“I did not stop to reflect. My heart, though beating fast, was not appalled. I put on a white sunbonnet, and started at a run down the street, which was thronged with Federal officers and men. I soon cleared the town and gained the open fields, which I traversed with unabated speed, hoping to escape observation until such time as I could make good my way to the Confederate line, which was still rapidly advancing.”[i]
In her memoirs, Boyd remembered what she wore for the memorable run toward the Confederate lines on May 23, 1862. “A dark-blue dress, with a little fancy white apron over it; and this contrast of colors, being visible at a great distance, made me far more conspicuous than was just then agreeable. The skirmishing between the outposts was sharp.”[ii]
She claimed that retreating Federal pickets fired at her and that she miraculously escaped, even as the rifle bullets tore her clothing and struck the ground at her feet and threw dust into her eyes. Further, she threw herself on the ground to escape an artillery shell that exploded twenty yards away from her. Adding to the scene in her memoirs, Boyd wrote: “Springing up when the danger was passed, I pursued my career, still under a heavy fire. I shall never run again as I ran on that, to me, memorable day. Hope, fear, the love of life, and the determination to serve my country to the last, conspired to fill my heart with more than feminine courage…”[iii]
Nearing the Confederate line Boyd “waved my bonnet to our soldiers, to intimate that they should press forward, upon which one regiment, the First Maryland “rebel” Infantry and Hay’s Louisiana Brigade, gave me a loud cheer, and, without waiting for further orders, dashed upon the town at a rapid pace. They did not then know who I was, and they were naturally surprised to see a woman on the battlefield, and on a spot, too, where the fire was so hot.”[iv] Later, Boyd claimed that the soldiers’ cheers for her still rang in her ears. Then, fearing that she had “ordered” unsupported regiments to death, Boyd “sank upon my knees and offered a short but earnest prayer to God.”[v]
As if in answer to prayers, Boyd then saw the main Confederate lines and “an old friend and connection of mine, Major Henry Douglas, rode up…
“Good God, Belle, you here! What is it?”
“Oh, Harry,” I gasped out, “give me time to recover my breath.”[vi]
In his own colorful memoirs, Henry Kyd Douglas wrote his version of the incident from his perspective on Jackson’s staff. He described the halt of the Confederates “on hill overlooking the small town of Front Royal and the hurried movement of blue coats and the galloping of horsemen here and there told of the confusion in the enemy’s camp. General Jackson, not knowing the force of the enemy there was so small or so unprepared by reinforcements for his approach, was endeavoring to take in the situation before ordering an advance.”[vii]
Douglas supposedly saw Boyd — who he remembered as a figure in white — leave town and cross fields, using a ravine to hid her journey from Union eyes. He did not remark that she was under fire at any time during her trek. Ordered to go forward to see who the civilian was and what she wanted, Douglas rode out to meet Boyd and they recognized each other according to his account. After some sensual descriptions of the “romantic maiden whose tall, supple, and graceful figure struck me as soon as I came in sight of her” and who “pressed her hand against her heart,”[viii] Douglas got to the meaning of the meeting.
Boyd told him, “I knew it must be Stonewall, when I heard the first gun. Go back quick and tell him that the Yankee force is very small – one regiment of Maryland infantry, several pieces of artillery and several companies of cavalry. Tell him I know, for I went through the camps and got it out of an officer. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all. I must hurry back. Good-by. My love to all the dear boys – and remember if you meet me in town you haven’t seen me today.”[ix]
According to Boyd’s version of the story, she gave Douglas a note, “urging him to hurry on the cavalry with orders to them to seize the bridges before the retreating Federals should have time to destroy them.”[x] Douglas took the information to Jackson, and according to Boyd, “Stonewall” himself came to her and asked “if I would have an escort and a horse wherewith to the return to the village.”[xi] She declined and determined to return on foot. In his memoirs, Douglas makes no mention of Boyd meeting Jackson and, keeping himself as the hero of his story, he claimed, “I raised my cap, she kissed her hand and was gone. I delivered her message speedily, and while Jackson was asking me questions about her – for until then he had never heard of her – saw the wave of her white bonnet as she entered the village and disappeared among its houses.”[xii]
Unsurprisingly, Jackson made no mention of Boyd or any civilian spy in his official report. “Moving at dawn on Friday, the 23d, and diverging to the right, so as to fall into the Gooney Manor road, we encountered no opposition until we came within 1 ½ miles of Front Royal, when about 2 p.m. the enemy’s pickets were drive in by our advance, which was ordered to follow rapidly. The First Maryland Regiment supported by Wheat’s battalion of Louisiana Volunteers, and the remainder of Taylor’s brigade, acting as reserve, pushed forward in gallant style, charging the Federals, who made a spirited resistance, driving them through the town and taking some prisoners.”[xiii]
Douglas, Boyd, Jackson, and others seem to agree that the First Maryland Infantry and the Louisiana battalion led the advance into Front Royal. The outnumber Union force abandoned the town rather quickly and headed north for Winchester.
