WISCONSIN DELLS — They may be taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina, but the Southern battle flag will fly again this weekend over a little patch of Dixie in the heart of Wisconsin.
As he has for 48 years, Oliver Reese of the Dells American Legion Post will troop out to Spring Grove Cemetery on Decoration Day, bearing the flags of the Confederacy and of Virginia. The flags will wave over the grave of ”La Belle Rebelle,” Confederate spy Belle Boyd. Boyd died in Wisconsin Dells a hundred years ago next month while on a speaking tour.
In life, she was famous for using her womanly wiles to help Stonewall Jackson defeat the Union Army. In death, she has been a symbol both of Southern womanhood and Wisconsin Dells tourism. There have been plots to dig her up, and Mason-Dixon line friendships formed in her honor.
Belle’s first great adventure occurred on July 4, 1861, when drunken Union soldiers invaded her family’s Shenandoah Valley home and attempted to take down the family’s Confederate flag. The 17-year-old Belle pulled a pistol and shot a soldier dead.
The following May, when Jackson was advancing on the Union Army at Front Royal, Belle learned that the federal army planned to burn the bridges. So she donned her white sunbonnet and ran across the battlefield to warn Jackson. The bridges were saved and Belle Boyd became notorious
She was scorned in the North, where one newspaper trumpeted one of her six prison stays with the headline, “The Secesh Cleopatra Is Caged At Last.” But she was hailed in the South and across Europe, where the French dubbed her “La Belle Rebelle.”
Boyd is said to have been a great beauty, who used her charmes to wangle information from Union soldiers and to persuade jailers to set her free. But if photos are accurate, her beauty may have been more evident from the neck down.
She sailed to England in May, 1864, to carry the message of the Confederacy to a sympathetic audience, but the U.S. Navy captured her boat. She was put under the charge of Ensign Sam Hardinge who, of course, fell in love and allowed one of her comrades to escape. They married in England that August, and the romance of the Confederate spy and the Union sailor captured international headlines.
After the war, Belle became an actress in England and then back home in the United States. Then she went on a speaking tour, high lighting her exploits as a spy.
Reese said she was a popular speaker at Grand Army of the Republic halls, forerunners of to day’s American Legion posts. Her fiery wartime rhetoric bad been tamed. Belle once told a prison warden “If it is a crime to love the South, its cause and its president, then I am a criminal.. . I would rather lie down in this prison and die than leave it owing allegiance to a government such as yours.”
But after the war, she promoted unity, ending her talks with “One God, one people, one flag forever.”
She was in the Dells, then known as Kilbourn, in June 1900 when she died of a heart attack. Her grave was unmarked, until a Southern gentleman known only as “a comrade” donated a grave stone.
But Belle enjoyed a new wave of notoriety in 1952, when the Wisconsin Dells launched a tour boat named the Belle Boyd and invited the Richmond chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to Wisconsin to christen the boat with water from the James River.
Reese said the ladies from Richmond were so impressed with how nicely Wisconsin Dells had taken care of their Belle that they adopted a marker in Virginia dedicated to the 36th Wisconsin Infantry, which suffered heavy losses in a battle near Richmond.
Every Memorial Day, Reese said, those ladies would go out to that marker and fly the flag of Wisconsin to honor our dead. And for the past 48 years, Reese has honored his end of the bargain every Memorial Day.
“What started out as a publicity stunt turned into a pretty nice thing,” Reese said.
However, all that publicity stirred up the Southerners.
“The people in Virginia got the idea of digging her up and moving her home,” Reese recalled. “There’s where this came from.”
“This,” is a concrete cap on the grave, embedded with stones sent from every Confederate state.
“One of the rocks was from a state so far south that it couldn’t withstand the bitter cold Wisconsin winters and it crumbled,” Reese said. “We replaced it with good old Wisconsin sandstone.”
Before the cap was set, the ladies of the Elliot Grays Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy were invited back to sprinkle the grave with dirt from Virginia, so Belle could rest peacefully in the soil of Virginia.
So while many Southern families have “Confederates in the Attic,” We have our own Confederate here in the Wisconsin Dells.
Others with Civil War ties are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, cluding Frederick Brown, brother of John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame. Oliver Reese, of the Wisconsin Dells American Legion walks past Brown’s grave.