Belle Boyd and the Battle of Front Royal, Part 1

By Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com, (Wikimedia)

On May 23, 1862, the battle of Front Royal occurred as Confederate troops push down (north) in the Shenandoah Valley toward Winchester. The main southern force under General Thomas J. Jackson had marched from New Market Gap to Luray and approached Front Royal, a village almost due east of Strasburg.

After the battle of McDowell on May 8, Jackson had turned northward, forcing Union General Banks to fall back. Aiming for Winchester at last, Jackson wanted to clear this part of the Shenandoah Valley of Union occupation. Also, the further north he moved, the more the politicians in Washington had to worry and the less chance that more Federal troops would be sent to join General McClellan’s campaign threatening Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital.

One the dramatic and legendary scenes of civilian and military interaction during the 1862 Valley Campaign occurred during the battle of Front Royal. However, the main recorders of the incident are infamous for weaving imaginative stories of facts and other influences of memory also cloud the likely truths. As the tale goes, Belle Boyd ran from the town of Front Royal to the Confederate lines and delivered vital military information which may or may not have influenced the battle and next days of the campaign.

Belle Boyd is a colorful character in Civil War history. Born on May 9, 1844, Boyd grew up in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). She attended school in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Mount Washington Female College. By 1862, her outspoken impulsiveness had already upended her life. The previous year she had shot a Union soldier who had made threats to her mother; if the soldier had gone further than words, 19th century writing and “sensibilities” preferred to keep that secret. The fact that Union officers knew about the matter and did not arrest Boyd at that time suggests there may have been real threat of rape or maybe death. (In her memoirs, Boyd mentions death and may have hinted at rape threats though she was not explicit about the details of the scene; see notes in the source section of this post.)[i] Around the same time, Boyd started spying for the Confederacy, and by early spring, she left Martinsburg and refugeed to Front Royal. Some Union troops knew or suspected her of spying, but that did not prevent her from continuing her charades and adventures.

Belle Boyd, c. 1865

Historian Peter Cozzens gives a succinct explanation of Boyd and her spying methods: “Used her good looks and easy morals to curry favor with officers Union and Confederate. War seems to have been a game with her; seducing men who wore shoulder boards the object.”[ii] In her own era and through historiography, Boyd has been cast at all points of the spectrum from heroine to harlot. Her own memoirs — a masterpiece of how she wanted to be remembered — make efforts to emphasize how northern reporters were determined to make her look bad because of her near-religious devotion to the Confederacy or because she would not accept their advances.

A young local resident of Front Royal, Thomas Ashby, reflected the suspicion that many Confederates held of Belle Boyd during the war years:

“She played the game of flirt and lowered the dignity of her sex. She was a young woman of some personal beauty and a skilled rider of spirited horses. Nor was she wanting in energy, dash, and courage. But she had none of the genius, inspiration, and religious fervor of the true heroine. She loved notoriety and attention, and was as far below the standard of the pure and noble womanhood of the South as was a circus rider. Her own sex in the South repudiated her, and the true manhood of both armies was suspicious of her character.”[iii]

David Hunter Strother, a Unionist from the area of Martinsburg, tried to take a more generous opinion when he met Boyd on May 19 in Front Royal. “Miss Belle Boyd also presented herself, looking well and deporting herself in a very ladylike manner. I daresay she has been much slandered by reports.”[iv]

One way or another, Boyd had collected information during her sojourn in Front Royal. She later claimed: “The intelligence I was in possession of instructed me that General Banks was at Strasburg with four thousand men, that the small force at Winchester could be readily reinforced by General White, who was at Harper’s Ferry, and that General Shields and Geary were a short distance below Front Royal, while Fremont was beyond the Valley; further, and this was the vital point, that it had been decided all these separate divisions should cooperate against General Jackson.”[v] That would be some hefty intelligence about Union plans for the Valley Campaign, not impossible for her to obtain, but easy to emphasize after the war with the advantage of hindsight. Whether she had campaign altering information might be up for debate, but she certainly had helpful military intelligence about the Union troops in Front Royal on May 23.

That day as she read to her grandmother and cousin, an enslaved servant rushed in with the news that the Confederates might be coming and the Yankees were swarming in the streets. Boyd ventured out and found the reported confusion. She “asked a Federal officer…what was the matter. He answered that the Confederates were approaching the town in force…that they had surprised and captured the outside pickets, and had actually advanced within a mile of the town without the attack being even suspected.”[vi] The officer told Boyd that they were trying to evacuate the town and retreat toward Winchester.

Deciding to reconnoiter, Boyd took opera glasses to the balcony of her lodgings and saw “the advance-guard of the Confederates at a distance of about three-quarters of a mile, marching rapidly upon the town.”[vii] The thought of her father “who was at that time upon General Garnett’s staff” also influenced her thoughts and next decisions. Boyd approached several men “who had always professed attachment to the cause of the South”[viii] and asked them to take information to General Jackson. According to her tale, they refused and told her to go.

To be continued…

Sources and Notes:

[i] Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (New York: Blelock & Co, 1865). Accessed via Google Books. Pages 72-75.

For explanations of how 19th Century writers used language to veil rape or threats of rape, see Murphy’s book. There are some similarities that would raise questions in Boyd’s memoir.

Kim Murphy, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War (Batesville: Coachlight Press, 2014)

[ii] Peter Cozzen, Shenandoah 1862: Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Page 293.

[iii] Ibid., Page 293.

[iv] David Hunter Strother, edited by Cecil D. Eby, Jr., A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War: The Diaries of David Hunter Strother (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961). Page 37.

[v] Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (New York: Blelock & Co, 1865). Accessed via Google Books. Page 120.

[vi] Ibid., Page 119.

[vii] Ibid., Page 121.

[viii] Ibid., Page 123.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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