Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
by Karen Abbott
Book Excerpt:

~ 1861 ~

The Fastest Girl in Virginia
(or Anywhere Else for That Matter)

The Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

In the town of Martinsburg on the lower tip of the Valley, a seventeen-year-old rebel named Belle Boyd sat by the windows of her wood-frame home, waiting for the war to come to her. It was July 4 and the war was still new, only two and a half months old, but Belle—known by one young rival as “the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter”—had long been accustomed to things operating on her schedule, and at her whim.

She tracked the progress of Union forces as they stormed down from the North, all those boys sweating and filthy under blue wool coats, lean as the rifles slung at their sides—nearly fifteen thousand of them, a few as young as thirteen, away from their mothers for the very first time. She felt they had no respect at all, waving American flags with the stars of thirty-four states when eleven no longer belonged. Two days prior, on July 2, about thirty-five hundred of them crossed the Potomac, slipped through a gap in the Blue Ridge mountains, and trampled across the lush sprawl of the Shenandoah Valley to face the Southern army at Falling Waters—a “romantic spot,” in Belle’s opinion, eight miles from her home. There Confederate colonel Thomas Jackson was waiting with four cannon and 380 boys of his own. When the rebels retreated, they left the field scattered over with blankets and canteens and, most regrettably to Belle, only twenty-one Yankee wounded and three Yankee dead.

She took the loss at Falling Waters personally. She had family in this war, uncles and cousins and even her forty-five-year-old father, a wealthy shopkeeper and tobacco farmer who depended on a team of slaves to grow and harvest his crop. Despite his age and social prominence he’d enlisted as a private in Company D, 2nd Virginia Infantry, part of Colonel Jackson’s brigade. The mood in her home shifted overnight, with Belle noticing a general sadness and depression in her mother and younger siblings, all of them too consumed by worry even to sleep. The entire town seemed unsettled. Berkeley County (of which Martinsburg was the county seat) had voted three to one against secession, the only locale in the Shenandoah Valley to do so. Seven companies of soldiers were recruited from the county, five for the Confederacy and two for the Union, and now neighbor fought against neighbor, friend against friend. No one dared trust anyone else. Citizens formed a volunteer Home Guard, sitting up all night and arresting anyone prowling about, an enterprise that lasted until one member was fatally shot by a stranger passing through town.
The women of the Valley got to work supporting the war effort, gathering to sew clothing and raise money for supplies. At first Belle joined them, wielding her needle and laundering sheets, but soon found such activities “too tame and monotonous.” Instead she scandalized the ladies of Martinsburg by openly waving to soldiers on the street, and organized trips to the Confederate camp at nearby Harpers Ferry, where all of them temporarily escaped the gloomy atmosphere of their homes. They danced the Virginia reel and sang “Dixie” and forgot about the prospect of impending battle. Belle herself exchanged “fond vows” with several young soldiers, even as she wondered how many of them would soon be dead. “War will exact its victims of both sexes,” she mused, “and claims the hearts of women no less than the bodies of men.”

Occasionally she wandered around camp, handing out religious tracts denouncing everything from profanity to gambling to procrastination (soldiers, one cautioned, must avoid the “sin of being surprised” by either the enemy or the devil), not because she objected to such vices but because she longed to be useful. Any unfamiliar man might be a Yankee spy, and she believed it was her duty to entrap him.

“Be very careful what you say,” she warned one trespasser dressed as a photographer. “I was born at the North, but have lived among these people seven years. My sympathies are all with the Northern people. I am trying now to get a pass from General Beauregard that I may visit my sister in New York, who is a teacher in one of the public schools. I will gladly take any message you may want to send to your friends.”

The stranger declined her offer, but she would have other opportunities to dupe Yankee men.

This respite at camp was interrupted by reports that the enemy was marching down the Shenandoah Valley; the men went to fight at Falling Waters on July 2 and the women went home. After the Confederates retreated, the Union continued on south toward Martinsburg, scheduled to arrive in time for a victory parade on the Fourth of July. Belle recognized that this day now belonged only to the Yankees—the eighty-fifth birthday of a nation that had amputated a third of itself, split into uneven halves.
Staring out her window onto South Queen Street, she heard the soldiers before she saw them. They announced their presence with laughter and song, hollering about that damned Yankee Doodle riding on his pony, booted feet stomping to the burst of bugle and the grumble of drums. The beat throttled the air, keeping time with the tap of her heart against her ribs. It was late afternoon, the sun shedding its heat layer by layer, hunkering down toward the baked dirt roads. The soldiers’ song grew louder, their laughter more brazen. They slashed bayonets at the pale Virginia sky, marching closer and closer still.