In the aftermath, Henry Douglas started to look for Belle Boyd, and “found her standing on the pavement in front of a hotel, talking with some few Federal officers (prisoners) and some of her acquaintance in our army. Her cheeks were rosy with excitement and recent exercise and her eyes all aflame. When I rode up to speak to her she received me with much surprised cordiality…”[xiv] Ever the hero of his story, Douglas wrote that Boyd pinned a red rose to his uniform before he returned to his military assignments.
In her memoirs, Boyd attached great importance to her actions at Front Royal, almost crediting herself with the Confederate victory. “The day was ours; and I had the heartfelt satisfaction to know that it was in consequence of the information I had conveyed as such risk to myself General Jackson made the flank movement which led to such fortunate results.”[xv] She then went on to detail the military movements over the next two days, and almost by implication taking credit for Jackson’s success at Winchester.
Also in her post-war writings, Boyd highlighted a special note which she said arrived by courier:
“May 23d, 1862.
Miss Belle Boyd,
I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today. Hastily, I am your friend, T.J. Jackson, C.S.A.”
It is a curious closing to the note, and it is easy to wonder if Jackson would have addressed himself as “your friend” to a young woman who he may or may not have ever met. Certainly it is possible that he felt regard or gratitude for the information Boyd had provided and perhaps that influenced the note. Or perhaps Douglas wrote the note. Or perhaps Boyd wanted to believe the lines had been written.
Memory spun its stories-with-purpose quickly around Belle Boyd and the battle of Front Royal. Already in a feud with at least one Northern reporter (who she claimed to have locked in his room during the battle of Front Royal and who allegedly started slanders about her because she had refused his advances), Boyd later addressed the rumors in the newspapers. “The Northern journals vied with one another in publishing the most extravagant and improbable accounts of my exploits, as they were pleased to term them, on the battlefield of the 23d May. One ascribed to ‘Belle Boyd’ the honor of having directed the fire of the Confederate artillery throughout the action; another represented her as having, by the force of her genius, sustained the wavering counsels of the Southern generals; while a third described her as having, sword in hand, led on the whole of the attacking line to the capture of Front Royal.”[xvi]
Separating fact from fiction around Belle Boyd and the Confederate victory at Front Royal is an interesting dilemma. The two typically citied sources typically are Boyd and Douglas, both writers who needed to clear or establish their reputations after the war. Boyd’s manuscript was published in 1865. Douglas wrote his reminiscences around 1867, revised them in 1899, and they were published posthumously in 1940. A third source, Campbell Brown of General Ewell’s staff, also wrote about Boyd running from town, and he stated that she moved along a fence to hide her mission from the Yankees. There is enough that is the same in their accounts to suggest some truth that Boyd left the town, ran on foot to the Confederate lines, and gave a message with military intelligence to some officers. However, some of the details about her clothing, running under fire, and the far-reaching details of her report do raise questions or suspicions about their accuracy or exaggeration.
Did Belle Boyd influence the battle of Front Royal? Likely. She probably provided accurate information about the lack of Union troops and the possibility of a quick victory that day if the Confederates advanced. How much of the scene came through memory and reputation building remains mysterious. However, in all the stories of military and civilian interactions in the Shenandoah Valley, this one is one of the most colorful—like Belle Boyd herself. And perhaps a little mystery around the facts and the memory is exactly what Boyd would prefer for those looking back at her life, her spying, and her dash across the fields to deliver helpful information at Front Royal.
[i] Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (New York: Blelock & Co, 1865). Accessed via Google Books. Page 123.
[ii] Ibid., 123.
[iii] Ibid., 125.
[iv] Ibid., 126.
[v] Ibid., 127.
[vi] Ibid., 127.
[vii] Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall: The War Experience of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.) Pages 51-52.
[viii] Ibid., 51-52.
[x] Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (New York: Blelock & Co, 1865). Accessed via Google Books. Page 128.
[xi] Ibid., 128.
[xii] Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall: The War Experience of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.) Pages 51-52.
[xiii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume 12, Part 1. “Report of General Thomas J. Jackson,” Page 702.
[xiv] Douglas, Henry K. I Rode With Stonewall: The War Experience of the Youngest Member of Jackson’s Staff. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1968.) Pages 51-52.
[xv] Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (New York: Blelock & Co, 1865). Accessed via Google Books. Page 129.
[xvi] Ibid., 136-137.