At the northern entrance to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is the tiny town of Front Royal. The site of an 1862 Civil War battle, it is home to two tiny museums — the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum and the Belle Boyd Cottage. The Warren Rifles Confederate Museum (maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy) is packed with memorabilia from the Civil War — weapons, flags, letters, and personal items– belonging to Confederate soldiers, including John Singleton Mosby, known as the “Grey Ghost of the Civil War.”
The commander of the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry (also known as Mosby’s Rangers) Mosby gained his nickname from the rapid, stealthy, guerilla-style raids which he carried out against Union forces. He is most famous for his daring raids inside Union lines including one where he and his men captured a Union General and dozens of others without firing a shot. According to the history books, Lincoln himself gave Mosby the nickname because of his ability to wander in and out of Union-held areas, including Washington, with impunity. He is also remembered for his accomplishments as an agent, collecting vital information for the Confederate leaders.
He was not the only one. A most improbable spy was Belle Boyd, a beautiful young woman, considered one of the Confederacy’s most successful agents. The cottage where she visited and carried out her most famous exploits is located next door to the Warren Rifles Confederate Museum in one of the oldest buildings in Front Royal. Belle Boyd was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia. She came to live with her aunt and uncle at the Fishback Hotel in Front Royal after shooting and killing a Union Soldier who had treated her mother disrespectfully and tried to hang a Union flag in their home. She was 17 at the time. A passionate Southerner, Belle took advantage of the presence of Union officers staying at the Fishback Hotel and used her feminine charms to glean vital military information for General Stonewall Jackson.
As the Battle of Front Royal commenced, Belle knew that the Union soldiers were abandoning the town and were planning to burn the bridges behind them. She ran through the fields, fully exposed to fire as bullets whizzed past her, to pass the information to Jackson. As a result of her actions, the bridges were saved and Jackson was victorious.
Arrested six times (including once when she was betrayed by her lover), imprisoned on three occasions and threatened to be shot at dawn, Belle was able to appeal to the chivalry of the officers to manipulate the emotions of the Union soldiers and extricated herself from sticky situations. She went on to live a full life, eventually dying of typhoid fever in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin at the age of 56.
Looking at the portrait of Belle dressed in her full-length gown, it seems improbable that this genteel-looking young woman would have become such a successful spy. A visit to the two museums in Front Royal helps bring to life two improbable characters of this tragic conflict.
IF YOU GO
Warren Rifles Confederate Museum is at 95 Chester Street, Front Royal, Virginia. Open April 15 to November 1 or by appointment the rest of the year; hours are 0900 to 1600 during the week and 1200 to 1600 on Sundays.
The Belle Boyd Cottage at 101 Chester Street, Front Royal, Virginia, is located behind the Ivy Lodge Museum. It is open weekdays 1000 to 1600 and 1100 to 1600 on weekends between June and October.