House “servants,” a common euphemism for slaves, rounded up children in the public square and hustled them to safety. John O’Neal locked the doors of his saddle and harness shop. The church bells sat untolled, the hour unmarked. The Baltimore & Ohio railroad depot stood deserted; rebel troops had destroyed forty-eight locomotives and three hundred cars, wrapping one of the engines in an American flag before setting it afire, all to prevent Union supplies from arriving by train. Field hands hid in their quarters instead of harvesting wheat or quarrying native limestone. Clusters of homes sat darkened and deserted, the owners having packed up their silverware and their help and fled farther south. A few bold spectators arrived on horseback from neighboring towns, waiting for whatever came next.

General Robert Patterson’s Yankees were everywhere, winding through the cemetery and around the jail, pausing to shatter the windows of a church, pillage the offices of the local newspaper, claim the county courthouse as Union headquarters, and raid the distillery of a Confederate captain to guzzle his whiskey. There were thousands and thousands of them, an endlessly advancing blue line, a menacing horizon almost upon her.

To Belle’s side, within reach, lay a Colt 1849 pocket pistol.

Since the abolitionist John Brown’s attempt to start an armed slave rebellion, Belle had been terrified of “an uprising of the negroes,” and believed that “Northerners were coming down to murder us.” She told herself she would not hesitate to use the pistol; she had never hesitated at anything. All her life she had been blissfully unburdened by doubt or introspection. She believed her plain face was striking, her defiance charming, her wit precocious, her every thought clever and significant. “I am tall,” she once boasted to her cousin, lobbying him to find her a husband. “I weigh 106 ½ pounds. My form is beautiful. My eyes are of a dark blue and so expressive. My hair of a rich brown and I think I tie it up nicely. My neck and arms are beautiful & my foot is perfect. Only wear [size] two and a half shoes. My teeth the same pearly whiteness, I think perhaps a little whiter. Nose quite as large as ever, neither Grecian nor Roman but beautifully shaped and indeed I am decidedly the most beautiful of all your cousins.”

She had the quickest answers in class at Mount Washington Female College (where, using a diamond ring, she carved her name in a window of the Octagonal Room), the most graceful curtsy at her debutante ball in Washington, DC, and a distinguished lineage comprising politicians and Revolutionary War heroes. Six years prior, when Belle was eleven, her parents declared she was too young to attend their dinner party, given for a group of Virginia officials. Instead of pleading or protesting, Belle went to the stable, saddled up her horse, Fleeter, and rode him into the dining room, interrupting the second course. Fleeter whinnied and sidestepped. A startled servant dropped a tray. Sweetbreads skittered across the floor, pigeon soup splattered across the walls.
Belle looked down on everyone, watching her mother’s mouth gape, her hand rising to cover it. She yanked at the reins and cleared her throat.
“Well,” she said, “my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”
In a dry, tight voice her mother ordered her to return the horse to the stable and head directly to her room. But a guest intervened.
“Surely so high a spirit should not be thoughtlessly quelled by severe punishment!” he exclaimed, and turned to Mrs. Boyd. “Mary, won’t you tell me more about your little rebel?”
And for the rest of the evening Belle seized the spotlight, redirecting its focus any time she sensed it veering away. She scarcely knew herself without it, neither then nor now.

Her Negro maid, whom she called “Mauma Eliza,” now stood poised at the bottom of the parlor stairs, holding Belle’s Confederate flag in her arms, properly and respectfully folded. Belle would love Eliza even if she didn’t own her; at night, in secret, she defied the law and taught her to read and write. “Slavery, like all other imperfect forms of society, will have its day,” Belle believed, “but the time for its final extinction in the Confederate States of America has not yet arrived.” Eliza was thirty-three and had raised Belle from birth, protecting her and soothing her and tolerating her nonsense. Without being asked, she hurried up to Belle’s room and hid the flag under her bed before returning to her mistress’s side. In an adjacent chamber five other slaves huddled with Belle’s three younger siblings; Belle had urged them to lock the doors. From the corner of her eye she spotted her mother sitting tense and alert on a velvet settee, and Belle could trace the course of her thoughts: four of her eight children had died within the span of five years, from 1846 to 1851, and she was terrified of losing another. She always told Belle she was too “saucy” for her own good.

