Born as Maria Isabella Boyd, she became best known as Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy in the Civil War. She was the oldest child of Benjamin Reed and Mary Rebecca (Glenn) Boyd. One of the most famous of Confederate spies, she served the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley.
Boyd's espionage career began by chance. On July 4, 1861, a band of drunken Union soldiers broke into her home in Martinsburg, intent on raising the U. S. flag over the house. When one of them insulted her mother, Belle drew a pistol and killed him. A board of inquiry exonerated her, but sentries were posted around the house and officers kept close track of her activities. She profited from this enforced familiarity, charming at least one of the officers, Capt. Daniel Keily, into revealing military secrets. She conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watchcase.
Then, one evening in mid-May, Gen. James Shields and his staff conferred in the parlor of the local hotel. Boyd hid upstairs, eavesdropping through a knothole in the floor. She learned that Shields had been ordered east, a move that would reduce the Union army's strength at Front Royal. That night, she rode through the Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. She then returned to town. When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on May 23, she ran to greet Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson men. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that "the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all." Jackson did and that evening penned a note of gratitude to her: "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today." She was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor for her contribution.
She operated her spying operations from her fathers hotel in Front Royal, providing valuable information to Ashby and Jackson during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Jackson made her a captain and honorary aide-de-camp on his staff. As such she was able to witness troops reviews.
Betrayed by her lover, she was arrested on July 29, 1862, and held for a month in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. Exchanged a month later, she was in exile with relatives for a time but was again arrested in June 1863 while on a visit to Martinsburg. On December 1, 1863, she was released, suffering from typhoid, and was then sent to Europe to regain her health.
The blockade runner she attempted to return on was captured and she fell in love with the Union naval officer, Samuel Hardinge, who later married her in England after being dropped from the navy's rolls for neglect of duty in allowing her to proceed to Canada and then England. Hardinge attempted to reach Richmond, was detained in Union hands, but died shortly after his release after the war's end. In 1869, she married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans and, after a divorce in 1884, married Nathaniel Rue High the next year.
Boyd went on to a theatrical career in England and America. She published her book "Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison." She lived out a full life, surviving until the year 1900. Death came on a speaking tour in Wisconsin, and she was buried far from home. A Southerner put up a tombstone, "erected by a comrade," which proclaimed her officially "Confederate Spy." In many ways she was the most appealing one of the war. She is buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells.
Boyd was known as the "Cleopatra of the Seccession."