time Van Lew brought the horse through the house, up the main
stairs and into the library, where he settled down on straw she had spread. “And he
accepted his position and behaved as though he thoroughly understood matters, never
stamping loud enough to be heard nor neighing. He was a good, loyal horse,” Elizabeth
assures in her journal.
         Another story of horses, is that Elizabeth actually housed several in her basement.
When the soldiers came to search for them, she served them tea and cake in her large
dining room. Then she had the servant take them to the basement, by a circuitous route
in the old mansion, and while they did Van Lew led the horses up the wide basement
stairs into the very dining room the soldiers had just left.
         The Van Lew home was searched multiple times, but not one escaped Northern
prisoner was ever found although it is certain they were there. Years later a niece wrote
of how she had seen her aunt Elizabeth take a plate of food toward the attic. The girl
followed her quietly and saw Elizabeth touch a panel which then slid back and a bearded
man reached out hungrily for the food. Years afterward the concealed chamber was
found beneath the slope of the roof.

       In late January of 1864, Elizabeth discovered the plans to move thousands of
Union prisoners. By passing information, she was sure she could help them free a great
many Union soldiers. Her dispatch, in cipher, said:
       It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon, all the Federal prisoners; butchers
and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker (her

manservant) knows this to be true. They are building batteries on Danville road. This
from Quaker. Beware of new and rash councils. This I send to you by direction of all
your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to
15,000 infantry to support them…Forces probably could be called in from five to ten
days; 25,000 mostly artillery, Sokes‟s, and Kemper‟s brigades go to North Carolina.
Pickett‟s is in or around Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by Lee for
want of horses…

        It is true that the military looked suspiciously at these directions sent from
civilians who often threw figures about carelessly and didn‟t understand the total military
picture, but they were accepted as generally true of the situation. And the Federal
government did decide to act. However, their “secret” project became as open as a
Washington reception. It was the talk of the town.

        So on Feb. 28, General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren marched
toward Richmond. In a brilliant move the two split directions to attack Richmond on
different sides. Young Dahlgren, only 22, was already a hero and highly regarded,
having lost a leg at Gettysburg. He used a wooden leg and crutch, but could still ride and
fight well. But the Confederates had been warned and the mission quickly fell apart.
Dahlgren was killed and his body was ravaged – a finger cut off to take his ring, his
wooden leg and crutch removed as they were worth much money. They dumped
Dahlgren‟s body in a shallow grave along the road.

        It was widely reported that Dahlgren carried messages to burn and sack Richmond
and kill Davis and his entire cabinet. Sentiments against the Union were rekindled and
anger and hatred instead burned in Richmond. Davis secretly removed Dahlgren‟s body
and had it brought to a large Union burying ground. No one was supposed to know the
location, but Elizabeth had spies watching. After the burial, she and her cohorts went and
dug up the body, transporting it across enemy lines in a farmer‟s wagon among peach
trees. His body was returned to the North where his family could bury him again close to

       Just months later, on April 2, 1865, General Robert E. Lee told Jefferson Davis to
evacuate Richmond. Before they left Confederate troops set fire to tobacco warehouses,
not wanting the Union to have the valuable crop. The fire burned all night and spread,
eventually reaching an arsenal that exploded shattering windows all over town and
sending shells flying. During this frightening night, Elizabeth celebrated and climbed
with her servants to the very top of her mansion to plant the Union flag. Men gathered
around her house threatening to burn it down, trampling her garden and even forcing their
way inside.

       Elizabeth stood up to them. “I know you, and you…General Grant will be in
town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before
noon!” They took her seriously and backed away.

         General Grant, remembering Elizabeth‟s contributions, sent his aide to protect
her. The aide found Elizabeth in the now vacant Capitol Building, sifting through the
destroyed documents to see if she could find anything that might help the Union.
         Now destitute from spending her family‟s money on the war, Grant rewarded her
efforts by naming her Postmistress of Richmond, a post she held from 1869-1877,
earning $1,200 a year. Eventually, Elizabeth lost her job and was in such dire straits that
she appealed to supporters from the North, who did offer her a small monthly stipend.
She was never welcome or well-liked in her home town of Richmond. She writes in her
journal, (“us” referring to an invalid niece she cared for), “No one will walk with us on
the street. No one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years
roll on.” Children were encouraged by their parents to taunt her and often she was used
to terrify children into staying home.

        Elizabeth died in her home in 1900, surrounded by relatives. She is buried in
Richmond‟s Shockoe-Hill Cemetery. Interestingly enough, because the family plot did
not have the room for her, she was buried vertically so her casket would fit. The
inscription on her headstone reads: “She risked everything that is dear to man – friends,
fortune, comfort, health and life itself, all for the one absorbing desire of her heart – that
slavery might be abolished and the Union preserved.” The tombstone was a gift from
Boston relatives of a young Colonel named Paul Revere, who was one of the many
escaped prisoners she had harbored in her home during the war.


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