The air hung thick and unstirred. The wooden floors were warped from the heat. Belle wore nine items of clothing, all assembled by Eliza every morning—chemise, pantalettes, corset, corset cover, crinoline, petticoat, a two-piece dress, silk stockings, and side-button boots—and drops of sweat crept down her back, soaking through the layers. She tried to hold her body still. She heard the clatter of gun carriages, the fervent thud of drums. Fine china quivered behind the doors of a rococo hutch. And here they came, a massive serpent of blue and steel. There were gunshots and splintering glass, doors being hacked off hinges. Chairs and tables soared into the street. The warbled refrain of “John Brown’s Body” mingled with the sound of children’s screams. They were just one door away.

Belle caught a swatch of blue blurring past the window. There was a thundering of fists. The front door gave way and there was no divide now. She saw tracks in their dirty faces carved by falling sweat. Mary Boyd jumped from the settee. Eliza stayed put by the stairs, gripping the banister.

One of the soldiers, “a great big Dutchman”—a common term for Germans—focused his gaze on Belle. She could tell he’d been drinking.

“Are you one of those damned rebels?” he asked.

The word “rebel” was not yet one Southerners used with pride. They lived in sovereign states, and in their view this war was not about “rebellion” but about defending their homeland against coercive foreigners. Coming from a Yankee, the word was a mockery Belle would not abide.

She drilled her fists into her hips and said, “I am a secessionist.”

He demanded to know if there were any rebel flags on the premises. Belle didn’t respond. Another soldier pointed out that the town was Federal property now, and they would hoist a Union flag up over the house.

At this, Belle’s mother stepped forward.

“Men,” she said, “every member of my household will die before that flag shall be raised over us.”

The circle of men contracted, fencing her in. Eliza peeked through a latticework of fingers. Belle noticed the Dutchman at the head of the pack. His arm coiled around her mother’s body and yanked her close. He aimed his slack mouth at hers. Belle considered her mother a “very handsome woman,” and she knew the Yankees would stop at nothing. There were reports throughout the South of “Yankee outrages,” as the papers called them, soldiers invading homes and destroying property and assaulting women. In Maryland, a border state with a large secessionist population, one woman claimed a Union soldier thrust his hands against her bosom, under the pretense of looking for concealed arms. Another Yankee, in broad daylight and on a public street, pinned a girl’s arms behind her back and asked, “Is it true that you’re the prettiest girl in Baltimore?” In one farmer’s home they found a Confederate uniform coat and, in retaliation, took the man’s two young daughters as hostages and treated them “in a manner too inhuman and revolting to dwell upon.” Communities beseeched Confederate president Jefferson Davis to send in troops to protect their “defenseless women.”

Belle did not consider herself one of them.

“Let go my mother!” she screamed.

The Dutchman looked up at her and grinned.

Belle could stand it no longer. Her indignation was “roused beyond control”; her blood “literally boiling” in her veins. The room seemed to skid to a stop, and Belle became the only moving thing inside it. Her hand grasped her pistol, finger curling around the trigger. She found a clearing amid the tangle of limbs, her target offering himself up. Letting instinct dictate aim, she bucked from the force of her shot. The circle split, bodies retreating, and there was nothing to break the soldier’s fall. Belle heard the terse crack of bone against wood. She saw the blood pulse from his neck. She looked at her pistol in her hand, smoke still wisping from the barrel, and realized what she had done. She let it slide from her fingers, landing by the toe of her button-up boots. She heard screams, her mother’s and Eliza’s, sounding miles and miles away. All of her seventeen years seemed crammed into those seconds. Her heart scrabbled in her chest. Several soldiers shifted in her direction, threatening to kill her.

She returned to herself, then, the moment sliding into focus. She remembered who these men were, why they were there, what they had almost done.

She heard herself speak before she had a chance to contemplate her words: “Only those who are cowards shoot women,” she said, and spread open her arms. “Now shoot!”