Flag of Notorious Female Civil War Spy Surfaces at Heritage Auctions

DALLAS - An early Confederate flag likely hand-made by the notorious spy Belle Boyd - will open at $50,000 during a special, joint auction event Sept 17 at Heritage Auctions, celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Rail Splitter, a respected publication for enthusiasts of Abraham Lincoln and related memorabilia.

Titled “Lincoln and His Times”, the auction features numerous unique items in addition to Boyd’s 5-foot by 3-foot flag, which has survived under remarkable circumstances and was recently discovered after being locked away for more than a century in Switzerland following the U.S. Civil War.

“Heritage has auctioned a number of significant Confederate flags over the years,” said Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions, “but none more evocative than this one. The beautiful display conditional and thoroughly-documented back story makes the Belle Boyd flag a very special offering indeed.”

Isabella Maria Boyd was one of the Civil War’s most colorful characters. An ardent Southern patriot, the Virginia-born Boyd used her feminine wiles in the service of the Confederacy during the first two years of the War before being discovered and arrested after Union troops over-ran parts of Virginia. When “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops occupied Front Royal and prepared to defend it in May 1862, Boyd supplied the general with valuable information about Union troop strength and reportedly even helped Jackson to plan his battle strategy. According to her memoirs she played a prominent role in the fight, appearing on the front lines to cheer and encourage the Confederate soldiers. 

When Federal troops took control of Front Royal that summer Belle was quite the celebrity, and it was then that she encountered a young Union captain named Frederick d’Hauteville. The precise nature of their relationship remains the subject of speculation, but she presented Frederick with this Confederate flag, an event recorded both in d’Hauteville’s own journal and in a letter to his wife from Robert Gould Shaw (who would later command the immortal 54th Massachusetts regiment of African-American troops, and whose story was told in the film “Glory!”). At the time D’Hauteville and Shaw were friends, both serving on the staff of General Nathaniel Banks.

Boyd would be arrested shortly thereafter on orders of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, but she was promptly exchanged and apparently returned to her old ways, as she was rearrested the following year. She escaped custody and attempted to flee the country on a blockade-running vessel, but the ship was interdicted by a Union warship. Belle was again placed in custody, but clearly her feminine charms were not lost on the vessel’s commander, who promptly fell in love with and proposed marriage. The two escaped together and traveled to England, where Boyd would sit out the rest of the War. 

D’Hauteville, who came from a wealthy family with roots in both the U.S. and Europe, left the army in 1863 and eventually moved to Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. The Belle Boyd flag and three of his uniforms, also offered in this auction, were packed away and did not see the light of day for a century and a half until they appeared in an estate auction in Europe last year. Not surprisingly these artifacts have survived in remarkably fine condition. 

The flag itself has a most interesting configuration, as there is a circle of 11 stars in the canton on one side, and but a single star on the other. The circular pattern is typical of Confederate First National flags, and the number of stars implies that this side of the flag was completed between July and the end of November 1861, when the Confederate states numbered eleven. But significantly the 11-star side is actually the back of the flag, which suggests that the single star side was completed first. Quite possibly this was an expression of defiance by the maker, as the earliest flag of the Republic of Texas when the Texans were in revolt against Mexico had featured a single star, widely considered a symbol of independence. Later the Texas flag would be redesigned in a red, white, and blue pattern which may well have served as the inspiration for First National flags, including this one. 

Belle Boyd’s unique Confederate flag will be offered Sept. 17 in “Lincoln and His Times”. Additional highlights include a nearly 30-ounce solid gold medal gifted to the great American statesman Henry Clay,  one of the most important Abraham Lincoln letters ever to appear at auction, and locks of hair from John Wilkes Booth, Mary Todd Lincoln and Lincoln himself.  Also featured are a newly discovered banner from one of the legendary 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates and a Lincoln life mask, sculpted by Leonard Volk, which once belong to Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.

The entire auction is available for viewing and interactive bidding at HA.com. Questions or comments may be directed to TomS@HA.com or DonA@HA.com.

Heritage Auctions is the largest auction house founded in the United States and the world’s third largest, with annual sales of more than $800 million, and 950,000+ online bidder members. For more information about Heritage Auctions, and to join and receive access to a complete record of prices realized, with full-color, enlargeable photos of each lot, please visit HA.com.

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