From Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
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 Belleknown 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 sidesnearly 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 Watersa "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 she 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.
From Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott Copyright © 2014 by Karen Abbott. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
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